Where international help likely won’t arrive
France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States Wednesday denounced the growing violence in Libya, where armed groups are going at it with increasing intensity. The Western powers rightly say the violence threatens Libya’s transition and suggest it may breach international humanitarian law, as it targets civilians.
The question is: are they going to do something about it? The newly seated Libyan parliament asked this week for international peacekeepers. That is not going to happen. None of the countries denouncing the violence is ready to intervene. Nor will the UN, which will want a political settlement first. It deploys once there is a peace to keep, not before.
Egypt and Algeria, Libya’s most powerful neighbors, might like to see a dictator back in charge in Tripoli and the Islamists crushed, but neither will be willing to take the risks associated with making it happen. The UAE is believed to be paying for some of the anti-Islamist “dignity” campaign of Khalifa Hiftar in Benghazi, but he has been less than fully successful.
That’s the problem in Libya: despite two relatively good elections since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, its Islamists and non-Islamists are still struggling for predominance. The government has little capacity to establish law and order. The city-based revolutionary brigades, most notably Zintan allied with the non-Islamists and Misrata with the Islamists, are fighting for control over the vast patronage that Libya’s oil revenue enables. Everyone fears being excluded and even destroyed. People with existential fears fight hard for survival. The government continues to cut checks for 260,000 “revolutionaries” on all sides of the chaos, no more than 20% of whom actually engaged against Qaddafi during the revolution. It is too frightened of the people it is paying to cut them off.
The Libyans need what neighboring Tunisia now has: a political pact that eliminates the existential threats its many factions now think they face and moves their disputes from a violent arena to a political one.
No one but the Libyans can reach such a pact. But the internationals can and should help. The UN mission in Libya is the right organization to reach out to the Islamists, who think they have the most to fear from disbanding militias and consolidating the state’s monopoly on the legitimate means of violence. Some of the Islamists are extremists associated with terrorist organizations of one sort another, but there can be no political settlement without them, because they’ll spoil it if one is attempted. The Western powers will need to stand aside and allow the UN to do the difficult work of trying to entice the Islamists into a political discussion and eventually a pact that will allow transfer of the conflict into nonviolent means. Neighboring Tunisia did this successfully on its own, but Libya lacks the union and civil society organizations that brought the Islamists and non-Islamists to an agreement in Tunis.
Getting there may take time. The brigades seem far from exhausted. Only when they are convinced they will be no better off by continuing the fighting than by reaching an agreement will they be amenable to stopping. This “ripeness” is difficult to predict. It might be accelerated by Egyptian and Algerian pressure or UAE funding, but it is easy to picture the current situation persisting for another year or more, with catastrophic consequences for many Libyan civilians. But they are not a minority crowded onto a mountaintop surrounded by nut-job extremists and threatened with genocide. They will have to fend for themselves.