Libya: Ensuring a Smooth and Peaceful Transition into the Post-Qaddafi Era
Libya: Ensuring a Smooth and Peaceful Transition into the Post-Qaddafi Era
What Could Possibly Go Wrong in Libya?
What Could Possibly Go Wrong in Libya?

Libya: Ensuring a Smooth and Peaceful Transition into the Post-Qaddafi Era

As Libyans prepare for the Qaddafi regime’s imminent demise, the country faces a pivotal moment of historic proportions. Steps taken in the next few days and weeks will decisively shape the post-Qaddafi order. The new, still nascent, Libyan leadership, faces a dual, difficult legacy which it will need to overcome: four decades of an autocratic regime that failed to build genuine state institutions and six months of a civil war that, together with inevitable human and material losses, exposed old divisions and fissures while prompting new ones. The challenge for that leadership, as well as for international actors who enabled its drive into Tripoli, is threefold: to establish a broadly inclusive and representative transitional governing body; address immediate security risks; and find an appropriate balance between, on the one hand, the search for accountability and justice and, on the other, the imperative of avoiding arbitrary score-settling and revenge.

As rebel fighters stream into Tripoli, they will come upon the collapse of a quasi-state, the Jamahiriya, or so-called “state of the masses” – a somewhat jerry-built contraption created by Muammar Qaddafi that, however sincere it might have been at its revolutionary inception, became a vehicle to advance his personal and political ambitions. It is this twin challenge – replacing an autocratic regime and rebuilding a new state from the ground up – that will be so daunting for the new leadership.

Further complicating this task are the inevitable difficulties in establishing the national legitimacy of Libya’s new leaders. The Transitional National Council (TNC), created in rebel-held Benghazi in March 2011, could stake a clear claim to representing Libyans in areas free of regime control, and it has done a remarkable job in constituting basic institutions to manage civic life in those areas and attract international support. Yet the TNC never could claim to represent all Libyans, even if it broadly reflected their aspirations, for the simple reason that most Libyans, especially in the capital Tripoli, were not in a position to freely voice their opinions or participate openly in the TNC, whose membership was therefore weighted, by default, toward those in liberated zones. The TNC will now have to reflect in its membership all of Libya in its full diversity, and merge its administrative operations with those of the remaining, functioning public sector institutions.

Six months of insurgency, while ultimately successful, created, laid bare or exacerbated divisions – both within the country at large, along regional, ethnic or tribal lines and within the rebel leadership, as evidenced in the 28 July assassination, apparently at rebel hands, of rebel commander Abdel Fattah Younes. A clash of competing legitimacies – between forces based in the east and those based in the west, those who fired the first shots, those who first entered Tripoli, those who remained in Libya throughout the Qaddafi era (and, in some cases, worked for the former regime) and those who return from the diaspora – is virtually inevitable. There will be, too, tensions between secular and Islamist forces. None of this suggests that it will be impossible to create a unified government, or a single military force under civilian control, merely that much hard work will need to be done very quickly to reduce the real risk of the country slipping into chaos.

In this context, Libya’s rulers will need to urgently turn their attention to the following areas:

Political legitimacy

Libya’s new leaders, led by the TNC, should convene, at the earliest opportunity, an inaugural council meeting in Tripoli, inviting representatives from all parts of the country and all strands of society and the opposition – various rebel groups, as well as local underground resistance groups in Tripoli and elsewhere – to participate. Indeed, the TNC should strive to be fully inclusive, embracing qualified former-regime elements who were not direct perpetrators of human rights abuses, lest their exclusion create the conditions for a future insurgency of the kind that blighted post-2003 Iraq. The TNC should strive to be transparent in its actions and, along with local leaders and rebel groups, should communicate its decisions clearly, explaining its motivation for each step in a situation where people can be expected to harbour an innate distrust of authority. Particularly important to Libyans is transparency in contracts and provision of services. The expanded council should continue to make clear it is a strictly provisional body charged with managing day-to-day affairs. Its focus should be on providing law and order and ensuring proper delivery and functioning of essential services until elections can be held.

Security, law and order

How the new leaders deal with law and order will be essential in determining popular perceptions of their qualifications to run the country in the interim period. In the critical first days, the erstwhile rebel groups should fill the security vacuum left by the surrender or disappearance of the former regime’s security forces. They should stop distributing arms to the population and instead begin collecting and securing them. They should integrate whatever viable elements of the former regime’s security forces can be retained into a new structure led by commanders appointed and supervised by the interim ruling council. The disparate, mostly community-based rebel movements and their various leaders and commanders should take steps to protect and ensure the well-being of all Libyans, with special care for internally displaced people, Libyans and non-Libyans. Particular attention should be paid to protecting citizens of sub-Saharan nations who were swept up in the conflict, whether as hapless victims, paid mercenaries or misplaced migrants. There is also a risk that Libyans of Saharan or sub-Saharan African origin could be victimised by retributive or retaliatory actions. In this respect, every effort should be made to protect groups such as the Mashashia, the Twergha and other native Libyans from the country’s centre and south.

Transitional justice and reconciliation

One of the most glaring omissions of Iraq’s transition from tyranny was the new rulers’ failure to establish a mechanism to hold to account those who committed major crimes, while allowing others to clear their record or obtain pardon on condition they provided full disclosure of their participation in the regime. Instead, de-Baathification became a political instrument of disenfranchisement and retribution. This explains Iraqis’ enduring inability to reach a degree of closure about the past and accounts for the continuing impetus toward insurgency.

Libyans should not be led down this destructive track of politicised score-settling and witch-hunts. One of the interim ruling council’s immediate tasks should be to urge fighters under its command and the population at large to foreswear any reprisal against former-regime elements, including members of the Qadhafi family, who should be treated in accordance with principles of international law. Those suspected of crimes should be detained and brought to justice before proper judicial institutions. The council also should establish a special commission, comprising independent Libyan figures of impeccable qualifications and reputation, charged with processing persons accused of crimes with a view to integrating most back into society while handing the worst offenders, including Qadhafi’s inner circle, over to the courts (and those indicted by the International Criminal Court to the ICC in The Hague).

All of these priorities – whether calling together a truly representative interim council; ensuring law and order along with efficient weapons collection; or putting in train transparent justice mechanisms – will require clear, consistent messaging on the part of the emerging leadership. In fluid situations such as prevail now in Libya, the risk of misinformation – and consequent panic – is acute. Emphasis must be placed, from the start, on effective communication. In this respect, initial statements emanating from the TNC leadership to the effect that all Libyans should show self-restraint, respect the rule of law, avoid street justice and accord due process to figures from the Qaddafi regime are to be welcomed – and put into effect.

Members of the international community should match their military campaign with a new and commensurate political, diplomatic and reconstruction/development-focused effort. In this context, the UN should be given a central role in the transition process. In providing assistance to Libya, however, international actors they should steer clear of any overbearing tendency to dictate terms for international aid, instead working jointly through the UN to deliver assistance requested by the interim ruling council and eventually its elected successors. In the short term, there is the risk of a humanitarian crisis, and – in addition to the lifting of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council -- significant international work should go into helping provide sustenance and shelter to those in need.

As the struggle to bring an end to the Qadhafi regime comes to a close, the effort to build a new Libya whose government is representative, which meets the basic aspirations of its people and avoids the settling of past scores begins. Amid today’s understandable euphoria, the magnitude of tomorrow’s challenge ought not be underestimated.

REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
A man holds a sign during a protest against candidates for a national unity government proposed by U.N. envoy for Libya Bernardino Leon, in Benghazi, Libya, on 23 October 2015. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

What Could Possibly Go Wrong in Libya?

Representatives of Libya’s rival parliaments gathered in the Moroccan resort town of Skhirat on Thursday 17 December to sign a UN-brokered agreement that supporters believe is one important step towards ending the civil war that has raged for more than a year. A number of Libyan politicians and local officials attending the ceremony cheered and celebrated the event as a possible new beginning. Meanwhile, fighting in Tripoli and a number of other Libyan cities continued.

Under the terms of the signed agreement, Libya will have a new government of national unity headed by Prime Minister Faez Serraj; lawmakers from the rival parliaments who support the UN-backed agreement will remain in office under a new power-sharing framework. This arrangement, envisioned to last one year, is supposed to end the divide between two competing sets of governments, parliaments and military coalitions that have split the country since August 2014. The deal was pushed energetically by Western governments – especially the US, U.K., France, and Italy – seeking a single partner to fight both the Islamic State and people smugglers.

On paper, this is fantastic news. In practice, the uncertain level of support for the agreement in Libya, the fact that the leaderships of both existing parliaments oppose it (and are busily devising their own peace plan), and the fact that the new government will have little control over key parts of the country, have left many Libyans worried that the peace deal might actually make things worse.

Any number of things could go wrong. Here are the top five pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Libya could end up with three governments and four parliaments.

Since July 2014, the country has had two parliaments and two governments: the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) based in the eastern city of Tobruk with its government located in another eastern city called Bayda; and the Islamist-backed General National Congress (GNC) and its own government, both based in Tripoli. Significant elements of these two institutions reject the agreement, and they will be in no hurry to dissolve themselves to make way for the new legislature envisioned in the UN-backed agreement. Moreover, the deal envisages extending the mandate of the HoR and the creation of a new State Council to accommodate GNC members who accept the agreement. You do the math: old HoR, new HoR, old GNC, and new State Council adds up to four, plus the two existing governments and the new “unity” one.

To prevent this scenario, the UN should make every effort to open the doors of the new institutions to more members of the old ones, encourage them to join, and refrain from sanctioning those who support a unity government in principle but insist on changes to the proposed government’s lineup and structure.

2. The new government will not be able to take its seat in the capital.

A government not based in Tripoli will govern in name only. It would not be able to effectively control key state institutions, such as the Central Bank of Libya. The way it looks now, the UN-sponsored government will lack the military support it would need to take Tripoli from the mostly anti-deal militias entrenched there, and a battle over the capital could become protracted. The UN should redouble efforts to devise a Tripoli security plan to protect any government and international diplomatic presence. That will mean working out an arrangement with other Tripoli-based armed groups, including Islamist ones, that would safeguard their core interests.

There is also a risk that the Libyan Supreme Court could declare the new agreement illegitimate. Since there was no vote in the two parliaments endorsing the agreement, opponents of the deal are already filing cases to have the country’s top court declare it (and the government) null and void. This would mean further legal conundrums for already embattled state institutions. Meanwhile, the heads of the two rival Libyan parliaments are trying to establish a unity government of their own. If they succeed, they may enjoy greater local legitimacy than a unity government that is seen to have been imposed by Western powers. Ironically, if the rival legislatures do reach an agreement on their own, the government they pick will have greater chances of taking office in Tripoli than the internationally recognised one. To render the question moot, the leaderships of the two parliaments should both be persuaded to approve the deal, and the unity government be seated firmly in Tripoli.

3. Intra-regional and political divides will deepen.

Misrata, a critical trading hub on the Mediterranean, is the proposed unity government’s most powerful backer and the West’s principal ally in the expected fight against the Islamic State (IS) in nearby Sirte. Western officials are counting on Misrata’s pro-deal militias to help defeat IS in Sirte, a fight that gained urgency after the 13 November Paris attacks. However, Misratan forces control merely the city’s western approach. Retaking Sirte will require forces coming from the east and south too, as well as a plan for who takes charge in the aftermath of battle. Moreover, putting all of one’s eggs in the Misratan basket risks aggravating Libya’s deep geographic and political divides. Many Libyans, especially among the rural Arab tribes in the east, view with contempt the Misratans, active traders and largely descendants from Ottoman Turks, who they fear will try to control the Bedouin hinterland.

Secessionist tendencies are likely to grow in the east. Those who champion greater autonomy for Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern province, feel underrepresented in the unity government and therefore do not support it. These federalists dominate the old HoR and control key oil infrastructure in the east. Misratans could help assuage their compatriots’ fears by championing a more inclusive unity government. There are two seats left on the Presidency Council that are reserved for easterners, but picking the right people for the job without upsetting the region’s delicate tribal balance will be tricky. Yet failure to include adequate representation from the east will ensure that the centrifugal forces already set in motion will spin outward with increased vigor.

4. The country’s divides will take on a theological dimension.

Influential Islamist preachers are already painting the new government as religiously illegitimate because, they say, it was appointed by non-Muslims (ie, the West). The jump from this to accusing it of being a kafr (apostate) government is all too easy, and this could become an opposition rallying cry that will appeal to many ordinary, conservative Muslim Libyans, not just radicals, particularly in light of Libya’s brutal colonial past. This is why the incoming government’s lineup should not be announced by the UN envoy, as it was in October, but by Libyan negotiators themselves.

5. Libya will slide toward economic collapse.

If the unity government cannot control the Central Bank of Libya – either because it is not based in the capital or is ruled illegitimate by the Supreme Court – it might be tempted to request the international community to seize Libya’s assets abroad to ensure it has access to them. Many Libyans will see this as an unacceptable loss of sovereignty, if not outright theft. Rival factions are also competing for control over the National Oil Company and the Libyan Investment Authority. Together, these three pillar institutions control up to $130 billion of assets and hold the technocratic expertise critical to rebuilding the Libyan state.

Going forward, any UN-supported negotiations should prioritise a separate track on economic issues, in parallel to ongoing political discussions. International actors – including foreign governments, the International Monetary Fund, and oil and gas companies—must help maintain the integrity of Libya’s core financial institutions and block oil sales outside official channels. If the fight over Libya’s energy wealth remains unresolved, the country faces the real possibility of economic collapse.

The UN has made important headway in the past year to bring Libyans of different political stripes together in one tent to sign a deal, create a unity government, and put an end to conflicts that are threatening to break up the country beyond repair. Such an effort requires time and, perhaps most importantly, it must be owned by Libyans themselves if it is to survive. Rushing an agreement was never a good idea, but it is not too late to encourage a broader array of Libyans to join that tent in the coming weeks. Libyans should be seen as leading the peace process for it to succeed, and not have a done deal foisted upon them.

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