The contest over who gets to decide Libya’s transition has long been fought on two levels, the domestic and international ones. While Libyan politicians and personalities have been known to deftly play international actors to advance their goals, international influence over Libya has swelled to such an extent that foreign states can now choose to keep Libya at peace, or plunge it into war, and are dealing to decide Libyan elections. Libya’s future depends as much on the kindness of strangers, as it does on Libyans remembering the virtues of sovereignty.
International intervention has been a key ingredient of Libya’s revolution since the start. While most fixate on the decisive US, UK, and French led NATO intervention in support of Libya’s rebels, countries from China to Qatar, and Presidents from Chavez to Zuma also scrambled to secure their own interests. In the end, it was the Arab gulf states who proved most impactful. By 2014, they had fuelled Libya’s descent into civil war. However, in a demonstration of the limits of outside poweroin Libya, they could not build over what they had destroyed. Libya stagnated for years, as it transitioned from the anarchy of revolution to the politics of proxy. But the unflinching absolutism of all involved meant this transition could only ever end in one way. Marshal Haftar received his marching orders in Riyadh, and assaulted Libya’s capital to stop a UN process in its tracks.
It was a penny-drop moment for a UN mission that realised the futility of trying to build peace amongst Libyans whilst the countries who armed and emboldened these delegates remained at war. Therefore, they changed tack, and then UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé convinced a multilateralist Merkel to try and submerge the foreign machines driving Libya’s war with a flood of diplomacy.
The result was good enough.
While the “war” started in Riyadh, eventual desperation from Haftar’s Arab backers drove them to a Faustian pact with Moscow to trade their ground assets for competent operatives, only for the war to end in Ankara’s favour. The Mexican standoff that ensued meant Berlin’s process became the only way out of interminably worsening war.
However, the process failed to progress further and to capitalise on an opportunity to reach a settlement, just as it once did with de-escalation. Building in Libya from the outside proved just as difficult for the anointed peacemakers as it was for the callous opportunists. Therefore, Libya’s zero-sum game could only reset, much to the chagrin of Libyans desperate for progress and the enthusiasm of everyone else involved who still pursued delusions of domination over Libya’s wealthy expanses.
As such, this past year, the catalogue of outside actors in Libya have again manufactured proxies and driven them to degrade yet another UN process in the dense delusion of engineering a fait accompli, or at the very least maintaining a status quo that keeps them profitable at the expense of Libyans.
Nonetheless, this renewal of old tactics and even older faces plays out against an evolved geopolitical backdrop which suggests a future that can at least be different. The countries who once settled their differences by staining Libyan sand are currently enjoying a rapprochement. Whilst all involved continue manoeuvring behind the smiles and the summits, if the regional competition morphs into something less divisive and antagonistic, it could drain a powerful destructive force from Libya. The caveat in that coup is the doubtfulness that a new alliance of autocrats will facilitate the democratic desires of a country in their midst. Especially considering that the one thing that has long united these carnivorous countries is the belief that Libya is up for grabs.
However, just as the coalition for chaos has evolved, so too has the multilateral miracle which played on Libya’s stage. As the UN path to elections contorted, the Berlin group convened once more. While there was undoubtedly less clarity out of the second Berlin conference, and less unity from its Parisian follow up, another minor miracle did occur. As the nations of the world settled in Paris, they did so under a Libyan co-chair, just weeks after Tripoli bucked a trend by hosting an international conference rather than being subjected to one.
While these events should not be overstated, the opportunity they represent should not be understated. Libya’s transition may be more circular than linear, but perhaps it’s because Libyan leadership were never protagonists in it, but instead only played hatchet men, bag men, signatories, and other support acts. Whether the motivation was to stabilise or subordinate, external policies all failed at the moment they stop becoming about blocking or destroying and needed to build.
At this stage in Libya’s transition, two scenarios are emerging. A continuation of the zero-sum proxy conflict, presenting a familiar cycle of political obstructionism, extractive economics, and grinding military stalemates that will continue degrading Libya’s institutions, quality of life, and social fabric.
The other possibility is a de-legitimised Libyan leadership emerging from disputed elections, but which must live under domestic and international spotlights and forge its own legitimacy. If Libya’s leaders are given the responsibility to be sovereign, with all the pressures and punitive threats that accompanies sovereignty on the international stage then perhaps they will be forced into doing something different. The need to appease an amalgam of international actors demanding everything from legal partners on migration to security sector influence, governance reform, and economic windfalls will force Libyan actors to plot precarious paths to progress even if they never manage to traverse them. Having to cohere and co-chair the continuing international circus around Libya to demonstrate that progress, answer difficult questions, and secure very different allies to help surmount very different crises is again the type of pressure that can turn coal into diamonds. Of course, these illegitimate authorities are just as likely to wilt, continue bickering amongst themselves on the international stage, and stall domestically to instead fight for larger slices of an ever-shrinking pie; thus justifying the infantilising treatment Libya’s elite have received for so long. But, even then, at least something different will have been tried for a change.