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Members of the Libyan army stand after a fire broke out at a car tyre disposal plant during clashes against Islamist gunmen in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on 23 December 2014. AFP/Abdullah Doma
Report 157 / Middle East & North Africa

Libya: Getting Geneva Right

After six months of worsening clashes, Libya is on the brink of all-out civil war and catastrophic state collapse. All parties must press the two rival authorities to join a national unity government, resolutely uphold the UN arms embargo, and persuade regional actors to stop fuelling the conflict.

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Executive Summary

Libya’s deteriorating internal conflict may be nearing a dramatic turning point. Over six months of fighting between two parliaments, their respective governments and allied militias have led to the brink of all-out war. On the current trajectory, the most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse, financial reserves (based on oil and gas revenues and spent on food and refined fuel imports) will be depleted, and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially. Radical groups, already on the rise as the beheading of 21 Egyptians and deadly bombings by the Libyan franchise of the Islamic State (IS) attest, will find fertile ground, while regional involvement – evidenced by retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes – will increase. Actors with a stake in Libya’s future should seize on the UN’s January diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva that points to a possible peaceful way out; but to get a deal between Libyan factions – the best base from which to counter jihadis – they must take more decisive and focused supportive action than they yet have.

Since mid-2014, fighting has spread and intensified. Aerial bombardment and attacks on civilian infrastructure have increased; at least 1,000 Libyans have died (some estimates are as high as 2,500), many of them non-combatants; and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have increased from 100,000 to 400,000. The fledging post-Qadhafi state is beginning to buckle: basic goods and fuel are in short supply; in some urban areas people no longer have reliable access to communications or electricity and are using firewood for cooking. The likelihood of major militia offensives in cities like Benghazi raises the spectre of humanitarian disaster. Moreover, Libya faces the prospect of insolvency within the next few years as a result of falling oil revenue and faltering economic governance, as militias battle for the ultimate prize: its oil infrastructure and financial institutions.

As the crisis has deepened, the positions of the rival camps have hardened, and their rhetoric has become more incendiary. Libyans, who united to overthrow Qadhafi in 2011, now vie for support from regional patrons by casting their dispute in terms of Islamism and anti-Islamism or revolution and counter-revolution. The conflict’s reality, however, is a much more complex, multilayered struggle over the nation’s political and economic structure that has no military solution. A negotiated resolution is the only way forward, but the window is closing fast.

The two rounds of talks the UN hosted in Geneva on 14-15 and 26-27 January 2015 mark a minor breakthrough: for the first time since September 2014, representatives of some of the factions comprising the two main rival blocs met and tentatively agreed to a new framework that will at least extend the talks. This is testimony to the tenacity and relentless shuttle diplomacy of Bernardino León, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative. The road is long, and there will be setbacks, for example if parties refuse to participate or pull out; the General National Council (GNC) in Tripoli only belatedly agreed to participate in the talks, while the Tobruk-based House of Representative (HoR) announced it was suspending its participation in them on 23 February. Yet, this is the only political game in town and the only hope that a breakdown into open warfare can be avoided. To build on León’s initiative and ensure that ongoing discussion produces an agreement with nationwide support, however, members of the international community supporting a negotiated outcome must reframe their approach and do more to support him.

The way in which they have tended to frame the conflict should be modified first. The dominant approach to the parties has been to assess their legitimacy. The question, however, should no longer be which parliament, the HoR or the GNC, is more legitimate or what legal argument can be deployed to buttress that legitimacy. Chaos on the ground and the exclusionary behaviour of both camps have made that moot. An international approach that is premised on the notion the HoR is more legitimate because elected but does not take into account how representative it really is encourages it to pursue a military solution. Conversely, it feeds GNC suspicion that the international community seeks to marginalise or even eradicate the forces that see themselves as “revolutionary” (among them, notably, Islamists), as has happened elsewhere in the region.

Libya needs a negotiated political bargain and an international effort that channels efforts toward that goal. Outside actors will have to offer both sides incentives for participation and make clear that there will be consequences for those who escalate the conflict. Immediate steps should be taken to reduce the arms flow into the country and prevent either camp from taking over its wealth. The alternative would only lead to catastrophe and should not be an option.

In sum, the UN Security Council and others supportive of a negotiated political solution should:

  • de-emphasise “legitimacy” in public statements and instead put the onus on participation in the UN-led negotiations and on behaviour on the ground, notably adherence to ceasefires and calls to de-escalate. Rather than interpreting the legal and constitutional consequences of the Supreme Court’s ambiguous ruling on this question, they should indicate that those consequences are best negotiated as part of a wider roadmap toward a new constitution and permanent representative institutions;
  • be more forthright in confronting regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support – notably Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and encourage them to press their Libyan allies to negotiate in good faith in pursuit of a political settlement. Military intervention on counter-terrorism grounds, as requested by Egypt, would torpedo the political process, and for now should be opposed. Regional actors who attempt to support negotiations, notably Algeria and Tunisia, should be encouraged and helped;
  • devise, without prejudice to the UN’s efforts to achieve reconciliation, political and military strategies to fight terrorism in coordination with Libyan political forces from both camps but refrain from supporting outside military intervention to combat the IS. The GNC and its supporters should unambiguously condemn IS actions, and the HoR should refrain from politicising them.
  • keep in place the UN arms embargo, expressly reject its full or partial lifting and strengthen its implementation to the extent possible;
  • consider UN sanctions against individuals only if so advised by the Secretary-General and his representative. If enacted, they should be linked to the political process and applied or lifted according to transparent criteria for individuals on all sides, focusing on incitement to or participation in violence; and
  • protect the neutrality and independence of financial and petroleum institutions: the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Company (NOC) and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA); and ensure that these manage the national wealth to address the basic needs of the people and contribute to a negotiated political solution.

Tripoli/Brussels, 26 February 2015

It’s Not a Sprint

Originally published in Körber-Stiftung

The fraught history of the military intervention shows that EU engagement in Libya should first and foremost be guided by strategic vision.

Whatever one thinks of the initial military engagement leading to the eventual downfall of the country’s leader Muammar Qaddafi, there is no doubt that the international community failed Libya after the intervention. Today, Libya is a quasi-failed state, with multiple governments competing for legitimacy. Its accumulated wealth, its oil and a residual Libyan nationalism seem to be all that keeps the country from further fragmentation. This increasing power vacuum has turned Libya into a conduit for desperate migrants trying to reach the shores of Europe. In the absence of a well-functioning state, criminal interests exploit human misery, all the more so as people smuggling remains one of the few viable activities in a collapsed economy. 

The migrant crisis adds a measure of urgency to discussions on Libya and threatens to further divide Europeans at a time when more European unity and strategic vision are needed. The stabilization of Libya and a humane response to the migrant crisis are closely related. Without an effective partner in Tripoli, the EU is unable to stem the flow of migrants in a manner consistent with international law and its own human rights standards. But stabilizing Libya requires patience and a long-term perspective that are hardly compatible with the domestic pressures under which European governments operate when it comes to the question of migration. This has led to a wrong choice of priorities: today the EU and its member states seem more preoccupied with stopping by all means available the flow of migrants than with working for an elusive political solution.

This short-term mind set is illustrated by European support for Libyan coast guards which, in the absence of an inclusive political agreement, can be considered as just another militia. Likewise, various deals rumoured to have been struck with militias to control the southern border of Libya may end up strengthening non-state actors at a time when the international community needs to have a strong state to deal with instead. And pressing the government of Prime Minister Serraj to embrace an agenda driven by European rather than Libyan priorities will not help it gain legitimacy in Libya.

The migrant crisis adds a measure of urgency to discussions on Libya and threatens to further divide Europeans.

It sometimes seems that the left hand of the international community is undoing what the right hand is trying to do. Indeed, the disparity between Libyan priorities and Europe’s anxieties over migration and terrorism is not the only dynamic that makes Libya the victim of outside powers’ competing agendas. There are also the differences over political Islam between Gulf monarchies and other Arab states, and the competing regional visions of Egypt and Turkey.

The result of these clashing interests has been a botched political process that is not only unable to address the growing fragmentation of Libya but is also making it worse. While the government of national accord installed in Tripoli enjoys UN and international backing, as well as the strong support of individual countries, particularly Italy, its authority over the country is limited. General Haftar has effective control over a significant part of the east. The only institutions embodying the unity of Libya are the central bank and the National Oil Corporation. But that unity is increasingly jeopardised by Libyan actors’ predatory behaviour, and the actions of outside powers supporting proxies. Regional actors have not created the internal divisions of Libya, but they contribute to their deepening.

What then can be done? The starting point should be to do no harm and to support the new special envoy of the UN Secretary General in Libya, Ghassan Salamé, as he tries to restore Libyan trust in the international community. The European Union should be more united, take a longer-term perspective and align its priorities with the priorities of Libya. The only sustainable way to stem the flow of migrants into Europe is to have a stable Libya that can not only control its borders, but also offer job opportunities to the migrants that have traditionally come to the country.

The European Union should be more united, take a longer-term perspective and align its priorities with the priorities of Libya.

The reconstruction of Libya can provide such economic opportunities for migrants, but only with a more inclusive and more impartial approach to the political process, and an acknowledgment that a foreign-imposed legitimacy is bound to fail. Security arrangements must be negotiated not just for Tripoli, but for the whole of Libya, starting with the south and the west. Peace also requires that the predatory economy sustaining the war is effectively countered. The European Union and the international community can help in this regard, because the illicit economy is for a large part based on the smuggling of subsidised fuel, a trade that needs international partners to thrive.

Germany has a particular role to play in that effort. Since Germany, at that time an elected member of the UN Security Council, parted ways with its Western partners in 2011 and refused to support the resolution that led to the military intervention, Berlin has not been compromised in the ousting of Qaddafi. Also, Germany has no major interests in the oil economy of Libya. Its interest is in the stabilization of Libya, which will contribute to the stabilization of the Sahel, to better migration policies, and will eventually create opportunities for German companies. Libya is of strategic importance for Europe, not as a buffer state between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, but as a full-fledged partner that can help manage the much bigger challenges emanating from the poor, populous African states to the south.