By Ethan Chorin
2018 may be the year the international community shelves its efforts to catalyze a stable government in Libya in favor of containment, where the main targets are illegal migration, and the growth of violent extremism.
If so, the trigger will not have been the passage of the deadline for enacting the United Nations-structured Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) this last week, as much as the fact that the interests of several outside countries are more reliably served by the status quo.
The Libyan Political Agreement, which emerged from a series of U.N.-hosted negotiations in Libya and Morocco in late 2015, was supposed to launch a Government of National Accord (GNA), composed of three bodies: a State Council, made up of some members of a government elected in 2012; a Presidency Council, composed of a President, five Vice Presidents and three Ministers, and a legislature, in the form of the current government based in Libya’s East, the House of Representatives (HOR).
The House of Representatives, while it also cannot be said to be fully functional, is the most recent of Libya’s popularly-elected bodies, and it was meant to pass this legitimacy on to the GNA through a vote of ratification.
But the House of Representatives, for a number of reasons not all related to the LPA itself, has steadfastly refused to ratify the Government of National Accord — and the agreement itself is not clear about what would happen in this instance.
The international community clearly prefers to maintain that dates don’t matter, and support the GNA, even if the most cogent analysis holds that the agreement now invalid, and must be replaced by something else. But few of the LPA’s procedures have been followed faithfully by any of the bodies that emanated from it.
With the appointment earlier this year of prominent Lebanese politician and academic Ghassan Salamé the new U.N envoy to Libya , the United Nations appeared to acknowledge that the LPA process had gone off the rails, and it needed to pull a rabbit out of a hat, quickly.
Salamé is well versed in the governing crises and proxy battles Lebanon faced in the 1980s and ‘90s. But he has been constrained by some of the same political dynamics that dogged that conflict. None of the external parties want to make a move, lest the resulting situation prove less favorable to its interests.
Indeed, much of Europe now has an interest in maintaining Libya’s logjam. The nearly overwhelming flow of Sub Saharan migrants has declined (even if many find the measures that caused his objectionable, on moral and humanitarian grounds), and commercial interests (like the uninterrupted flow of natural gas from Libya’s Western offshore fields to Italy) are maintained.
With the reduction in numbers of migrants, Europe seems to feel that the threat of Libya-sourced terrorism has been reduced, even though there is little reason to believe this is the case.
Khalifa Heftar, the polarizing head of what is objectively the most organized of Libya’s forces, the Libyan National Army (LNA) continues to hold a substantial following, particularly in Libya’s East, where many give him credit for saving its cities from becoming ‘repeats of Raqqa or Kabul at their worst’.
Instead of trying to coopt Heftar and the LNA into the Government of National Accord and civilian oversight, however, the Libyan Political Agreement has sidelined them both, pushing Heftar and his Libyan allies closer to Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, whose common interests lie in fighting certain radical Islamists, opposing the expansion of Iran, and maintaining their own economic interests (Egypt hopes oil-rich Libya will once again provide substantial employment for Egyptian nationals).
Tactical alliances between Heftar and Madkhali Salafist elements (seen locally as an instrument of Saudi Arabia) and International Criminal Court warrant against a key ally on charges of war crimes, have undoubtedly peeled away some of Heftar’s support. But many in Benghazi say that despite all of this, it is in Benghazi, not Tripoli, that the most progress has been made toward implementing judicial processes and rule of law – even if everything is relative.
Salamé has tried to push through a last-minute, 3-step plan to fix the flaws in the LPA, and lead the country to elections in 2018. Heftar, for his part, took the opportunity on December 17 to declare the LPA, and its derivative government dead.
There was a flicker of hope last week, when the House of Representatives managed to muster a quorum, and then discussed amending the Libyan Constitutional Declaration to support the Salamé proposal, which envisions national elections next year. But it was not to be.
The GNA’s State Council, a would-be- beneficiary of the HOR’s cooperation, itself refused to sign on to the Salamé proposal, insisting effectively that it have or be granted powers equivalent to those of the House of Representatives.
Had both bodies agreed to amend the Constitutional Declaration, that process might have resolved differences between the HOR and the State Council, most immediately concerning the choice of Head of the Central Bank.
This position is of particular interest to the East, because while most of Libya’s oil is in the East, the Central Bank, which pays the salaries of both bodies, is located in the West.
The East wants a Central bank head who it feels is not biased against them. But without the agreement of the State Council, the HOR did not vote on amending the constitutional declaration, but did vote on its own candidate as head of the Central Bank.
The State Council called foul, claiming that the act was a violation of Article 15 of the Libyan Political Agreement. Some pointed out the State Council was also built in contravention of the LPA.
The U.N. Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), instead of putting blame on both sides for this failure to meet half way, UNSMIL criticized the House of Representatives, which struck many as a double-standard.
Meanwhile, Egypt has been quietly hosting talks between Heftar, the LNA and some GNA-associated military figures in traditionally anti-Heftar regions, in an attempt to create a more broadly representative army that might hold the country through elections.
The existence of these talks has been downplayed, and it is not clear what might come of them. Certainly there will be no progress in releasing Libya from the chokehold of the myriad militias that hold sway across the country, without a national army — Unless of course, the U.S. and/or Europe or Russia are willing to intervene in force, which they are almost certainly not.
The biggest losers from all of this continue to be the Libyan people, the vast majority of which are not members of militias, or traffickers in persons or members of the various infighting institutions.
Because of all of this chaos, the temptation by the West, will be to get even less involved, and to treat Libya as a problem not of institution-creating but “containment”, pure and simple.
This will serve short term political interests. But Libya can’t be kept on a respirator forever — not only for moral and humanitarian reasons, but because Libya’s problems will inevitably fester and explode. And as usual, the costs of cleaning up that mess will be much higher than it is now.
Dr. Ethan Chorin, Forbes contributer, CEO of Perim Associates LLC . He spent more than 20 years working in Africa and the Middle East as an energy and port executive, a U.S. diplomat and currently, as CEO of Perim Associates LLC. Author of Exit the Colonel and Translating Libya.