Libya adrift

Wednesday’s lunchtime assessment of Libya sponsored by the Middle East Institute was one of those rare events:  excellent, if gloomy, analysis by Charles Dunne (who moderated), Karim “the light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming this way” Mezran on politics, and militiaman Fred Wehrey on security, followed by an equally excellent but wonderfully judicious set of policy recommendations for the US Government from David Mack.

The facts speak for themselves.  Libya has been unable to establish the state’s monopoly on the legitimate means of violence, its parliament has been reduced to an Islamist rump, the elections for its constitution drafting committee saw minimal turnout and election of only 47 out of 60 members, its government was sacked after being unable to prevent export of pirated oil, the population lacks confidence in the institutions and the institutions lack legitimacy.  What else could go wrong?

Karim Mezran managed a moment of sunshine with mention of the national dialogue, whose preparatory committee is now traveling around the country holding town hall meetings.  It is searching for the missing link:  a serious political compact.  But its funding for the next phase is not guaranteed.  Another ray of sunshine is last summer’s National Democratic Institute poll.  Libyans want democracy.  They just don’t know how to get there from here.

The obvious barrier is the militias, which were vital to fighting Qaddafi but have now taken on criminal and political roles.  Fred Wehrey noted the Catch 22 security dilemma:  the militias can’t be gotten rid of because the politicians are afraid doing so will leave them exposed, so other politicians up the ante, which makes the situation worse.  The political institutions are bankrupt and state capacity at the national level is lacking.  At the local level there are effective social contracts, mainly negotiated by the tribes, but this makes the situation even more complicated.  Libya is many problems, not one.

Even the General Purpose Force of up to 28,000 troops now being trained by internationals is a problem.  It is intended to protect the government, but politicians, militias and people are all frightened it will be used against them.  The initial recruits were not properly vetted, there are problems of regional representation, and a political compact governing its use has not been reached.  Many fear that General Sisi’s example in Egypt will be followed in Libya, returning the country to autocracy.

While acknowledging all these issues, David Mack soberly noted that Libya is not a big factor in world energy markets but rather a regional player with potential to become a major oil and gas producer to Europe, replacing Russian gas.  Even in the Middle East, Washington is more concerned with the Israel/Palestine negotiations, the war Syria, and Egypt’s revolution gone awry, not to mention Ukraine and other issues farther afield.  Libya has the potential to be a Somalia on the Mediterranean, but it can also be a prosperous country with a serious commitment to human rights.  It has the resources to rebuild.  What it needs is a bit of help getting on the right track.

The US needs to help where it can, David suggested, but keep a low profile and stay out of internal Libyan politics.  Leading from behind is not a four letter word.  In this situation, it is better to put good ideas through the UN than to offer them up wrapped in an American flag.  Libyan backlash against foreign intervention, especially from the US, could be dramatic.

Still, the US has things it can and should offer.  David favors private sector assistance, including an Overseas Private Investment Corporation agreement and strong Foreign Commercial Service representation.  He also wants to see expanded educational collaboration with US universities, and possibly contractor help in building the Libyan armed forces and police.  All this requires consular services in Tripoli for both Americans and Libyans.

David considers some additional options for fuller governmental engagement, especially on the security and counter-terrorism fronts, as well as an option for deferring to the Europeans.  These he allows to fall away, leaving US policy largely in the hands of private sector actors for implementation.  Some of us familiar with the difficulties of US contractors in other non-permissive environments may have our doubts that this is sufficient, but it is a rare and precious diplomat who so consciously and assiduously seeks to limit commitments to a country he has followed for decades, for our sake as well as theirs.

Libya is adrift.  I might opt for one of David’s more forward-leaning options, but only keeping his warnings in mind.

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One thought on “Libya adrift”

  1. Karim Mezran comment is spot on, “Libyans want democracy. They just don’t know how to get there from here”. As many analysis have pointed out, the USG really blew its response to the Arab Spring, all over the Middle East and North Africa. Training up soldiers and police forces is certainly important, but reaching out to the grass-roots to begin dialogues to identify a vision for the future, and start democratic planning processes is even more vital.

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