May 31, 2018 – By Arezki Daoud, Lead Analyst, MEA Risk LLC: The headlines in some of the world’s media read as if something new happened in Paris this week. One of them says “Libyan factions agree to December 10 elections at Paris talks,” suggesting to the reader that there was breakthrough and the first time such agreement was reached. To the chagrin of the conference organizer, French President Macron, this week’s Paris meeting resulted in nothing new that would advance peace and stability in the restive North African nation. If anything, the “conference” may have cemented the positions of the very entrenched interests involved in the Libya crisis. Bringing the protagonists in Paris as if they were royalty simply gave them the impression that they are hold the key to peace in Libya. And that’s not true.
Although all of the protagonists in the Libyan drama are responsible for the chaos, the first actor that appears to form the biggest obstacle to moving Libya forward is the so-called eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar. The Field Marshall, sometimes called the General, has been adamant that bringing stability in Libya requires a military dictatorship for it to happen. That assumes that the Libyan people have no appetite for democracy, and that’s pure nonsense. As long as he has the West, Russia and Arab countries backing him, Haftar will never allow anyone to go over him, either through a democratic process or through other means. The man has a huge ego, even bigger than the size of the Sharara oil field. The very idea that he would have to report to a higher authority after someone else wins a presidential election is nonsense. The problem is the foreign meddling in Libya has created a state of permanent confrontation. By arming Haftar and his foes, without definitely siding with one or the other or remaining “neutral,” the so-called “international community” has created a sustainable zero-sum game where no one is allowed to lose or to win, if the variables in the equation do not change. In normal circumstances, such situation would be unsustainable and would eventually collapse. Even the mighty Soviet Union that was part of the zero-sum game formula in the cold war era, collapsed when it was no longer able to survive and lost its breath during the cold war marathon. Something happened in that formula that tipped the balance. But in Libya, the current conflict happens to be just small enough to keep the flame going for a long time. Take the mighty Marshall Haftar. He is, without any doubt, the most powerful force in Libya militarily. He has the backing of a lot of countries, including neighboring Egypt, which hopes to control him so as to control eastern Libya and their shared borders. But the Marshall cannot even make a dent in reducing the presence of few thousands Chad rebel fighters operating in Southern Libya, let alone neutralizing the elusive ISIS and pacifying the entire country. He has zero control over the vast and oil-rich Saharan provinces, and has been far from defeating the western power-base. So all in all, despite his stature, the Marshall remains confined to his eastern base, from which he conducts operations elsewhere, just enough to keep Libya in a state of permanent turmoil.
The Libyan crisis has been magnified and sustained by so many foreign nations who obviously have their own interests in mind. These interests often clash with one another. For example, what Egypt has in mind has to be countered by its foe, Turkey, who has its own agenda. So if Egypt supports the eastern Libya block, Turkey would support the western block. This is a simple illustration of much more complex situation, as the foreign powers meddling in Libya include Gulf countries, the West and of course Russia. When you speak to diplomats from these countries who know the Libyan crisis, there is a genuine feeling of wanting to help. They all claim to want a stable Libya, not just because it is important to restore stability within itself, but it is also important to reduce the contribution of Libya in the many crises surrounding it, from the presence of weapons and insurgents across the Sahel and the Maghreb, to the free movement of fighters between Libya and Egypt. But because these foreign powers do not share the same vision on what Libya should be, they almost always end-up creating more confrontation, delaying any opportunity for peace, fueling even more conflicts in the future.
So the December 2018 presidential elections will not likely provide an exit point in the current crisis engulfing Libya, absent of a major change in the equation. What would I do if I were to advice a strategy? Three points need to be addressed by the international community:
- Firstly, the Libyan crisis is like an inferno that cannot be stopped through human intervention, in particular if the firefighters are fighting each other. As such, I would let it consumer itself until it subsides.
- Then, stop foreign meddling in all its negative forms, chief of which is the influx of Islamist militant groups that are likely controlled by some power or another. Ensure that the Libyan borders are sealed, preventing militant groups from moving freely across those borders. In the same logic, do not allow so-called humanitarian organizations with a religious agenda, as most of them teach intolerance and wreck havoc among local populations. In fact, these organizations are often a front for some of the foreign powers involved in the exercise of meddling. Countries should refrain from sending weapons and cash for the likes of Haftar without guarantee that such weapons will be used for defense purposes or to fight terror groups.
- Finally, ensure that the Libyan people have humanitarian support through well-vetted international institutions. The Libyan people deserve a great deal of support as they continue to face so much pain and misery, and standing idle is not an option.
With the fire slowly extinguishing over time, Libya’s real leaders will emerge and those are the ones that the world will need to support.