The conference on Libya held in Palermo, Italy last November saw neither the rising of a new dawn in terms of security and political consensus nor the development of a strong agreement around a well-defined plan. Instead, what emerged was the reiteration by all the Libyan and European delegations of their support for the actions of the United Nations Special Mission In Libya (UNSMIL) and a vague definition of a roadmap to a solution to the country’s crisis. In other words, there were minimum results but results nonetheless.
The question now is if this albeit fragile agreement could resist the wearing of time. The main points of UNSMIL’s roadmap consist of the organization of a National Conference in Libya with the goal of achieving reconciliation among the various Libyan actors. A number of delegates representing all components of Libyan society are supposed to meet in late January to agree on a number of decisions ranging from national identity to decisions on the structure of the political system (strong decentralization, federalism), to decisions on the system of government, peaceful resolution of grievances, and more importantly a new constitution and elections.
After that, the roadmap becomes murkier. There is the idea that a referendum on the draft constitution should be held before another round of elections. The draft—approved in July 2017—is very weak and does not cover many essential topics such as the issue of decentralization and oil revenue sharing. However, more importantly, the time necessary to organize a referendum and in case of (probable) rejection by the people, its return to the constituent assembly for revisions, and finally a second referendum make this option absolutely impractical at this particularly sensitive moment. It is obvious that the idea of holding the referendum is thrown around by those who personally benefit, in some cases massively, from the status quo and do not want to move forward.
It may look like the most viable way to improve the situation in Libya is to go to elections right after the National Conference. There are, nevertheless, many obstacles for holding elections. First and foremost, the level of insecurity in the country may lead to low turnout. The low level of security will be exploited by spoilers to undermine the credibility of the new parliament. There will be difficulties also in staging an effective electoral campaign in such a fragmented environment and with a barely-functioning media. These and other considerations show that the country is not ready for elections in any aspect, neither from a legal nor from an organizational point of view and that premature elections would be very risky and could even accelerate the descent of the country into much more violent confrontations between the various armed actors.
General Situation in Libya
The general situation is disastrous for the population at large, but favorable to many who are illicitly profiting from the widespread corruption and lack of legal and judicial oversight. International actors rely too heavily on domestic political leaders with no real power on the ground. Actually, control belongs in most of Libya to the militias and their leaders.
Something like a “military solution” is not realistic. No imaginable coalition is able to overwhelm all the others. Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is not able to take Tripoli, as the vast majority of its forces is based and needed in the east. The only one (theoretical) chance would be an uprising from within the city simultaneously with an offensive from outside.
The most powerful military force in Tripolitania, the forces under control of the Misrata Military Council (MMC), could probably occupy the capital but it is highly unlikely that they would be able to sustain control. While seizing and keeping the Oil Crescent could deliver a deadly blow to Haftar, facing the overwhelming air power of the LNA, the MMC forces are not capable of doing this. Any attempt to seek a “military solution” by one side would most likely lead to an all-out civil war, which would drag the country into total chaos.
The security situation in particular in the south is worsening. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is by and large unchallenged in its safe havens and has ties with some local militia leaders on various sides. After the defeat in Sirte, the Islamic State (ISIS) uses Libya’s south—like AQIM—as a safe haven to regain strength, as a training ground, and as a base for operations in the wider region, while conducting a rather low-level terrorism campaign in Libya with occasional spectacular attacks. A recent attack in the Fezzan took place in Tazerbo on November 23, when nine people were killed, fourteen wounded, and ten kidnapped. At least six of the latter were executed a couple of days thereafter. As the links of various AQIM and ISIS affiliates operating successfully in Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Niger, and Chad demonstrate, Libya´s uncontrolled south is an increasingly important factor in the destabilization of the whole Sahara region. ISIS operates in all regions of the country. In late December, ISIS attacked the Foreign Ministry building in Tripoli, ending a year of several attacks on high-stakes infrastructure such as at the headquarters of the National Oil Corporation and High National Election Commission.
Without a new approach for stabilization, based on what has been achieved by the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), the country will either further erode slowly or glide down into total chaos or,— if there are premature elections—break into a full-scale civil war. It is necessary to put an option on the table that could be an alternative to the “immediate election plan.”
The vision of Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ghassan Salame, for the National Conference is not clear to observers of Libya’s trajectory. The UN says the Libyans should take the reins of the Conference—without specifying what this really means—and that UNSMIL is there to support the effort. Others see the UN owning the organization of the Conference, however. The confusion of roles, expectations, and lack of transparency in the process do not help the probability of a successful outcome.
It is vital that a clear statement regarding the expectations and outcomes of the conference be spelled out clearly and that all participants pledge to respect its results from the beginning. Most importantly, the carrying out of a National Conference cannot be perceived only as a way to push forward to elections and not having a value per se. This will undermine the probability of lasting reconciliation as well as undermine the legitimacy of the elections. A clear message on the intent of the National Conference is an essential prerequisite of its existence.
The selection of participants is crucial, to have a really credible representation of all Libyans, who are willing to participate in a democratic process. The best option is to invite the delegates of the democratically elected city councils as representatives of the municipalities. Where no elected city councils are available, some other kind of representative system (e.g. tribal elders) should be applied.
Cornerstones of a New Stabilization Plan
A new stabilization effort must start with a series of regional ceasefires between the most important military actors. This must include, among others, the LNA and Misrata, the greater Tripoli area, and the Fezzan in the south. Because of its credibility in the eyes of many Libyans, the US would be best suited to broker these ceasefires, but unfortunately such an American engagement is currently not realistic. Alternatively, under the umbrella of UNSMIL a network of several states with an influence on the warring factions could become active in a coordinated way. Egypt and France could work on Haftar, Italy on Misrata and Zintan, and Algeria on some tribes in Fezzan. At the same time, the common fight against terrorism must be intensified.
The ceasefires must be supervised (not enforced because this eventuality would require a total different kind of mission, one with much wider powers and a significantly higher risk of escalation). NATO is best suited for this task, which—after its intervention in 2011—also bears some moral responsibility for the developments in Libya. Such a supervision must include sophisticated technical means like drones, satellites, and electronic surveillance. This should allow NATO to clearly identify and stigmatize any violators. Alternatively to NATO, the European Union could also assume this role, as some of its member states have quite remarkable surveillance capabilities.
Several centralized, top-down approaches for the stabilization of Libya have failed since 2011. There is no reason why this should be different now. Consequently, stabilization must be considered as a local and regional responsibility. A bottom-up approach has better prospects for success by far. The country must be stabilized under an appropriate (interim) framework. During this phase, the centrally- and fairly-distributed oil revenues would be the glue keeping the country together. The final form of the state could be decided at a later stage.
Fostering local security must go hand-in-hand with rewarding stability. Good governance in stable areas must be promoted: the provision of basic services, including health care, electricity and water supported. Facilitation of the build-up of local police forces should increase the trust of locals into governing authorities.
Location of the Government
A government needs its own proper protection to independent from local warlords. Otherwise, its authority will be never ever accepted throughout Libya, as no one wants to be ruled by a government at the mercy of Tripoli militias. As the failure of the GNA and the previous governments proves, unfortunately this is currently not the case.
There are three possible solutions to ensure the government’s security:
The first one is to establish an independent, capable, and trusted Libyan force. Regrettably, it is not realistic that—for at least another 12-15 months—there could be such a Libyan-made force and only if things are properly in place.
The second option would be to employ an international protection force to establish a secure environment. One of those European Union Battle Groups, which are permanently on standby for rapid reaction, could establish a “safe zone” around Mitiga airport and Abu Sita navy base. Unfortunately, the appetite of Europeans for such a mission is rather low. On the other hand, an invitation by a proper Libyan authority like the Head of State or the parliament would be required—and such an invitation could bring a lot of trouble within Libya for this authority, because all the elements benefiting from the current chaos would heavily oppose it.
The third option is a temporary relocation of the decision makers and their closest staff to a safe zone. Such a zone must be on the northern coast, at or in the vicinity of an airport, and preferably also close to a harbor. It must be further away from the “main combat zones” to make it easier to protect. Most importantly, it must be established with the consent of the local population who needs to defend it with international support. Ras Lanuf or Es Sider could be viable options. A neutral zone around these terminals—without any militias—could also defuse the conflict for control of these crucial assets. Although this would be a very tough nut to crack, a temporary relocation of the government could be a solution until a return to Tripoli is possible.
It is hardly advisable for any country to undertake elections without the presence of a constitutional framework. In a country like Libya that emerged from a civil war which overthrew a 42-year dictatorship, a robust constitution is even more important. The Libyans could decide to go to elections in order to elect a constituent assembly, which would be in charge of drafting a constitution, more or less something similar to what happened in Tunisia. There is also another option, one that sees the adoption of the 1963 constitution with some amendments. In particular, the inclusion of a new social contract formula that establishes a mechanism for the distribution to all citizens of the revenues of oil and gas sales and one about decentralization should be included as well.
The 1963 constitution established a monarchy; this should be modified whether by appointing a well-respected personality as a president in the place of a king or adopt the mechanism established by the LPA signed in Skhirat in December 2015, which sees the establishment of a nine-member Presidential Council (PC). This could be reduced to three members to make it more functional. In fact, a step in this direction has been made by the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and the High State Council (HSC) in Tripoli.
For the interim period it is also important to have a central government mostly formed by technocrats who would undertake the responsibility of establishing a minimum degree of security in the country as well as undertaking the economic reforms necessary to start the Libyan economy. In this field, it would be important that the interim constitution foresees that the main central institutions—the National Oil Corporation, the Central Bank of Libya, and the Libyan Investment Agency—remain under the control of the central government. These institutions in fact constitute the backbone of the Libyan state and are the few pillars keeping Libya afloat right now. Only after these minimum requirements are established, the country could be directed to hold elections.
Elections are a necessary point of arrival in the process of stabilization that passes through the National Conference and the work of a central government to bring some order and security to the country. Therefore, the question is not whether to hold elections but when.
A key question is how to achieve legitimacy for this new approach. The preferred option among the Libyan political class for ratifying the interim Constitution is the National Conference. The HoR and HSC could be an alternative body through which to fulfill this referendum, as both would have a future under (and therefore stake in) the interim framework, because the old constitution foresees a Senate and an HoR. They could continue as an interim parliament until a round of elections would replace the body. The members of the new PC should be selected by the HoR and the HSC in consensus. The prime minister of the new government and its ministers will be appointed by the Head of State, in accordance with the interim Constitution as explained above (see Art. 72 of the 1963 constitution).
Such an approach is a true Libyan solution. It is based on numerous discussions with many Libyans from all parts of the country and an unbiased analysis of what is realistically possible. It is a solution that passes from the holding of a National Conference, where big decisions are taken by the Libyan representatives, through the works of a Libyan government and local authorities culminating in elections based on an interim constitution approved by Libyans.
Time is a major concern. The situation of the local population is worsening; discontent is growing. Differences between factions are deepening, while terrorists are gaining ground in the south. There is a good possibility of a breakup of the country into several parts and a major civil war. But it seems to be that the strong man in the East, Marshall Haftar also has an interest to deliver a real Libya-Libya solution. There is a good chance, that the National Conference could become a turning point in Libya’s history.
This Policy Brief is a joint publication by the Atlantic Council and ISPI
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)