Libya: A Diplomat’s Dilemma

As UN officials and Western envoys shuttle back and forth trying to cobble together a robust negotiations process to resolve the Libyan conflict, the North African country’s Supreme Court—the last standing state institution with some semblance of neutrality and credibility—issued a verdict declaring the elected, internationally-recognized parliament invalid. The move was presumably made in a highly pressurized environment, as the court sits in Tripoli where Misratan and Islamist-leaning militias have seized control and propped up a rival parliament and government. This latest development poses a significant dilemma for diplomats: should the international community defy a court ruling and continue standing by the House of Representatives? How should envoys respond if they do not want to jeopardize prospects, however minimal, for talks?

Up until yesterday, observers had understood that the court was looking into the constitutionality of the location where the House was holding its sessions—in self-exile in Tobruk rather than its mandated seat in Benghazi. But the court went much further; by rejecting the constitutionality of the February Committee that drafted the roadmap leading to the parliamentary vote in June, the court has effectively nullified the election of the House of Representatives. This impacts the space for negotiations by significantly increasing the points of dispute and giving fodder to the powers-that-be in Tripoli who will now point to the ‘law of the land’ in justifying their position.

On one hand, the court decision gravely complicates matters as it maximizes the possibility of further radicalizing two already-entrenched sides. For Libyans, this could cement the country’s downward spiral toward a tale of two countries. As Operation Libya Dawn consolidates its control over Tripoli, the House and Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni remain seated in the east with little control beyond Tobruk, and battles rage between armed supporters of each side in Benghazi. With the Supreme Court having spoken, albeit under duress, state entities that have tried to maintain some neutrality—such as the National Oil Corporation and Central Bank—will come under pressure to pick sides and vocalize their loyalties to one administration or the other.

For the international community, the question will be: if they remain committed to the objective of mediating a peaceful resolution, how do they build confidence with the opposition without abandoning the side they have been supporting?

On the other hand, the possibility of a small, indispensable window of opportunity has emerged—one that mediators ought to seize as they exhaust every effort to bring Libya back from the brink of all out civil war. By issuing its decision, disputed though it may be, the court has weakened the Tobruk-based government and, in turn, produced a win for the Misratans and their allies in Tripoli. The ruling has rather perversely leveled the playing field between the competing political blocs, counterweighing the international support thrown behind Tobruk. In an effort to bolster moderates within each camp and minimize the polarization, international mediators ought to signal their willingness to negotiate with opposing factions on the condition that they commit to an inclusive, peaceful resolution. Despite the circumstances under which each side has acquired legitimacy, tensions can only be exacerbated if the international community entrenches itself on the side of Tobruk. To bridge the divide, international actors must at least acknowledge the Supreme Court’s decision. This recognition does not imply abandoning Tobruk; rather it creates an opportunity to reach out to Tripoli. With a win in its pocket, the Islamist-backed government perceives itself to be on equal footing, and this new power dynamic may render it more amenable to negotiate.

The international community needs to ensure it acts as one cohesive unit. The parties, despite sharing common recognition of the Tobruk-based House, have diverged in their strategies for a stable resolution. Western states have issued joint statements condemning the violence and calling for negotiations, while regional players have been more inclined to intervene directly, taking part in aerial strikes against Islamist strongholds, according to sources. Meanwhile, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) issued a response to the ruling, saying it “will be studying it closely,” calling on all parties “to place the national interest above all other considerations,” and emphasizing its commitment to “confer with all the main stakeholders on the way forward.”

As a first step, the diplomat’s dilemma is to get the international community on the same page about what is needed in Libya: dialogue as a peaceful means of resolving what, at the root, is a political conflict. For Washington, difficult negotiations with some of its closest allies will be needed to agree on the most appropriate measures in the mutual interest of Libya and the international community. Reports that the United States may use unilateral sanctions to pressure warring proxies are promising; it is a strong indication of willingness to do what is necessary to create an environment conducive to the very talks that have been declared the only means of resolving Libya’s crisis.

Ultimately, only Libyans can ensure that the sacrifices made in the 2011 uprising are not in vain and were made to preserve a stable, unified, sovereign country. If diplomats wish to help, they must leave no stone unturned. With Libya at a crossroads, they will have to act quickly and aggressively to turn a court decision into a decisive turning point away from disaster.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East with a focus on the politics and economics of North Africa.

Lara Talverdian is an assistant director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

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Image: Libyans celebrate after the Supreme Court invalidated the country's parliament, at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli November 6, 2014. Libya's Supreme Court on Thursday declared the internationally recognised parliament as unconstitutional, in a ruling likely to fuel further chaos in the north African oil producing nation. The decision came a day after gunmen stormed Libya's biggest oilfield, shutting down production at the facility in the country's remote south in a new blow to the already beleaguered energy sector. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny