Libya's dialogue misses the main point

Ziad A Akl
Wednesday 6 May 2015

Could a political agreement between competing authorities in Tobruk and Tripoli stop violent confrontations between Libya's myriad militias when neither side is fully sovereign over its own bloc?

A new round of Libyan political dialogue was concluded in Skhirat, Morocco last month. Once again, Bernardino León, the special representative of the UN secretary-general for Libya, stated that things are going well and that a draft agreement was reached and that 80 percent of its points met with consensus from both sides of the dialogue.

Unfortunately for León, the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli stated that this draft will not be endorsed and that it has lots of political bias and ignores many just causes that should not be ignored. At the same time, further divisions emerged inside the Tobruk parliament about the content of the agreement and the effectiveness of the dialogue as a whole.

While all this was taking place, violent military confrontations between the two main parties and other less significant members of the Libyan political landscape did not stop. It seems that it is about time to rethink the whole process one more time.

The UN envoy has indeed demonstrated solid willingness in his thorough efforts to reach political compromises between the two main entities in Libya, the parliament in Tobruk and the GNC in Tripoli. But it is about time that someone pointed out to Leon that he is dealing with one of the symptoms of the problem rather than the actual root cause of the crisis.

The work of the UN mission in Libya has so far focused on building political consensus between competing entities in Tobruk and Tripoli through political dialogue in Ghadames, Geneva and finally Skhirat. In other words, the UN believes that the problem is in the state of divided sovereignty that started to materialise in Libya after the constitutional court ruled to dissolve the parliament in Tobruk. As a result, the GNC in Tripoli was resurrected.

However, what the UN does not seem to understand is that even if all these efforts work, and somehow a political consensus is reached between the two entities, and one united cohesive government is formed one way or another, it will still be incapable of becoming a sovereign authority in Libya’s fragmented political context. The problem in Libya is not a disagreement between Tobruk in the east and Tripoli in the west; the problem is that neither one of the two entities is capable of practicing sovereignty over their own bloc. Neither has a monopoly of force, either in the east or in the west, and none of them is capable of devising a structure to disarm or assimilate the militias that constitute the core issue in Libya.

This is not an attempt to undermine the work of the UN’s envoy in political dialogue in Libya so far. Neither is it a call to dispose of the idea of a political solution to the crisis there. It is rather a notification that these efforts have been ignoring the major problem and dealing with a far less significant one. Before you can convince the two entities to make political compromises and accept a unified government, you need to assure that this unified entity will have actual influence on the ground.

Libya requires a detailed plan of how to dismantle the state/militia mechanism of interaction that has been developed over the past four years. The Libyan economy needs to be re-empowered in order for the state to be able to digest the vast amount of militias that emerged into legitimate state institutions. And finally, Libyan society requires a period of relative security and development in order to be able to generate a post-revolutionary elite.

Without these pre-requisites, the Libyan crisis will endure, becoming more violent one day after the other. I very much doubt that a mere political agreement between Tobruk and Tripoli will offer an environment for these conditions to emerge.

The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Short link: