Libya: Back to Square One?

Many authoritative commentators have already expressed their astonishment at the scandal enveloping the United Nations and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Their shock is indeed justified. A leaked email written by Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) Bernardino Leon on December 31, 2014 to the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan badly compromises Leon’s credibility as a neutral mediator, that of the negotiation process, and most importantly that of the entire United Nations as an independent actor.

The full text of Leon’s email from December 31 shows that he has been all but independent. He writes to al-Nahyan, “All my movements have been consulted with (and in many cases designed by) the HOR and Aref Nayed and Mahmud Jibril (with whom I speak on a daily basis) following Your request.” Aref Nayed, the Libyan Ambassador to the UAE, was one of the contenders for Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) that was to result from the UN-led negotiations. Mahmud Jibril is an eminent politician, the former Prime Minister under the National Transitional Council and now the leader of the National Forces Alliance, the party that won the 2012 elections. Both are closely aligned with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR). Leon thus conspired with these personalities to reach a critical goal: the delegitimization of the General National Congress (GNC) and its supporters—a goal contrary to his purported mission for a unity government of all Libyans for all Libyans. Nevertheless, the Spanish diplomat stated with a straight face that he did nothing wrong and that his record speaks for itself.

The real scandal, however, is the lack of sound indignation and forceful action to address the issue by the upper echelons of the United Nations, which stood by Leon and all but ignored the implications and the consequences of his actions. There is much more to say about Leon’s backroom discussions and the people involved, but the details should not overshadow the core issue: Libya and its proximate future. A bifurcation must first be addressed: should Libyans continue with the UN-mediated negotiations led by the new SRSG Martin Kobler, salvaging what is salvageable of the previous rounds to devise a new agreement and a new GNA, or should they start a new Libyan-only negotiations process?

The first avenue seems easier. A new mediator could rapidly address the flaws of the previous experience, build a more inclusive participants list, bring in military commanders and relevant local actors, and devise new mechanisms for power sharing while maintaining the support of the international community. International support will be essential in maintaining the unity and independence of the main financial institutions—the Central Bank and the Libyan Investment Authority—and of the National Oil Company. Leon’s irresponsible behavior, however, has fatally tarnished the process and the reputation of the UN as an independent actor. It is easy to foresee derisive comments that could be thrown at Kobler the first time he takes a decision perceived as favoring one side or the other. If he rules in favor of Tripoli the joke could be, “He is looking for a job in Qatar;” if he rules for Tobruk, “The job is already taken!”

Alternatively, the United Nations—in collaboration with the other regional organizations such as the European Union, the Arab League, and the African Union—could sponsor an international peace conference that would include the main international and domestic actors involved in the Libyan civil war. Such a conference would have its advantages: it could address the proxy portion of the crisis in which regional and international actors play a destabilizing role and foster the continuation of civil war through military and economic support to various factions. It would be harder for any rogue actor to breach a decision taken in front of the whole international community than the simple reiteration of bland statements that have characterized the international support for the UN-led negotiations so far. Such a peace conference would also have the added benefit of forcing Libyan factions to reach a decision quickly to which, hic et nunc, all parties would have to adhere or reject. This context would force the real spoilers and their issues into the open.

A second avenue for consideration involves an entirely Libyan-led negotiation. This forum would gather the main actors or their representatives at a location in Libya to discuss their grievances and address the fears and expectations of each actor. Yet, who has enough standing, credibility, and charisma among the Libyan contenders to be the promoter and convener of such an initiative? Such is the state of the country’s fragmentation and divide that no one comes to mind. The Arab League, possibly working with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the African Union, could play the role of facilitator. If conducted transparently and inclusively, the process could lead to a negotiated solution that would benefit from the legitimacy that comes from such a bottom-up approach. It is a much harder path to take, but possibly one that could guarantee a more stable agreement.

For a continued UN-led process to be successful, even in partnership with other regional organizations, it would require a strong third party mediator who is ready to use both the carrot and the stick to reach a suitable result. The second avenue, a de facto Libyan elite pacted transition, requires all the main factions to have reached a “mutually hurting stalemate” that makes the current situation unsustainable and forces them to reach an agreement. Pundits and analysts could forecast every possible scenario and solution to the Libyan crisis they may envisage, but until either of these conditions is realized, one should expect only more of the same.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on the politics and economics of North Africa.

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Image: A man holds a sign during a protest against candidates for a national unity government proposed by U.N. envoy for Libya Bernardino Leon, in Benghazi, Libya October 23, 2015. (Reuters)