Libya: Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

(Reuters)

This old saying by the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci may best summarize the most accurate perspective on the situation in Libya today. The agreement reached in Skhirat on October 8 produced a proposed Government of National Accord (GNA) to be led by Fayez Sarraj, a member of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR) from a well-known Tripoli family, as Prime Minister. Yet assorted Libyan parties have since contested the conduct of the UN-led negotiation and the candidacy of the proposed Prime Minister and his deputies. Undoubtedly, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General Bernardino Leon has made many mistakes, in form and content. But are these sufficient to deem the whole process a failure? The answer is a resounding no. No matter how deeply flawed the process has been and how controversial the names of the nominees are, there is no alternative to the GNA that could return peace and order to Libya.

One of the main reasons indicated for the failure of the process is that it does not address new realities that have emerged since the 2011 revolution: the fragmentation of political, military, and social fabric of the country. Much has been written about the fragmentation of the political spectrum, the emergence of new local fiefdoms, and the importance of ‘inclusiveness,’ whatever it may mean (Of all Libyans? All tribes? All leaders? All civil society groups?). But is pursuing a bottom-up approach a feasible avenue to reach stability?

It is true that Libya’s factions have progressively fragmented into smaller groups, but it is also true that each group competes for the control of the central state and Libya’s resources. Most of these local groups or political entities base their legitimacy on local identities and issues, but only in order to gather the strength to position themselves to be heard at the national level. Most of these identities and local grievances are atavist in form and preposterous in nature. For instance, some factions in Benghazi claim that they not only fight Islamist terrorists, but also the Turks—referring to those families who descend from the officers posted in Libya under Ottoman rule, despite these families’ presence in Benghazi for generations. Many other examples of these cleavages, both new and old, have contributed to this superficial social fragmentation. These grievances either did not exist or were forgotten under the regime of Qaddafi who (for better or worse) unified the country and provided order through a patronage system and a repressive state apparatus.

The NATO intervention against Qaddafi in 2011 subverted this order and left Libyans without a competent political class that could exercise leadership to keep the country united or provide a clear and shared roadmap for the future. Instead, it left in its wake a country with a mostly young population, fully armed and in a state of permanent upheaval. An Algerian writer captures the phenomenon with compelling clarity in a recent article, saying, “Through herd mentality, or pure atavism, the leaderless state was drawn back to its one familiar point of reference, the tribal system of its ancestors, and with it the full force of its legacy: a return to the hatred of the past, to intractable rivalries, violent raids and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.”

It has now become crucial to react to the current pattern of chaos and fragmentation and reconstitute a modicum of unity to stabilize the country. How can Libya attain this result? Only strong and determined action from the new government—with full support from the international community—can reverse this trend. Most of the armed factions would likely bandwagon with an assertive GNA, falling in line to prevent losing control and influence over the patrimonial state. Building a strong international force around those who accept the GNA could secure the capital, its surrounding territories, and some essential infrastructure. The international force would not have to invade the whole country, but rather support the embryo of a territory in which law and order and services are restored. From there, the process of reaggregating other cities and territories could begin. Meanwhile, the government could work to build a cohesive national military force in the secured areas.

The GNA’s sustainability will also rely on an immediate policy of reconciliation and reintegration of former old regime supporters. Reliable reports of tribe members formerly associated with the old regime joining radical groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) makes the implementation of this policy all the more urgent. The GNA faces the enormous challenge of rebuilding legitimacy, reestablishing order, and reinstituting the rule of law, but it also remains the only avenue for success. Without immense support from Western countries and Libya’s neighbors, this experiment will surely fail.

Here is where the optimism of the will gives way to the pessimism of the intellect. The West has shown no appetite for the implementation of a strong military initiative to support the GNA. Without this support, the new government can never root itself in Libya or in Tripoli, in particular. Spoilers in western Libya have already gathered support against the GNA on the basis of the most specious reasons: the character of the Prime Minister, the lack of morality or capacity of the deputies, the arbitrary way Leon chose the members of the GNA, and many others. In parallel, spoilers from eastern Libya have condemned the candidates for the national security adviser positions and for the head of the Advisory Council—both from the city of Misrata and presumably antagonistic to the inhabitants of the eastern provinces. Furthermore, easterners object to the agreement because it does not grant a leading role to Khalifa Haftar, commander of the forces loyal to the Tobruk parliament.

Regardless of their motivations—whether good or bad—these spoilers have the upper hand in Libya. This state of affairs cannot but lead to pessimistic forecasts that range from an escalation of the civil war to a de facto partition of the country in two or more regions, with large parts of the territory in the hands of criminal gangs and radical groups of which ISIS would be just the more violent one. Those who find solace in attacking the UN-led negotiations outcome and its proposed GNA should deliberate more on the consequences of its failure and instead try to find constructive solutions to make it work.

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