This latest crisis in Libya – eastern military leader Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on the capital Tripoli – has been met with surprise and consternation by much of the world. However, he has repeatedly declared his intention to conquer Tripoli militarily, and is now able to try thanks to years of enablement by international powers, including Russia, the gulf monarchies and a number of European leaders.
Haftar is head of the self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA), one of several armed factions vying for control in the country. It is rivalled by the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) – a unity government formed under the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, and supported by the east-based House of Representatives, which refuses to recognise the GNA. But this wasn’t inevitable – it happened as a result of the international community’s decade-long complacency and failure to chart a course out of tyranny for a promising newly-freed country.
Refugee Management Over Democracy
“I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up”. This remark from Obama in 2016 summarised the complacency of the world’s powers, who had moved on too early and failed to follow through. After toppling Gaddafi in a successful NATO intervention in 2011, preventing mass bloodshed and a Syria scenario from transpiring, European leaders moved on to deal with the next crisis, leaving the country to manage the messy political struggle – and civil war which ensued – alone. A 42-year dictatorship left behind no institutions capable of managing a transition, and whilst a hatred of Gaddafi united revolutionaries in 2011, this wasn’t enough to build infrastructure for transition.
By the time Europe’s migrant crisis began in 2015, Libya’s transition had already faltered. Its lack of stability made it an important hub on migration and people-trafficking routes. The Italian government began directly paying militias to capture and warehouse migrants, which undercut the struggling legitimate institutions and fuelled conflict. EU policies then began to incentivise militias to capture refugees regardless of conditions or treatment, creating a humanitarian crisis. When the Islamic State group (IS) established a stronghold in Sirte in 2016, western powers helped drive them out again, but this didn’t prompt a reevaluation of the structural conditions and how to resolve them. Short-term concerns about migration and counter-terrorism had taken priority over liberal values.
A Friendly Neighbourhood Strongman
With democracy forgotten, western leaders fell back on the traditional strategy of finding a local outsourcing partner for security and counter-terrorism needs – a “strongman”. When Haftar, a former Gaddafi military officer, announced his “Operation Dignity” to fight Islamists and extremists in 2014, he fit the bill perfectly. By late 2017, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he supported what he considered to be Haftar’s fight against terrorism after paying him a visit in Benghazi, and shortly afterwards, the warlord was received in Rome with open arms by Italian officials.
Repeated indulgence is a dangerous thing. Haftar’s invasion of the capital commenced just three weeks after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian hailed “significant progress” by his campaign in southern Libya, as he worked his way towards Tripoli. French support for Haftar has extended far beyond his alleged fight against ‘terrorism’ in the east of the country, and has remained unwavering despite allegations against him, and his self-declared army, of war crimes.
Haftar has found staunch backers among Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Russia, who have provided him with money, arms and equipment. He also increasingly found support among European states, like France and Italy, who have deployed special forces and advisers to support him for years. Their political bolstering of Haftar has no doubt played a massive part in fuelling his confidence to make even riskier decisions – such as to attack Tripoli last week.
The fact that this attack began during the visit of the UN Secretary General and a week ahead of a new round of UN talks is brazen, demonstrating how little he fears international approbation. This is only vindicated by his experience – after the beginning of the attack, a UN statement meekly called on both sides to exercise restraint, as France and Russia blocked a UN statement specifically naming the LNA.
Bad Process Will Not Yield Good Results
For the last few years, an increasingly elite-driven stabilisation process has been conducted under the supervision of the UN in gatherings outside the country. It has prioritised bilateral power-sharing agreements between major actors without regard for popular opinion – a shameful imposition on a country which battled for democracy in 2011. It also encourages spoilers and incentivises military power as a way to leverage negotiations.
Ordinary Libyans whose overwhelming concerns are security, the provision of services (water and electricity are still absent for hours at a time in many major cities) and access to money in an economy suffering a liquidity crisis, are unrepresented in these processes. They watch negotiations proceed between a political elite “taking over the wealth, investing it overseas, and engaging in money laundering” by the admission of the UN’s own envoy.
Neither the GNA – widely derided by Libyans as corrupt and incompetent, and reliant on militias to extend its limited power – nor the LNA – which has indiscriminately shelled civilian populations and sheltered officers wanted by the ICC for war crimes – were ever elected by the Libyan people.
It is time for the world to fundamentally reevaluate their approach to Libya’s chronic instability. War will not resolve anything, and nor will clichés about necessary strongmen to combat Islamism. Long term, only inclusive institutions will build a prosperous and peaceful country which is a stable partner and an aspiration for the region rather than a powder keg.
Firstly, international powers must prevent the conflict from escalating. This means cutting off the supply of arms, and censuring and sanctioning states who continue to flout and abuse the long-standing UN arms embargo, which has been poorly-policed. Secondly the UN transition process will fail unless it becomes more inclusive, by incorporating a wide array of representative and civil society groups. Libyans with military power should not be the only people at the table; their incentives do not align with wider society, and any agreement they make would be unlikely to be be well-received. And finally, whilst the current security situation does not allow for immediate free elections, building the prerequisites for democracy must be an absolute priority – that means security and freedom of speech foremost.
It’s not too late to avert all-out war in Libya, though it creeps closer every day Haftar’s offensive continues. Any precedent for impunity could sink the country’s future, but a representative system which engages the population would fulfil the demands of the 2011 revolution, and bring closure after decades of chaos.
Nadine Dahan is a journalist focussed on Libya, human rights and peacebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ahmed Gatnash is the Editor of the Arab Tyrant Manual, co-founder of Kawaakibi Foundation and author of upcoming The Vicious Triangle: Terrorists, Tyrants and the West.