Early this month, Mohamed Al-Dairi, Libya’s minister of foreign affairs, gave what could be best described as an “emotional speech” in an urgent meeting on Libya at the Arab League. “We urge you to intervene” was the main message that Al-Dairi tried to send in his speech.
No doubt that the growing threat of Islamic State (IS) in Libya is alarming, not only to Libyan domestic affairs, but also to regional and even international security. In addition, the inefficient military capabilities of the Libyan army are indeed insufficient to orchestrate an attack on a highly lucid, evasive and unconventional security threat like the one IS poses in Libya. But should the necessity to act and the widespread fear of an IS hub in North Africa make us blind to thoroughly considering the consequences of intervention in Libya, whether solely Arab or under the banner of an international coalition?
The current scenario is very much similar to the one that took place back in 2011 prior to NATO’s intervention in Libya. The international community at that time, mainly the United States and Western Europe, saw that Gaddafi was a threat to their interests in Libya. Libya’s vast oil reserves and its proximity to southwest Europe were factors that made the international community more than willing to intervene militarily and end Gaddafi’s 42-year reign and his threat to these interests in the course of his attempts to suppress the Libyan revolution that broke out in February 2011.
Humanitarian and democracy-related aspects were present as well, but the track record of international intervention in the Arab world in general, and in Arab Spring countries specifically, demonstrates that these aspects were not as highly prioritised as tangible political and economic interests. However, what is important to notice is the fact that the international community did not act until an umbrella of Arab legitimacy was provided through the Arab League.
Although NATO’s intervention in Libya back in 2011 was necessary and decisive in limiting the capabilities of Gaddafi’s forces and empowering the Libyan revolution, it had absolutely no concept of an exit strategy. Unfortunately, the negative consequences of NATO’s intervention in Libya are still shaping the political outcomes of the Libyan revolution today.
Therefore, if a new military intervention is due in Libya, then the least that should be done is to avoid making the same mistakes again, especially that the situation in Libya today is a lot more complicated than it was back in 2011. Considering intervention in Libya as a strict anti-IS measure while ignoring the effects such intervention would have on the political contention that exists between Tobrok and Tripoli would be an extremely destructive step to take.
Any kind of foreign military intervention in Libya, whether Arab or otherwise, or a mere expansion in the military capacities and capabilities of one of the two sides, will inevitably reflect on the political conflict. And the possibilities of such intervention being used to give superiority to one side over the other are quite high. In such a case, the process of political dialogue will be clinically dead and the existing political conflict will simply take another form rather than being consensually resolved.
Moreover, the recently resurrected notion of the Joint Arab Force is actually a lot more problematic than it appears to be. Despite the fact that the notion dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, and how its resurrection is being celebrated within a context characterised primarily by nostalgia, the current state of affairs in the Arab world and the interactions between different Arab states are not built on national issues, but on mutual interests.
During Nasser’s era, with all its negativities, there was an overarching post-colonial and anti-imperialist context that engulfed the different interactions between Arab states. Yet such a context was not enough to efficiently activate the notion. Today, this context does not exist, and what is present instead is a set of narrow interests that are differently situated and independently adjusted according to each case. Narrow interests do not yield joint national projects; they only produce political alliances built exclusively on momentary common interests. Therefore, what might be publicised as an Arab nationalist and humanitarian action in Libya will indeed be built on the political interests of participant states, and hence will inevitably deepen the intensity of the already acute political conflict in Libya.
So the point is not to undermine a threat that indeed exists and needs to be addressed; the point is to contemplate the course of action that will be best suited to face such a threat and at the same time contextualise this course of action within Libya’s broader picture of political conflict.
The question that needs to be asked is not what kind of military intervention will be suitable in Libya to face the IS threat. The question that needs to be asked is how can this growing threat be employed within the framework of the Libyan political dialogue to yield an effective agreement between the conflicting parties, and what sort of tools will that agreement require in order for it to be empowered and efficiently activated?
The situation in Libya today is alarming to the regional security of the Middle East and North Africa, and should the political conflict continue, the IS threat would only be amplified with time. But foreign intervention in Libya needs to be envisioned according to a long term strategy that targets the future stability of Libya, rather than a reactionary course of action that intends to merely address a momentary threat.
The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.