Libyan Matryoshka

Analyzing the situation in Libya and trying to define the root causes of the crisis is akin to unboxing a traditional Russian nesting doll—identical matryoshka dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other ad infinitum. An initial reading may reveal the main cause of the Libyan crisis to be ideological divisions between Islamists and secularists. Beneath that, however, is another underlying cause resulting from a periphery-center struggle. The next level exposes that in reality, Libya’s struggle seems to be one for power and control of resources. Go further, and an additional level of identity-based division resulting from conflict between tribes and families and the state reveals itself. This in turn prompts the debate over the existence of a Libyan political entity and the Qaddafi regime’s failure to construct a national identity and the subsequent effects on the quality and cohesion of the Libyan political elite. The matryoshka metaphor illustrates the intricacies and the complexities of the Libyan crisis, in which each level of division is based on valid grievances but none serves as a definitive explanation for the country’s crisis. 

Each side of Libya’s crisis has adopted one explanation of the situation and turned it into an alibi for fostering personal egos and interests over the common good. The result is a country and its people stuck in a dangerous and potentially fatal position. Libyans have to overcome their personal grievances and ambitions and stand united for the common good and the survival of their nation-state. They have to exercise all efforts to build new, strong, and effective institutions and solve the legitimacy crisis that is plaguing the country’s quest for effective governance. In order to address the crisis, a few courageous, perhaps unorthodox steps should be undertaken.

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA)—despite all the apparent flaws in its ideation, composition, and function—is the only actor around which effective domestic and international consensus can be built. The GNA is recognized by the international community and possibly by many Libyans. The obstacles to its full consolidation of authority should be resolved, chief of which is the refusal of the House of Representatives (HoR)—the legislative body elected in June 2014 and seated in Tobruk—to ratify the GNA and pass a constitutional amendment adopting the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). The vast majority of the members of the HoR, in fact, would have been willing to meet and vote in favor of the LPA, but they were prevented from doing so by HoR President Agileh Saleh and his supporters who are acting in the interest of Eastern Libya’s strongman General Khalifa Haftar. One way to resolve this would be to bypass the HoR’s approval. The HoR hardly meets anymore with a legal number of participants. Its legitimacy has been questioned since its inception due to low voter turnout in 2014, a high number of defections, and its boycott by some of the country’s minorities. Moreover, its tenure was extended by the LPA purely as a means to allow it to ratify the constitutional amendment legitimizing the LPA. The GNA could instead be officially instated through a swearing in ceremony led by the head of the Supreme Court or other high level members of the judiciary. The members of the HoR ready to accept the legitimacy of the new institution could then reassemble and begin their work as the main legislative body of the country, as is mandated by the LPA. The GNA’s Presidential Council (PC)—a body of nine members tasked with leading the country—could then meet with the HoR’s dissenting members and find a solution to their grievances. These grievances are likely based on article 8 of the LPA, which gives the PC the power to appoint and remove senior officials and bring the military under control of the new government.

Disagreement over article 8 is at the core of the fate of Haftar, as well as that of the President of the HoR Agileh Saleh. Despite a UN-sanctioned arms embargo, the General has been armed and equipped quite openly by two regional powers—Egypt and the UAE.  The purpose of this foreign support has been to empower Haftar to reach a military victory on the ground and gain a position in the political landscape making it impossible for any other contender to govern the country without his consent. This move has succeeded only partially. Haftar’s troops still do not have full control of the city of Benghazi. They are not fighting the militants of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Sirte and are not active against other Islamist groups in Derna.  They are also not directly confronting the rogue Petroleum Protection Forces that, under the orders of Ibrahim Jadran, control the oil ports and refineries in the east.

Nevertheless, Haftar has established himself as a force with which any party willing to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Libya must contend.  The international community, the Misratan power-brokers, and the Tripoli Islamist leaning forces can demonstrate their understanding of this by adopting a policy that is as inclusive as possible. This should include not only Haftar and his supporters, but also individuals and tribes that were part of the former regime. An important and courageous act would be the promulgation of a general amnesty. This would help redress the terrible and unjust state of many persons accused of belonging to the Qaddafi regime that have been forced to escape into exile or have been imprisoned for years in inhumane conditions without access to legal representation or medical services. Bringing these people and groups back into the process of constructing a pluralistic political system is not only a just and long-overdue provision, but also necessary to weaken extremist organizations, like ISIS, which have enjoyed the support of those who feel marginalized by the new authorities in Tripoli.

Activating the supporting tracks to the UN-led negotiations—an armed groups track, a social fabric track, a civil society track, and one dedicated to municipalities and local councils—could build upon recent developments that have further expanded and strengthened consensus surrounding the GNA. The much discussed and debated agreement with Jadran is one of these developments that could prove to be positive. The reopening of the ports under Jadran’s control may allow Libya to restart its oil exports and gain much needed financial resources. There are moral issues to be evaluated such as striking a deal with someone that has behaved illegally, hijacking the ports and asking for ransom to reopen them, but this would be a typical case of ends-justify-the-means kind of operation and therefore more acceptable. Another positive more recent development is constituted by the US air force strikes against ISIS positions in Sirte. An offensive against ISIS in Sirte has been undertaken by the militias of the city of Misrata, with only minimal support from other cities’ militias. It has been carried out nominally under the authority of the GNA and under the command of its Minister of Defense Mehdi al-Barghati. This fact has been put into question by commentators who, trying to downplay the role of the GNA, stated that the real command of the operation was in the hands of the leaders of Misrata. The Misratan military commanders, however, have been asking for international aerial support for quite some time, but support was offered only after an explicit request by the GNA. This is a clear message from the United States and the Europeans that they are behind the GNA and support its quest for re-establishing order and stability.

There remain many difficulties ahead for the GNA, including establishing a plan for Sirte post-liberation from ISIS. It is essential that the GNA rapidly draft a plan to implement security and provide basic services in order to allow the return of the population to their homes. Given the fragility of the GNA’s position in Tripoli and the lack of an efficient bureaucratic system and therefore a notable lack of capacity to act, it is evident that international support to meet these challenges is essential. Will the United States and the Europeans provide the assistance needed?

Many questions are still open and confusion and uncertainties remain, but a path forward in Libya is being traced daily. Libyans will have to gather all their goodwill and strength to continue on this path, but it is clear that they need help from international allies who recognize the importance of bringing stability and good governance to Libya.

Fadel Lamen is a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and chair of the Libyan National Dialogue Committee.

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

Related Experts: Fadel Lamen and Karim Mezran