MinbarLibya – International
Libya’s Political Stalemate: (7) What Libyans Really Want

By Sami Zaptia

Six years on from its February 2011 revolution, Libya’s political scene is characterized by fragmentation and polarization. The constantly shifting political and military allegiances and contested legitimacy since 2014 have today resulted in three Libyan ‘‘governments’’ claiming legitimacy. 

Libyan politics has been militarized with most political streams associated with militias. The prominent role of weapons and militias has removed most ordinary unarmed civilians from the political arena. Controlling elites on all sides refuse to compromise, wishing to impose, often by force, their vision on the country. 

During the revolution, Libyans were united in their desire to remove Qaddafi, calling for the right to democratically choose and change their political leaders peacefully. These aims were established in the social contract announced during the revolution: The Transitional Constitutional Declaration of August 2011.

After the revolution, many Libyans thought they were on their way to achieving these aims after they had participated in two parliamentary elections (2012 and 2014). However, weak state institutions meant that the people’s election mandate could not be imposed. 

The failure to implement a serious programme of Demilitarization, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) after the end of the revolution has prevented the new Libyan state from achieving a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Without control and a credible deterrence, it has become quite easy for numerous power centres seeking specific agendas to challenge the weak state’s political will. This political and security vacuum has contested and eroded legitimacy, and created space for exploitation by external state and non-state actors.

With the removal of Qaddafi, Libya’s unity of aim started to quickly dilute and diverge. It became clear that different political streams and power centres had different visions for the new Libya, including a non-democratic vision. Without a consensually agreed political process, the state became paralysed and ineffective. Besides the political streams, the various Islamist streams are also fighting each other, and non-Islamist streams – to impose their interpretation on the new Libya.

In an effort to prevent Libya’s total collapse, the UN-brokered the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) between the conflicting factions in 2015, which was backed by the international community through UN Security Council Resolution 2259 (of 2015). The LPA exclusively recognizes the Presidency Council and its Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) in Tripoli as the sole government and the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk as the sole legislature. 

Under the LPA, the PC/GNA and HoR are supposed to work together as one unified government and parliament. But in practice, the LPA has failed to unite the polarized political streams. The status of militias, the formation of a national army, and who should lead that army – being the main points of continued contention between the eastern and western Libyan administrations.

In the east, the leadership of the HoR, led by president Ageela Saleh, is still attempting to reverse the 2014 Tripoli militia coup and reinstate what it sees as its sole democratic legitimacy emanating from the 2014 parliamentary elections. 

The Ageela Saleh camp has been further empowered by the success on the ground of Khalifa Haftar’s Dignity operation launched in May 2014. Haftar united militias in the east under his Libyan National Army (LNA) command, fought extremists, ended the assassinations campaign and imposed law and order in the east. The Haftar-led LNA also succeeded in liberating the blockaded eastern oil ports from renegade Petroleum Facilities Guard militia leader Ibrahim Jathran. This has enabled Libya’s oil production to increased.

The imposition of security and law and order has gained Haftar and the eastern authorities’ popular regional support – as well as some increasing support amongst the public in the west. With the PC/GNA failing to achieve any tangible success on the ground in the west since March 2016, including the failure to control militias, the HoR is now threatening to ‘’liberate’’ Tripoli using its Haftar-led LNA. 

Perception by Libyans of international intervention in their country is inconsistent. Many Libyans, who had supported NATO intervention against Qaddafi, are today very critical of international interference in their country’s internal affairs – if that interference supports political streams or militias who hold opposing views. Libyans are also critical of internationals for prioritizing fighting ISIS and illegal migration ahead of Libyan safety and improved living conditions. On the other hand, Libyans keep expecting and calling on the rest of the world to help solve their political and military stalemates.

The east perceives what it refers to as militias and Islamists in the west as having overthrown the people’s mandate of the 2014 elections. They therefore perceive, UNSMIL, Turkey, Qatar and Italy – to varying degrees – with suspicion, if not as the enemy. 

They are seen as helping prop up the dominant Islamists-militias as well as persisting with the failed Fayez al-Serraj and his PC/GNA, which they consider as an international creation – devoid of domestic legitimacy. They expected international intermediaries to mediate between Libyan parties in reaching a consensus – rather than take sides in the conflict.

Italy, with its colonial legacy, is seen by many as being interested only in the west of Libya where ENI has its hydrocarbon interests. The HoR and its government have called for Italy to remove its troops from Libyan territory. Even the removal of ISIS from Sirte by the Tripoli-aligned troops is viewed by the east politically as having empowered the west, rather than an outright national victory against extremists.

In the west, Egypt, UAE and Russia, the east’s allies, are seen as the enemies of Libya for backing what they consider to be the pro-Qaddafi military dictator, Khalifa Haftar and the HoR. Haftar’s war against extremists in the east is seen as no more than a power play against the rebels who had fought Qaddafi during the revolution. There is also a fear that a Trump-Putin alignment on Libya policy might strengthen Haftar and the HoR’s hand.

It is no surprise then that six years on, many Libyans have lost faith in their disappointing political elites as no strong, respected leader has been able to rise above narrow political, tribal and regional interests to attract nationwide support. No leader has been able to achieve cross-party, nation-wide consensus to unify militias into a unified national army under civilian control and pull the nation out of its state of near collapse.

The public have also lost faith in the various international ‘‘meddlers’’ who they perceive as seeking their own political agendas – rather than neutrally mediate in the interests of a democratic, unified, stable Libya.

Hence, six years on from the outbreak of the revolution, the niceties of democracy are increasingly far removed from the minds of many ordinary citizens. Libyan citizens today yearn for the basics of order, safety and security and the simple certainties of the Qaddafi era. Citizens are more concerned with issues such as reliable supplies of electricity, water, fuel and gas supplies, cash in their banks, reasonable foreign exchange, and affordable goods and services in general.

Without indigenous nationwide consensus on an agreed political process, strong leadership, and peace and stability (DDR), the Libyan state is likely to remain weak and vulnerable to shocks that could lead to total chaos or even its breakup. And with a recurring budget deficit and the dwindling of foreign currency reserves, Libya is running out of time to solve its political impasse. 

Libyans citizens recognize the need to reach a consensually agreed social contract, a peaceful process by which to solve their differences and choose their political leaders. However, powerful military and political elites are preventing them from achieving this. The options facing them today seem to be: the ballot box and democracy, a military dictatorship or a theocracy.

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Sami Zaptia, Libya Herald

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