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Libya: A second chance?

1 June 2017 - Henry Smith

Former Saferworld Director Henry Smith shares his thoughts on the lessons to be drawn from international post-conflict support to Libya following the toppling of Colonel Gadhafi. 

It is too early to tell whether talks between Fayez al-Sarraj’s UN-recognised government and the opposition represented by General Khalifa Haftar will lead to a viable power-sharing deal in Libya.  If it does, and opportunities to support a transition towards peace and stability open up, those involved should reflect on lessons learnt from the last attempt to support stabilisation and peacebuilding efforts. 

Any deal between Haftar and Sarraj’s Government should be positive.  However, it would be folly to equate a deal between the conflicting parties with a durable political settlement.  At best, it represents a first step towards such a settlement; at worst, it may simply divide power and spoils without the common vision required to begin a meaningful transition.  In 2011, the installation of an interim government was taken as a signal that a settlement had been reached.  It hadn’t, and under pressure the deal quickly began to fall apart.  Lesson one is that any deal should be seen as the start of a settlement process. An awful lot of politics will be required before anything approaching stability, let alone peace, can be achieved.

For the politics to work, all those involved need legitimacy and support. They also need pressure from the public, the powerbrokers and their militias, and from engaged international actors to stick to the task.  The politics will be rough and those supporting from outside will need strong stomachs and the commitment to remain involved when the going gets tough and the headlines look awful.  In 2012, western bilateral actors in particular rushed to provide support to enable the new government to govern. This included repeated attempts to build state capacity to deliver services, with big assistance packages for key ministries: for example, human resources capacity for the Ministry of Interior, defence transformation programmes, and public sector financial management. In hindsight, in the absence of a political settlement and stated government policies and priorities, these initiatives were built on a hollow base.  Lesson two is to give time, space and energy to dialogue, reconciliation and negotiation towards a viable political foundation – and to prioritise this over short-term state-building.

After November 2011, the Libyan government failed to consult the public about how the country was to be governed. Politicians quickly came to be seen as a new and unrepresentative elite doing little for ‘normal’ Libyans.  And despite numerous stop-start efforts, those who rose up against Gadhafi were never offered a credible stake in the country’s future. Instead, there were short-term fixes to ‘integrate’ armed groups into the security system, usually with command and patronage systems remaining in place.

The failure to get this right allowed the opposition and those who felt they hadn’t benefited enough to maintain their potential to use violence. They remained mobilised (in many cases with state salaries), with the time and space to develop and maintain criminal and grey market income. Lesson three is never to underestimate the importance of inclusion: involving the public, including women and youth, as well as the men with the guns and the power is essential to building legitimacy into the political process for moving from conflict to peace, and for holding to account those with the responsibility to make it work.

International efforts to support the settlement process were deeply flawed from the start.  The UN mission in Libya, UNSMIL, was given a limited role of supporting the stated policies and strategies of the Government. However, Gadhafi’s method of government allowed ministries no policy-making function. Post-Gadhafi Libya inherited neither policies nor policy-making systems.  In the absence of real UN engagement, those who had led the coalition to oust Gadhafi, the US and the UK in particular, engaged and encouraged others to engage.  But their efforts focused on relatively narrow interpretations of Libya’s needs and were short-term in outlook.   Other countries whose buy-in could have helped significantly – regional players like Egypt and Algeria, or Russia and China, who had limited the UN’s remit – invested little in coordinating post-war stabilisation and peacebuilding. 

This time, the lack of engagement from the new US administration, and the active role played by Egypt in bringing the sides together is likely to ensure a different approach will be taken. However, the international community needs to push for an effective UN mission if it wants to offer the best possible support to the difficult transition ahead.

Lesson four is that those involved in bringing the protagonists to the table need to have a role in post-war international support.  If the current progress is to deliver peace in Libya, this will require significant roles for regional players, including Egypt, the UAE and Italy in support of an appropriately-mandated UN.

A durable political settlement, as opposed to a deal between the leaders of rival factions, requires consent from the public, protagonists and external actors.  This requires that Libyans identify their priorities and do their politics their way.  The deal made in 2012 required early elections, a new constitution and justice for the victims of Gadhafi’s regime, all without any meaningful process of consultation or reconciliation.   European states, the US and regional actors all felt, and arguably currently feel an even greater need for effective Libyan partners in helping to tackle illicit migration, organised crime and terrorism. Domestic pressures dictated the pace of international engagement, diminishing the appetite for longer-term conflict resolution and peacebuilding.  Like Somalia and Yemen though, Libya has reminded us that there are no easy options for dealing with deep-seated and entrenched political and social problems. Short-term action is always necessary, but there are no short-cuts to legitimacy and stability. They must be built on patient political dialogue by and for Libyans. Lesson five is that lasting stability can be encouraged but it cannot be hurried. It is only through a gradually developed settlement in which Libyans have a genuine stake that outsiders can achieve their strategic security goals.

Perhaps the most urgent question is posed by armed groups. Following any deal, Libya’s myriad armed groups will either destabilise it or help to cement it. Last time around, a conventional disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) response was advanced by the UN. This was doomed from the outset. Defining armed groups as ‘outsiders’ to be ‘brought in’ to official government organisations and processes was a failure. Armed groups enjoyed considerable public support. Government and communities soon needed them to provide a form of security in the near total absence of state capacity. Their de-facto role in the post-war governance and security system in Libya was inevitable.

Lesson six is that dealing with the threat from armed groups, and making the most of any potentially positive contribution, requires two things: first, seeing them as political actors who need to transition away from violence, rather than simply as a security challenge; and second, recognising that the most powerful groups are already integrated into Libyan society and power structures. This means armed groups need to be recognised in post-settlement reconciliation and state-building activities. 

These lessons aren’t unique to Libya, and many diplomats and others who follow the country closely are acutely aware of the challenges and dilemmas.  The issue isn’t whether to do things differently in future – the most cursory understanding of the past makes this essential. Rather, the question is how to craft a different strategy in a context that is hard to influence and when the pressure for quick wins on refugee flows and counter-terror is so acute.

Some of the ideas – like investing in dialogue processes to generate public ownership, accepting that the politics will be rough and the headlines bad for a period, and maintaining strategic patience – are hardly new to the stabilisation and peacebuilding communities.  Others, like the active involvement of non-traditional peacebuilding and development actors, perhaps lie further beyond the comfort zone of policymakers and practitioners, but are nonetheless crucial. Working with Egypt and other regional powers early, and compromising on priorities and phasing, will be important.  Similarly, accepting that a loosely unified state with a relatively weak centre and empowered regional or provincial capitals might be required (going against the default assumption that a strong centre and subordinate peripheries are always preferable) is likely to be important. Most challenging will be getting the political approach to armed groups right – and finding ways to bring those who are willing to move beyond violence and predation into post-settlement reconciliation and state-building activities.

Libya’s chances of a successful transition may only partly depend upon it getting better external support. But it is only by heeding these lessons and putting strategic patience and creativity ahead of standard, short-term thinking, that Libya’s friends can help it move forward.

Henry is a Director of First Call Partners and is currently researching how best to meet the challenges posed by armed groups in post-war contexts.

UN Photo/Iason

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The question is how to craft a different strategy in a context that is hard to influence and when the pressure for quick wins on refugee flows and counter-terror is so acute.

Henry Smith