Libya: In Search of Neutrality

As Libya continues to fragment, diplomats have mobilized to confront the current crisis. Spain has hosted an international conference focused on the North African country’s current situation; UN Special Representative Bernardino Leon testified before the Security Council about his recent visits to Libya; envoys from the West, particularly the United Kingdom, shuttle between the different Libyan stakeholders; caretaker Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni has traveled abroad to seek support; officials from neighboring countries are meeting and pledging not to interfere; and the head of the Libyan House of Representatives is expected in Washington in the coming days. Despite, or perhaps due in part to, all of these engagements, the situation in Libya is worsening. One possible explanation is that the efforts are misdirected, focusing on getting two very entrenched parties to set down their arms rather than identifying and bolstering a neutral channel to establish a political roadmap out of the crisis.

In the tale of two Libyas playing out today, two competing government face off. On one side: the House of Representatives, elected in June 2014, albeit with only 20 percent of the population having cast a ballot. Despite boasting international recognition, this parliament barely exercises its powers beyond the far eastern city of Tobruk where it remains in self-imposed exile. Its opposition consists of the old General National Congress (GNC), resuscitated in the capital of Tripoli by the Misratan militias and their Islamist allies (dubbed Operation Libya Dawn) that have, through battle, become the new masters of western Libya. The mere existence of the GNC challenges the new parliament, undermines the House’s authority, and further polarizes the political spectrum. The appointment of Omar al-Hassi as the GNC’s pick for prime minister and his formation of a cabinet in Tripoli, in direct competition with the government approved by the Tobruk-based House, represents a case in point. The GNC’s cooperation with Operation Dawn forces gives it the ability to throw a wrench into the House’s legitimacy and its functional capacity. The House, which the international community has hailed as the only legitimate Libyan institution, is paradoxically incapable of governing the vast majority of the country’s territory, while the illegitimate body exercises enough pressure to undermine the political process.

Deepening mistrust now threatens to make the very political consensus and resolution even more difficult to reach. The international community has vehemently called on the House to adopt a policy of inclusion toward all political stakeholders and to commit to representing the interests of all Libyans. In words, the House has responded positively to these calls. In deeds, it has acted differently:

  1. The House failed to appoint a neutral prime minister with a clear mandate to negotiate with other forces and establish a unity caretaker government. Instead, they named al-Thinni as caretaker prime minister, a figure that Misrata does not trust.
  2. The parliament has retreated from the capital, meeting exclusively in Tobruk. Disconnected from the rest of the country and under protection of forces openly hostile to Misratan militias and Islamists, the body has effectively put up a barrier, rendering it difficult for parliamentarians representing particular areas to participate in the sessions.
  3. House members have demonized their opposition; by passing a law to fight terrorism and defining the threat in such a way as to include certain components of the Islamist-leaning Operation Dawn, they have painted all Islamists as terrorists in one broad stroke, failing to differentiate between moderates and extremists and thereby galvanizing them against a common enemy.

Exacerbating the widening gap, the Constitutional Assembly announced that it would have a draft constitution prepared by the end of the year. With no transparency regarding the process and channels for public participation, it serves only to reaffirm fears among Misratans and Islamists that there is an agenda to marginalize them politically, incentivizing them to continue their armed response.

Unfortunately, despite the very clear need for constructive dialogue among Libyans, the House has exerted much of its efforts to engage partners in neighboring countries, seeking support from Egypt and elsewhere. All of this has come at the expense of time and energy that ought to have been spent reaching out to the Libyan population to build their confidence in the parliament as an institution that seeks to serve all citizens.

The situation in Libya requires an approach with neutrality at its core. That is, the international community needs to pressure the House to convene in a neutral Libyan city accessible to all parliamentarians so that the sessions and subsequent decision-making will be inclusive. The parliament should then appoint a mutually-agreed upon caretaker government with a two-part roadmap: one, overseeing presidential elections and constitutional referendum; and two, simultaneously undertaking a select few projects to restore security, develop infrastructure, and provide social services for citizens. In the meantime, the House should appoint a single envoy whose responsibility would be to liaise with the international community to better coordinate and communicate with the many foreign envoys seeking a negotiated resolution. These steps would oblige the House to demonstrate leadership, compelling it to govern rather than partake in a violent political struggle at the expense of its constituency. These guidelines could also provide a boost to the prospect of a political resolution for which so many of Libya’s international partners are pushing.

Three years after a civil war that toppled a dictatorship, a low-intensity civil war is brewing in Libya. While all of the diplomatic back and forth encouragingly suggests that no one wants to see the country collapse, the engagement ought to focus on creating a space for neutrality and inclusiveness. Having thrown its weight behind the House, the international community can leverage its assistance to help it become the mechanism to achieve those preconditions and pull Libya back from the brink.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with 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: Supporters of Operation Dawn, a group of forces mainly from Misrata, demonstrate against and call for the removal of the new Libyan parliament based in the eastern city of Tobruk, the House of Representatives, at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli September 19, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny)