Transitions in Focus: Libya

An unusual protest erupted in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi on February 15, 2011. Enraged by the arrest of a human rights activist, protestors clashed with police and supporters of Libya’s longtime ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, who responded with brute force. Two days later, activists called for a “day of rage.”

The protests spread like wildfire across Libya, whose neighborhood was already being buffeted by the so-called Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings. Longtime leaders, including Gadhafi, were ousted in the Arab Spring revolutions. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and millions were displaced from their homes.

Seven years later, Libya is mired in chaos.
On February 17th, Libyans will celebrate the anniversary of a revolt that ultimately toppled and killed Muammar Qaddafi, ending his forty-two-year oppressive rule. This anniversary and others in the region are regrettable reminders of how the expectations in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring compare to the reality on the ground seven years later. Many countries that sought to depose a tyrannical leader now find themselves in worse circumstances. Libya and Syria in particular have faced extreme violence since 2011. In both states, the political and security vacuums from internal fractures allowed the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) to rise and thrive. In Syria, this same vacuum allowed Russia to gain military influence and involvement in the conflict. Russia is likely to use current unstable conditions in Libya today for its own interests, much as it has done in Syria, beginning over two years ago.
Since 2011, Libya’s path to democracy has been unclear. The United Nations’ (UN) inability to bring warring factions to the negotiating table has left the country in chaos. While negotiations have failed, the UN is pushing to hold elections in 2018. Given the chaos in the country, however, will the UN overcome the challenges needed to execute elections successfully?
The situation on the ground in Libya is fluid and complex. Militias in the West and South police their own local communities but few have regional control. The only exception is in eastern Libya under the leadership of strongman General Khalifa Haftar and his self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA). In his campaign to eradicate terrorism, Haftar emerged as a potential strongman who could bring security to Libya. That possibility, however, is becoming less likely.
On January 10, 2018 the United Nations endorsed the UN Support Mission in Libya’s (UNSMIL) intention to hold national elections by the end of 2018, led by the new UN Special Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame. So far, more than 2,000,000 citizens (about 32 percent of the adult population) are already registered to vote. Many Libyans are hopeful that elections will finally bring stability and order to a state which has been plagued with violence, corruption, and lawlessness for almost seven years. However, it will be extremely difficult to meet these expectations if a mandated constitution does not exist to check elected officials, or if there is no legal framework of action for newly established institutions.
In yet another attempt to resolve Libya’s war, on September 20, the United Nations presented a new Action Plan for Libya, supposedly to form a legitimate, functioning, and unified government. But this Action Plan will also fall short of what is needed to end this crisis because it misses a key point: it focuses on producing a government all belligerent parties can agree on, without understanding the financial situation behind the crisis. The UN and the international community should not be narrowly focused on producing a legitimate government that satisfies all the rival groups, but rather should focus on supporting the government’s ability to exercise its power to improve the people’s lives. The crisis in Libya is not a government legitimacy problem, it is a government effectiveness problem. And how can a government be effective when it does not even control its own finances?
In the wake of the Security Council’s renewal of the United Nations (UN) mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in September, a sequel to UN-led mediation efforts directed by a new Special Representative of the Secretary General is underway in Libya. It once again hopes to reach an agreement among the main actors of the Libyan crisis while guaranteeing the will of the Libyan people to reject authoritarianism and realize a pluralistic political system respectful of human rights and individual liberties. The script follows a familiar pattern: a UN roadmap that paves the way for a grand elections finale. But the deadlock in Libya and the dynamics since the onset of the political crisis may require more unorthodox thinking and counterintuitive solutions.
The current fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, IS, Daesh) and Salafi jihadis in Libya should not distract from other Salafi groups in Benghazi and Tripoli that are spreading and enforcing anti-democractic and illiberal views and practices. The Madkhali Salafist-inspired groups are slowly gaining ground via both the al-Tawhid Brigades in the east under Field Marshal Hafter’s umbrella, and the Rada forces in the west that support the UN-sponsored Presidential Council. Both strands adopt an ideology that grants the ruler unquestioned authority, is intolerable to opposing views, and encourages the use of force against opponents. Such negative stances on elections and separation of power put Libya’s political process at risk. 
Although Tunisia is still seen favorably in Washington, the US is unlikely to be its savior. No matter how much Washington reflects on Tunisia as a successful democratic transition, the mood in the US capital will not lead to large amounts of aid to magically fix Tunisia’s security and economic woes. Only by looking to itself can Tunisia complete its democratic transition.