Libya Tribune

By Arturo Varvelli

This article will discuss the pros and cons of a “strongman” solution and the importance of the intervention of the most influential international and regional actors.

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During 2016 and in the first few weeks of 2017, it has become clear that General Khalifa Haftar is gaining support both locally and internationally. Egypt, the Emirates, Russia, and France, all played a role in strengthening his power. This international support, along with the Libyan population’s growing disillusionment in a UN-mediated solution to the conflict, allowed Haftar to shift, in the course of a year, from an ambiguous stance towards the UN-backed national unity government (he used to call the way in which the presidential council installed its headquarters in Tripoli “coup-like”, all the while reiterating that he intended to “stay out of political matters”), to a more hostile one, leading to the expectation that, after conquering the port infrastructure and the oil ports in the Sirte region, he could lead further military actions to “liberate Tripoli”. As of today, it seems that Haftar’s involvement in every negotiation on the future of the country has become unavoidable.

It appears that the advocates of a solution based on a “strongman”, willing and able to sort things out and suffocate the Islamic radicalism, have found in Haftar the last resort in a country that, since 2011, has become unable to restore itself and to shake off semi-anarchy. This kind of solution, though, has two fundamental weaknesses. First, it underestimates the deep-rooted reasons of the instability of the countries in this region, mainly ascribable to the authoritarian political nature of regimes, unable to produce pluralism and inclusion, and actively involved in the jihadist revival. Setting the political objective to restore and strengthen these authoritarian regimes, hence regenerating de facto the same deep roots of the 2011 revolts, would be – at the very least – paradoxical and counter-productive. The second motivation is more directly linked to Haftar himself who, for the time being, does not possess the military capacity to unify the country. Betting on him as the winning horse would not guarantee more stability, given that a large part of the Tripolitania forces is hostile to him. Haftar’s relevance and legitimacy grew at the same pace as the “fight against Islamic terrorism” rhetoric of which he became the self-appointed paladin. The more international support the general has received, the more Haftar distanced himself from the path of mediation. To keep on supporting him would equal fostering his hegemonic scheme and fueling an upsurge in the conflict. 

In Libya, the interference of regional powers contributed to polarizing two political fronts. Foreign interferences made it even more difficult to kick off a true process of national reconciliation. During the last year, a negotiation with Haftar has been proposed multiple times, at one condition: to accept a role within the UN-backed government while limiting his hegemonic ambitions over Libya. The events of the last few months of 2016 are making this option more and more remote, and the international circumstances are weakening the chance of success of such a mediation. The bottom-up approach has failed because the local actors are not provided with incentives to pursue a mediation. The Libyan crisis has been more and more perceived by the international and regional powers like part and parcel of a bigger crisis. Many of these actors kept supporting one Libyan contender or the other according to their own interests. Rival countries in the region kept carrying their weight, thus hindering the UN initiative. Diverging interests by conservative Arab countries, Egypt, the US, Europe, and Russia gave rise to contrasts and contradictions. The political set-up of the region remains crucial, and so the power balance amongst the main local powers – the very reflection of the interest invested in the region by the global powers.

Thus, the only possible way to solve the Libyan crisis is through a preliminary agreement between the most influential international and regional actors and the implementation of the concept of “regional ownership,” as they are doing in Syria right now. As stated by ISPI President, Giampiero Massolo, it is necessary if not essential to include in this process the countries supporting the Libyan factions, Egypt and Russia included, as premium Haftar supporters. This attempt to achieve “broad agreements” could contribute to convincing every international actor that the process is in their best interest and foster a process of internal reconciliation.

Who could be able to launch such an initiative? Italy is one of the most invested countries and has already taken on a leading role. In December, Italy reopened, not without risks, its Tripoli embassy. However, Italian ambitions are held back by a crisis in the relationship between Rome and Cairo (Haftar’s main supporter), because of the Regeni case. Without a bond of trust with the al-Sisi government, the chance of an initiative by the Italian diplomacy could be unrealistic. In the next few months, Rome could turn out to be even more alone in its attempts, as the new US administration could stop following the way traced by its predecessor: the US could lose interest in having a prominent role in this scenario, or they could be inclined to hand it over to Egypt and Russia.

That is why a European intervention would be desirable, and why Italy should pull its strings in order to support it. Wasn’t this one of the reasons why the Italian government asked and was granted the role of High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for Federica Mogherini? A European initiative could be testing ground for a revamp of a foreign and defense policy that – in the Trump era – is becoming more and more necessary. Libya was not even on the agenda at the first EU Foreign Affairs Council of the year, which was instead devoted to discussing European foreign policy priorities, the EU stance towards the Middle East peace process, and Syria’s state of affairs. However, Libya will be on the agenda at the next Council (to be held on 6 February in Brussels). As Federica Mogherini stated, Libya will be “one of our top priorities” because it is “our intention to jointly manage the migratory flows together with the Libyan authorities, together with the UNHCR and the IOM, in full respect of human rights and to save people.” All of this, however, will be useless lacking a new international political initiative to gradually rebuild legitimacy for Libya.

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Arturo Varvelli, Head of Terrorism Research Program, ISPI

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