Libyans woke up on Thursday to the dramatic news of the brutal murder of Salwa Bugaighis. A political activist, lawyer, and human rights defender, Bugaighis was known for her passionate involvement since the 2011 revolution in fighting to protect Libya’s fragile transition to democracy. She was an essential contributor to the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission (NDPC) and appeared frequently on television, advocating for the necessity of the dialogue and strongly criticizing extremists and radicals in the country. Bugaighis, who lost her life Wednesday evening after a day of legislative elections, was the latest in a string of victims to die at the hands of extremists who have escalated their targeted assassinations in a desperate attempt to silence every voice of reason and democratic development. It is time for the international community to understand the urgency of the Libyan crisis and to deploy a carrot and stick approach to foster a resolution.
Bugaighis’ murder has drawn widespread condemnation from Western states and international organizations. One in particular stands out—that of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), whose statement calls on Libyan authorities “to thoroughly investigate the assassination and bring the perpetrators to justice.” This out-of-touch phrasing raises many questions. To which “authorities” is UNSMIL appealing? What investigative capacity do they assess the Libyan state possesses? And, most importantly, what “justice” do they believe ought to be served? Only willful blindness and denial could cloud the reality in Libya: rapidly deteriorating security, continuous assassinations, the collapse of the legitimacy of all public institutions, the near failed state status, escalating political violence and disorder, exacerbated in recent weeks by former general Khalifa Haftar’s foolish, unauthorized campaign to cleanse Libya of all Islamists. The proliferation of gang abuse, militia clashes, heavy traffic, frequent power shortages, fuel shortages, and water disruptions further exacerbate the daily plight of ordinary Libyans.
Optimists who hope that Libya will soon reach the end of the tunnel have put their eggs in one basket: the elections for the new House of Representatives. A delusional approach. An election carried out in haste, with no effective campaigning, no articulation of political platforms or programs, and run on individual candidate lists rather than on parties will achieve nothing more than a tick in the box. The news that less than 20 percent of the Libyan electorate voted provides unquestionable evidence of the public’s apathy and lack of attention. Rather than pausing to reflect on the significance of this alienation, commentators focus on the relative tranquility with which elections have been carried out, highlighting the pride in holding elections at all.
To anyone who assesses the situation objectively, it appears evident that the new parliament will be as poor, if not worse in caliber, than the previous one—and probably as inefficient and corrupt. Why? Because elections are not the answer to the problems on the ground. This new parliament is not the product of a united effort by all legitimate Libyan forces to resolve the crisis. In fact, it is nothing more than a quick bandage to a deep social and political wound. Today’s political and armed struggle is not, as has been purported, a binary—a question of Islamists versus non-Islamists, federalists versus non-federalists, easterners versus westerners, tribe versus tribe. Rather, it is a clash between those who have a political vision for a united, peaceful, democratic Libya and those who have only their parochial interests at heart and are ready to resort to armed violence to reach it. It is a distinction over a political vision for the future of the nation, and it is abundantly clear that the answer to the Libyan crisis lies in a negotiated solution between all legitimate, well-intentioned political forces.
A key element of this battle is the public exposure of dark, renegade forces. That is precisely the effort to which Salwa Bugaighis dedicated her life and which made her a target. If this is the intimidating environment in which Libya’s political, social, and civil society leaders are operating, can Libyans resolve the crisis by themselves, or do they need help from their friends?
The international community has the responsibility and strategic interest to support the Libyan people’s quest for a peaceful transition to a pluralist system. To do so, it is time that Libya’s allies begin utilizing the proverbial carrot and stick approach in order to convince legitimate Libyan factions to come to the negotiating table and reach an agreement regarding the establishment of a unity government and the restoration of law and order in the country. The carrot is evident: technical and diplomatic assistance to advance Libya’s economic development, institution-building, infrastructure reconstruction, and social welfare. What is missing from the equation is a clear definition of the stick that the international community can deploy against the extremists seeking to disrupt and destabilize the state. One mechanism could include targeted sanctioning those leaders, militia commanders, and criminal gangsters who defy the law and agitate against reconciliation and democratic procedures. This measure would involve freezing of assets and travel bans. The international community has galvanized to implement such sanctions in other cases and demonstrated its effectiveness.
So far, Libya’s allies have shown an utter lack of a sense of urgency over developments in the North African country. Many, like Salwa Bugaighis, have paid the price. In 2011, NATO adopted the “responsibility to protect” principle to justify its military intervention against the brutal dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi. NATO airplanes and military advisers intervened to support the struggle of the Libyan people and defend them from the regime’s utter disdain for human life and dignity. As one Libyan politician recently pondered: What is so different three years later? Are the Libyan people not under threat today as they were yesterday?
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.