Libya is walking a tight rope. Dozens of stakeholders jockey for power and opportunists spoil political progress, making for an uncertain trajectory in the conflict. The fourth United Nations Special Envoy Ghassan Salamè is dwindling in popularity but could make a lasting impact if any of his initiatives are realized. The main obstacles in solving Libya’s conflict, however, lay mostly outside its borders.
The intimate involvement of regional and Western powers has been the signature of Libya's problems since 2011. Egypt's propping up of General Khalifa Haftar as the strongman in eastern Libya has been particularly far-reaching. A former Qaddhafi-regime general, Haftar rose to prominence in his 2014 military campaign to free the country of "terrorists". Thanks to Egyptian air support and weapons, in violation of the UN arms embargo, Haftar's coalition of forces conquered the eastern half of Libya, declaring victory in the city of Benghazi in summer 2017.
Haftar has been a main stumbling block in any political reconciliation or army reunification in Libya. He has refused to participate in negotiations, rejected the UN-backed government in Tripoli, and instead pledged to take over the entirety of Libya militarily. Egypt's need of a counterterrorism partner along its long, penetrable western border has so far guided its policy in Libya to favor Haftar over a UN government. Haftar has failed to deliver on this promise, which has weakened the Egyptian government's posture in regard to the Libyan conflict. Egyptian President Sisi’s dismissal of Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mahmoud Higazy and Director of Intelligence Khaled Fawzi marked a shift in internal dynamics in Egypt, which also may affect its approach to the stalled Libyan conflict. Because Egypt would still like to see a stabilization of all of Libya, it has warmed to the signing of an agreement between Haftar and the western Libyan government.
Haftar’s brief, unexplained absence in mid-April served as a wake-up call to both domestic actors and international observers. Upon unverified news that the eastern strongman was gravely ill or even dead, the sensitive task of finding a successor to Haftar was suddenly imminent and unavoidable. Moreover, the de facto problem-solver for the decapitated army was not the army itself but Egypt, an international player. The reality that a foreign actor has more authority in endowing the east with a new leader than any domestic actor is yet another indicator of the weakness of Libyan players in their own conflict and the uniqueness of the situation.
Currently, the UN Envoy Salamè is focusing on the organization of a National Conference to provide a moral basis and universal understanding from which to launch into elections, reconstruction and a reformation of the Libyan state. However, the details of such a conference remain undisclosed, leaving most people unsure whether to endorse or oppose it. The greatest success would come from a meeting or series of meetings in which the population agreed on a new economic and political system to stabilize the country. What should also be disclosed beforehand is the relationship between the conference and the holding of elections. If the UN and Libyan actors agreed on said parameters, a conference would be integral to the future of Libya.
Many factors prevent this ambition from being realized. The Libyan population has become apathetic to participating in politics in the aftermath of years of failed transitions and continual negotiation for their safety. Additionally, rampant corruption and criminal activities make it difficult to organize a National Conference. Too many people in high and low ranks have a vested interest in the status quo. Corruption is spreading to all sectors of society and undermining the trust of new institutions as well as old ones. Militias on the ground use their power to steal, smuggle, and exploit, therefore consolidating wealth and influence, even over the government. Government seat holders in the east and the west enjoy their power and salaries and therefore do not want to risk their positions.
The population is largely apathetic, and militias and politicians do not want to sacrifice wealth and power that they have gained in a country with few enforceable rules. Although many agree the best thing for the Libyan people would be to hold a National Conference, actors on many sides have little impetus to participate in a conference. Therefore, the unfortunate reality in the Libyan conflict and political gridlock points to a nonexistent conference at worst and an insufficient one at best.
Initiatives at the local level have been the main source of hope for Libya's stability. The surprising reconciliation between government and military officials from two classic rivals, Misrata and Zintan, last month is case in point. The two cities agreed to avoid violence as a solution and to stress civilian power. Another historic success was the gathering of over 90 mayors and local leaders in December 2017. The leaders from almost all municipalities in Libya as well as local councils discussed tackling universal problems in the country such as the delivery of services, declining living conditions, and internally displaced persons. The participants emphasized that the meeting demonstrates their ability and willingness to work together.
In the coastal city of Zuwarah, local councils and committees came together to bring justice to a group of human smugglers after an accident killed 250 irregular migrants in 2015. The joint tribunal tried the smugglers and since then has enforced strict human trafficking rules, demonstrating a successful consolidation of legitimate, local power. The success of this bottom-up approach is serving as the last hope of Libya but what to do with it on a wider scale remains elusive. If such a mechanism can be leveraged to improve border control, security of the population, economic opportunity, and lay the foundations for state rebuilding, Libya would be hailed as a success case for decentralization.
The progress at the local level has given experts a renewed hope for the future of the North African state. Whether Libyans will capitalize on the progress is not entirely up to them; rather, foreign entities must agree on a united strategy, and, in the case of the US, adopt one.. The alternative is a Somalia-like Libya, this time at Europe's doorstep.