Libya still adrift

Last Thursday the Atlantic Council hosted an event “Prospects for Ending the Civil War in Libya,” moderated by Karim Mezran. The event featured Nebras Attia, human rights activist, Federica Saini Fasanotti, nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution, Azza Maghur, senior lawyer at Maghur & Partners, Jason Pack, executive director of the US-Libya Business Association, and Ambassador Jonathan Winer, former US Special Envoy for Libya.

Ambassador Winer said that of the three actors vying for control of the country, no party has legitimacy among the Libyan people. Elections to determine sovereignty. Both Fayez Sarraj (Government of National Accord or GNA) and  ‎Aguila Saleh Issa (House of Representatives or HOR) reached out to international powers for help in facilitating elections, while military strongman Haftar refused to negotiate. Winer believes that the joint Tunisian, Algerian and Egyptian efforts to facilitate a Libya-Libya solution have some potential to re-energize negotiations, but he is not overly optimistic about their potential for success. The most foreign governments can do to encourage a favorable solution is to consolidate support behind one body instead of the divided foreign support for different militias. Winer maintains that US involvement in Libya is aimed at inclusivity reflecting local interests, though efforts are often thwarted by lack of cooperation and willingness to take orders from foreigners. He sees little indication that the Trump administration will pursue a policy towards Libya different than his predecessor.

When asked why she was skeptical about the Libyan Political Agreement that aimed to establish the GNA, Maghur replied she was not only skeptical of it, but that she knows it is a failure. The agreement is not realistic because it lacks transparency, inclusivity, and a clear start date. The agreement only makes the international community happy, and if they want to make the Libyan people happy they need to include them in the process.

As a lawyer in Libya, Maghur sees the judicial system as a strong tool for reunifying the nation. It is a venerable institution that survived the dictatorship and will survive the civil war. The criminal courts are very effective, but improvements are needed in the civil courts.

Fasanotti said Libyans need to develop a sense of nationality and to accept the country’s diversity as a strength. Although nobody wants a divided Libya, the three regions have existed since Italian colonization and are a good place to start. She imagines a federal system that capitalizes on the strengths of each region and celebrates their differences. When asked her opinion on Italian policy towards Libya she stressed its consistency: Italian government support for the GNA is unwavering. Unlike Ambassador Winer, she does not believe that reopening the Italian embassy in Libya is a good idea for security reasons, and because it might be vulnerable to exploitation by military strongman Haftar.

Attia criticized the international community for viewing the Libyan crisis in its own terms. She said that outside actors do not see the real issues affecting Libyan communities. She encourages people in power to reach out to cities and communities to ask what they need help with, supporting a bottom up approach as the best course of action to support Libya. Internationals are not solving the real problems in Libya. Youth is the most vulnerable population sector, at risk of extremism unless someone steps in and engages them with alternatives.

Pack described the proxy war in Libya as a situation where everyone wants to get control of the ‘Libya file,’ either to amp up their international status or to influence developments in a future, more stable, Libya. The Russians seek to limit American influence in the conflict, gain a warm water port, and potentially “trade” Libya for leverage in Syria or Crimea. Pack believes that a viable future for Libya requires heavy handed American intervention, both to consolidate foreign influence behind one actor and to support legitimacy on the ground with capacity building in every sector. He sees the private sector as a potential tool for the Trump administration to incentivize development that creates jobs and infrastructure while increasing bilateral ties between the US and Libya.

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