What peace for Libya?
The fall of the Gaddafi regime created a scenario where it seemed possible to put relations between Europe and Libya on a new footing. We can set the scene here by going back to UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of 2011 (UNSC 2011b): we saw that this was the legal basis for the intervention in Libya, and we also saw that this document invoked the R2P doctrine, claiming that it was justified to intervene on the basis of a responsibility protect the civilian population. And yet, as has been commented, at no time after the fall of the regime did the international community invoke a “responsibility to rebuild” a country that had fallen into disarray (Costantini 2018, 228).
Behind this retreat from the scene in the wake of the intervention were two lines of reasoning: on the one hand it was thought that Libya could manage a political and economic transition on its own; at the same time, there was scepticism about embarking on such projects, considering the failed attempts that had recently been made in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The idea was to stabilize the country by facilitating a process internal to it, to this end relying on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). But it proved impossible to achieve this aim in the face of the divisions by which the country was plagued. The first parliament elected after the fall of the Gaddafi regime was the General National Council, which proved incapable of putting together a unitary political and institutional framework. This was because of the fragmentation of the Libyan society—which, as we saw, was parcelled into tribes and families—and because of the form of government that had been set up by Gaddafi, a form based on the idea of a “government of the masses” (Jamahlriyya) (ibid., 223), under which all efforts to achieve a stable set of institutions had stalled. In 2012 new elections were held that led to the establishment of a House of Representatives, but this was done against the opposition of the General National Council, which held itself up as the country’s only legitimate legislative body.
The UN’s subsequent support mission opened negotiations that led to what is known as the Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Shkirat, Morocco, in December 2015. Under this agreement, a Presidential Council was established, and then a Government of National Accord was formed, based in Tripoli and headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (UN 2015). But what this setup gave rise to was a bipolar political situation, with one locus of power in Tripolitania, where the Presidential Council was located, and another in Tobruk, Cyrenaica, where the House of Representatives was based, under the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar.
“The prevalence of militias in Libya undermined the authority of the central government and worsened security to unprecedented levels, thereby causing conditions conducive to the emergence of new militias” (Fraihat 2016, 30), which “functioned like a state within a state” (ibid.). In May 2014,
Khalifa Haftar, a former general who returned to Libya during the uprising to fight against Qaddafi and ultimately became a militia commander [commander-in-chief of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army], launched what he called Operation Dignity, a campaign to eliminate all Islamist and pro-Islamist militias in Libya. Based in the Eastern part of the country, Haftar’s forces started to attack both February 17 revolutionaries [of the Libya Revolt of 2011] who fought against Qaddafi and Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafi jihadi militia based in Benghazi. These groups and others formed an alliance called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. In Western Libya, including Tripoli, Haftar allied with the powerful Zentan militia, which played a prominent role in the fight against the Qaddafi regime but is more tribal than ideological. Another anti-Haftar alliance, Libya Dawn (Fajr Libya), emerged in response, composed of the powerful Misrata militia, Islamist factions called the Libya Revolutionary Operations Room and Libya Shield Force, and tribal militias such as the Zawyan and Sibratan. [...] the outcome of all these developments is that Libya is facing a brutal, two-front civil war [...]. (Ibid., 31)
General Haftar’s campaign has defined the intra-revolutionaries’ civil war as a struggle between Islamists and non-Islamists. This characterization has not only inflamed domestic tensions along those lines but has also encouraged regional actors to intervene. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have gone so far as to conduct air strikes” [in support of Haftar’s forces, which subsequently also gained the support of Russia], while Libya Dawn is reportedly receiving support from Turkey and Qatar. This regional dimension only adds to the complexity of the transition process and makes Libya’s crises particularly difficult to solve. (Ibid., 32-33)
It is very unlikely that Libya’s civil war will end in a definitive military victory for either side in the foreseeable future. This only increased the importance of Libya’s pursuing a national dialogue sooner rather than later. Its civil war needs a negotiated agreement in which all parties take part. (Ibid., 33)