By Raghida Dergham
Many this week will set out to scrutinize the policies implemented by President Donald Trump, one hundred days after he took office.
His presidency is crucial to the world, perhaps more so than for the Americans themselves, especially as far as foreign policy is concerned. North Korea currently tops the list of foreign policy priorities, amid growing escalation with the US, while calm diplomacy between Washington and Beijing continues to take its course.
Syria remains on the priorities’ radar in both its own and its Iranian dimensions, extending from Syria to Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. US-Russian relations are also of crucial importance, because they go beyond their bilateral concerns and carry implications for the balance of power with NATO, the future of the EU, and their often-conflicting strategic interests around the world.
Russia is probing and prospecting its interests in places the US appears to be disinterested in, at least for the time being, such as in oil and gas rich Libya, the African gateway to Europe. But Libya deserves America’s attention, because it has been the victim of ambiguity that accompanied its liberation from the Gaddafi regime, while there was deliberate neglect of what the country needed in terms of developing its institutions.
This was probably the result of the Obama administration’s culture of appeasement, which was based on the belief that “moderate Islamism” would take power in North Africa, from Egypt to Tunisia via Libya. Today, we are in an era of radically different policies, in which Libya deserves American attention as well as European attention, currently led by Italy and Britain, because of the implications for US interests and strategic positioning.
Libya can be tackled with joint US-Russian cooperation and with the accord of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as neighboring countries and the Gulf countries concerned, perhaps though a new approach by the UN envoy that factors in this shift in US policy.
The US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, has proven to the other Security Council members this week that she is a leading shaper of US foreign policy alongside the National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was absent from the meeting of the ambassadors of the permanent fives with President Trump in the White House earlier this week, attended by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
The ambassadors came out with the clear impression that Haley has special influence on the president and Congress, according to one Western envoy, and that the UN is not unimportant to Washington as some have suggested. The president is ready to listen, they further said, which is why he has responded well to a proposal by the Swedish envoy to continue supporting UN peacekeeping forces, because they carry out missions that would otherwise require deployment of US ground troops.
Nikki Haley can revive US and international attention in the Libyan issue, through her influence and through collective regional and international diplomatic engagement. This would be a chance to spare North Africa from slipping further into extremism and terrorism, and to spare Europe and even America from radical immigration and threats to their national security. Moreover, human rights, including women’s rights, are collapsing in Libya, and the vacuum could further destabilize Libya, the region, and Europe itself if the country falls completely to terrorism.
On May 10, a conference will be held in Washington organized by the National Council on US Libya Relations and the National Council on US-Arab Relations with support from several think tanks including the Beirut Institute.
The conference, titled New Vision, Hope, and Opportunities, will be attended by former Libyan prime ministers, representatives from the governing presidential council, the foreign minister, and the UN envoy Martin Kobler.
The conference will review the past six years, as a necessary basis for launching into the future, once mistakes are recognized and obstacles are identified.
The conference will address the fate of the Sukhayrat Agreement, which had proposed a roadmap for Libya, to explore the prospects of it succeeding in the coming period and whether it needs amendments. The meeting will also tackle the security complexities in Libya and the region, with experts making interventions on regional roles, militias, ISIS, and the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar.
“Frankly, we are very pessimistic about the Europeans leading on the Libyan issue, especially by the Italians and the British who were leading on this issue, from the Sukhayrat Agreement to the Security Council,” said Dr. Hani Shunaib, founding president of the National Council on US-Libyan relations.
“We want to raise the Libyan issue from the bottom of priorities to [a level where it could] become worthy of the interest of the new US administration and Congress, by adopting realistic and serious proposals,” he added.
These proposals include pushing for strong US leadership to gather all Libyan parties in one room for prolonged discussions, parties that include both those who support the Sukhayrat Agreement and those who oppose it, in order to amend its clauses and impose the amended version on the parties – including parliament, Haftar, and the Islamists in Tripoli”, according to Shunaib.
“Parliament must be included in the dialogue,” he continued, or it “will continue to reject the government led by Fayez Sarraj formed on the basis of the Sukhayrat agreement, and Sarraj will continue to steer the Libyan ship without parliamentarian legitimacy out of a naval base outside Tripoli.”
The Libyan dinar will continue to slump, the economy will continue to deteriorate, and the risk of a military confrontation between the army loyal to the Islamists and between Haftar’s army will increase, especially in the south, Shunaib explained.
No one is saying the Libyan issue is not astoundingly complex. The UN and the US under Obama had backed the Sukhayrat Agreement, and considered prime minister Sarraj as the only international recognized leader. But at the same time, the Libyan parliament remains internationally recognized as the legitimate legislative authority in the country.
The regional complications are also noteworthy. The UAE, for example, is backing Haftar as a spearhead against radical Islamic expansion in Libya. The UAE has not concealed its fight against extremism in Egypt and elsewhere too, because it sees it as an existential threat.
Qatar does not share this view, and has supported Islamists in Tripoli either directly or via Turkey, because it believes Islamist parties have the right to participate in government everywhere.
Egypt sees Libya as an important strategic depth, relies significantly on Libyan oil imports, and has an army of workers across the border. Yet the top priority for Cairo remains the threat of Islamic extremism, which it wants to head off in Libya, but without becoming directly involved militarily and become drawn into the Libyan quagmire.
The other important neighbor is Algeria, which has had prolonged differences with Libya over borders and oil. Algeria in turn does not want vacuum and a loophole through which terrorism can slip into its homeland.
Saudi Arabia is leaving the Libyan issue to the UAE and Qatar, proposing itself as a neutral party trying to resolve the Libyan crisis. However, according to the Libyans, the kingdom can play a role to stop the “export of extremist Salafists to North Africa, Libya in particular.”
One of them said that there are “very worrying signs in the eastern region, where Islamic extremism has made a comeback through the Salafists, to impose restrictions on civil rights.” One example he cited is how the religious authorities in Barqa have recently imposed a decision on the military governor in the eastern region to prevent women in Libya from leaving the house without a male guardian.
Libya will not become a modern state unless it adopts the constitution of 1969 as the basis of a secular constitution, and rejects the amendments that impose an Islamic state in the constitution. The international community can help fundamentally in this regard.
The Obama administration had adopted so-called centrist Islam as acceptable way to introduce religion in the Arab states without opposition from the international community. However, the Trump administration does not share this view, which opens up an opportunity to think of new ways to address the Libyan crisis. The Trump administration does not believe in appeasement, which had marked Obama’s approach to this issue, and prefers the separation of religion and state.
Some have accused the Trump administration of seeking the partition of Libya based on positions made by some advisers but not on the basis of declared policies. Those advisers are talking about a new US policy that takes into account the possibility of adopting federalism in Libya.
Dr. Hani Shunaib said the Sukhayrat agreement could be amended to take into account “historical backgrounds that were not accommodated before,” including the fact that Libya comprises three historical states, Barqa (Cyrenaica), Tripoli, and Fezzan. A decentralized federal system must be seriously considered, with more than three states – five or six – because the centralized system is inconsistent with Libya’s history, he believes.
Shunaib recalled that before 1969 and Gaddafi’s regime, Libya had two capitals, in Benghazi and Tripoli, due to historical differences, and that Gaddafi had “punished the eastern region, completely neglecting Barqa.” Therefore today, “another city should be considered practically, such as Sirte, to be a provisional capital that can be protected.” Such a neutral capital should be one of the important amendments to the Sukhayrat agreement, he believes.
The Libyan figure also called for guaranteeing the sovereignty of institutions, especially the oil corporation and the central bank, with a UN Security Council resolution. He also called for seriously considering the creation of a new army, which could be a federal army. He added: “Haftar must be coopted into political dialogue rather than be excluded, while Islamists should be made to choose something that is in their interest, since they historically comprise the merchant class in Tripoli and Misrata.”
These ideas will no doubt be met with opposition and criticism from some circles, but they are helpful as a basis to revive the Libyan issue in the US and internationally. There is a chance for a Russian-American dialogue that could lead to accord or cooperation in Libya, where the two countries have shared interests that go beyond terrorism, and include economic interests, especially after reports of the discovery of the largest gas basin in North Africa and possibly the Mediterranean in the Gulf of Sirte.
Russia has shown a special interest in Libya, why the US has yet to do the same. But the time has come for Washington to change tack. Indeed, Libya is crucial for the security of North Africa and Europe, and the US and Russia as well, because the ongoing vacuum in Libya will lead to eventual Afghanization and Somalization so close to the European continent. Libya, Dr. Shunaib was keen to recall, is a resource-rich country whose oil has special qualities that make it ideal for petrochemical industries, and therefore has a special value for the US different from its value for Europe.
The Libyan state was born with a UN resolution in 1951 but was never a state in the modern sense. It is time to re-create Libya as a modern state based on a realistic vision based on respecting the constitution and institutions, and not on mutual appeasement. The international community owes it to Libya and stands to gain from helping the Libyans and investing in preventing further power vacuum and collapse.
Raghida Dergham – Contributor Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, Al Hayat