Opening new horizons for Libya

Khaled Okasha
Thursday 5 Sep 2019

Egypt’s recently tabled initiative on Libya, aiming to disassemble the structures of strife and conflict, is a mature proposal around which all concerned parties should coalesce

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry recently launched a political initiative for Libya that aims to open new horizons for dismantling the structures of strife and conflict in order to steer the country to stability and peace.

In so doing, Egypt proceeded from the premise that the situation in Libya has reached a stage of severe fatigue, auguring a regression in the partial successes that have been achieved on the ground.

A set of innovative ideas and concepts is needed to preserve these gains and then to build on them and to learn the lessons to be derived from the many challenges that have arisen over recent years. In proposing this new initiative, Egypt remains consistent with the motives, visions and assessments that seek, above all, to serve the interests and welfare of the Libyan nation and all Libyan people.

The most important Libyan gain, which is crucial to a political roadmap for Libya (should the new Egyptian initiative be considered such), is the success of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in defeating and eliminating terrorism in most parts of Libya.

This achievement is truly of historic magnitude, even if some Libyans express reservations towards the military force that launched Operation Dignity in 2014 at a time when the fate of Libyan cities and large portions of the country were in grave jeopardy.

Eastern and southern Libya were probably the areas of the country that were most infiltrated and targeted by terrorist organisations with their various Al-Qaeda and Islamic State group affiliations, but other parts of the country were also at risk.

This applies in particular to the northern central part of the country that experienced several attempts on the part of terrorist organisations to establish footholds, some of which had managed to take root for brief periods before being driven out by the LNA or by armed units from western Libya, as occurred in Sirte.

Persistent attempts on the part of transnational terrorist organisations to incorporate Libya into their sphere of global terrorist activities asserted such an intense pressure on the state as to make it impossible to speak of a political process before alleviating that pressure and taking precautions against its resurgence in the future.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a central outcome of the meetings held in Cairo with a majority of the members of the popularly elected and internationally recognised Libyan parliament was that any approach to resolving the Libyan crisis must build on the gains accomplished by the LNA and work to reunify the Libyan military establishment and build the institutions of a modern state.

Towards this end, illegal militias must be dismantled and disarmed and those that most closely approximate the organisation and creed of a standing army should be incorporated into the ranks of the national military and police establishments.

These important points are integral to a rational approach to achieving genuine stability. This is why they figure so prominently in the Egyptian initiative which, for the first time, explicitly underscores the need to solicit the assistance of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to oversee the implementation of this process.

But this simultaneously means that the western, Tripoli-based contingent and its circles, must assume a different attitude towards the current situation, one that departs significantly from the outlook that has governed their behaviour for many years.

We refer to their complete and unmitigated hostility towards the LNA despite the many and important roles and functions the army must inevitably shoulder in the future, with regional and international blessing.

It should be borne in mind here that regional and international stakeholders have never taken issue with the LNA’s stated “mission” of purging the capital and its environs of illegal militias.

Nor can anyone reasonably oppose this mission which aims to establish security, the lack of which would jeopardise the sovereignty of any state and which, in all events, is the crux of the Libyan crisis.

From this perspective, the fact that the initiative includes UNSMIL in certain specified roles and capacities, in order to capitalise on the UN’s resources and the accumulated experience of the UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame, adds a very positive dimension to the initiative which merits serious attention on the part of decision-makers in Tripoli and Misrata.

The leaders of Libya’s major cities must shoulder the historic responsibility, not to mention the responsibility of the safety of Libyan civilians, which is constantly in jeopardy, of bringing an end to the unruliness of the militias, their spurious and sometimes compulsory alliances with terrorist organisations, and their activities with other unlawful entities.

The very fact that there is such an important responsibility to be shouldered should compel all parties in a position to influence and pressure Tripoli and Misrata to impress upon them that their tactical focus on the battle for Tripoli, as though this were an endgame or a threshold they need to surpass at any cost, is very short-sighted. It will only complicate the Libyan security crisis further and drag it back to square one.

We see the scenario in play in Murzuq. Although Tripoli succeeded in carrying out an operation to divert the attention of the LNA and obstruct its advance to the capital, the planners of that operation had to rely, once again, on Chadian opposition militias which have joined other mercenary forces under the command of Hassan Moussa beneath the banner of the so-called “Southern Protection Force”.

The result is that this force launched a surprise bombardment and artillery attack on the southern city of Murzuq, claiming at least 90 dead and 200 wounded, not to mention massive destruction of property and the displacement of thousands of civilians.

The tragedy was all the more poignant given that the planners’ sole motive was to confound the LNA and facilitate the recruitment of Al-Qaeda operatives into the ranks of forces that claim to fight for the sake of the Libyan nation.

Returning to the substance of the Egyptian initiative for Libya, the initiative focuses on five main points. The first is the equitable regional distribution of resources so as to realise true equality in government spending and the allocation of resources backed by appropriate mechanisms to ensure transparency in need assessments and budgeting processes.

The second is the unification of government institutions to which the initiative accords the highest priority as the bulwark for the implementation of future measures.

The bifurcation of the executive and other institutions of government puts paid, in advance, to all plans to build and develop the state as it both generates and aggravates conflicts and disputes.

The dissolution of the illegal militias and the fight against terrorism is the third focus of the initiative which espouses the need for a security concept that should be formulated in legal terms and recognised by all Libyan stakeholders.

Such a concept must explicitly define who is designated by the term “terrorist” or who, precisely, is engaged in this criminal activity. Naturally, this is an extremely complicated process and the fact that the initiative solicits the assistance of UNSMIL in this effort is an indication of the realism that can serve to promote positive and constructive progress.

The fourth point concerns the halt of foreign interventions in Libyan affairs. In a crisis of such complexity and intensity, outside interventions generally aggravate tensions because of the foreign parties’ determination to further their own interests by backing their Libyan allies to the detriment of rivals in the equations of power and influence in the country.

The fifth and last point advances the Libyan House of Representatives as a crucial cornerstone of a solution. This popularly elected parliament should be regarded and relied on as the sole legislative authority, as it still exercises its duties and enjoys regional and international recognition.

Perhaps more importantly, it has an asset that is probably lacking among other local players, which is that it represents all regional and tribal components of Libyan society, not to mention diverse political affiliations and occupational backgrounds.

The decision on the part of the architects of the Egyptian initiative to optimise the role of the House of Representatives as an authority and a representative body was probably inspired by the meetings that were held in Cairo earlier and that profiled that institution’s advantages which can be built on precisely because of the plurality and diversity it embodies.

As for the inclusion of the UN, as represented by UNSMIL, as an active and effective partner and an authority in certain functions, this should serve to diffuse the fears on the part of this or that party that this initiative is intended to enable a particular side to monopolise the formulation of solutions or roadmaps.

The UN mission, especially in light of its indefatigable efforts to create a healthy and constructive climate, should be acceptable as a guarantee to all parties that this body and the UN envoy will contribute effectively towards the realisation of the objectives of the Egyptian initiative and, hence, the welfare of the Libyan people and their country.

After Egypt proposed the initiative, it encountered a number of challenges and difficulties, which was perhaps only to be expected. The foremost stumbling block, which needs to be addressed in order to generate the climate of mutual trust that is necessary to shaping a new phase, was the tendency on the part of the political forces in western Libya to reject out of hand an initiative from Egypt which they regard as “a party to the conflict” or, at the very least, that its initiative is a form of “outside intervention”.

Such impressions fly in the face of the facts and urgently need to be remedied because they are counterproductive. Egypt has never involved itself in any of the twists and turns of Libya’s domestic conflict since it erupted in 2012, or acted in any manner that might be viewed as remotely detrimental to Libyan interests.

When, at certain points, the situation in Libya turned in directions that Cairo disapproved of in one way or another, it refrained from siding with one side or the other in the hope that this neutrality could help reduce tensions. Both these principles — neutrality and promoting peace — have always been central to the Egyptian outlook, which is consistent with Libyan interests.

However, it is no secret — contrary to the impression that the parties in western Libya have tried to create — that Egypt has furnished political, moral and international support for the LNA in its war against terrorism.

This involvement is not only legitimate due to the direct and immediate threat that terrorism from Libya poses to Egypt, but also because it serves Libyan interests.

Cairo believes that everyone who truly seeks the welfare of Libya and the Libyan people should support the LNA in its campaign to defeat terrorism, despite the restrictions imposed by UN resolutions that prevent the LNA from acquiring the arms needed for such a complex and fierce battle.

In this framework, Egypt exerted additional political and technical efforts towards the unification of the Libyan military establishment in the hope of facilitating the incorporation of officers from the west into the general structure and system of the Libyan army.

Unfortunately, the acute polarisation in Libya has deferred effective efforts towards this end, and more so since the beginning of the battle for Tripoli.

This brings us to the second major stumbling block: the Skhirat accord signed by Libyan factions in December 2015. Many Libyan parties, including the House of Representatives, believe that this agreement is long past its sell-by-date and, moreover, that it laid the foundations for the current intractable rift in the country by politically empowering entities that had no effective or legitimate standing on the ground, and by entrenching the bifurcation of authorities which hampered efforts to produce real solutions to Libya’s problems.

The Skhirat frame-of-reference needs to be thoroughly overhauled in a manner that serves reunification and, thereby, makes a difference in the handling of the current challenges in Libya.

The third challenge, which is directly related to the problem of the monopolisation of the decision-making processes as concerns the Libyan crisis, is to be found in the regional and international silence that greeted the Egyptian initiative, despite the general consensus domestically and externally over most of its substance.

This unspoken dispute over who is at the steering wheel of such a complex crisis that should compel all genuinely concerned parties to work together. But this problem is a complicated subject that is best left to another article.

*The writer is the General Manager of the Egyptian Center for Straregic Studies. 

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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