Libya’s tumble into chaos cannot be ignored this time

If the African state is to truly move through to a stable and democratic transition, it needs to be helped beyond its current crisis, writes HA Hellyer.

In the past week, Libya’s problems have been back in the news. The country has been festering for a long time and the international community’s almost wilful ignorance of that fact has greatly contributed to the current rupture, in which a rogue general, Khalifa Haftar, has raised the stakes with his recent power grab.

Many would like to compare Haftar’s move in Libya to the situation in Egypt last summer, but the similarities are slight. For one thing, there was a set of functioning state institutions, albeit weak in some cases, in Egypt last year. It is hard to compare that to Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi’s regime ensured that when he fell, the state had to be built from scratch. As yet, that process has not happened.

That lack of state institutions has brought Libya to a peculiar juncture. Different groups and establishments are lining up behind different power centres in Libya – and none of them are playing by the same rules.

For example, the Interior Ministry (ironically, formerly quite supportive of the very groups Haftar is pursuing) is backing the current offensive, as are different militia groups. Meanwhile, other groups are lining up in opposition to him.

Neither of the two main camps seem interested in establishing some sort of consensus to work out their differences. Libyans at large, meanwhile, are exhausted by the continuing insecurity – and one imagines they might very well line up behind whatever group can actually end that state of affairs, regardless.

There will be those who argue Haftar’s actions are illegitimate. If they are talking legalistically, they could well be right. If they speak about popular legitimacy, that is yet to be seen.

What is clear in Libya is that everything is contested: the authority of the General National Congress is disputed; the authority of the varying militias is disputed; the authority of Haftar’s offensive is disputed. These contests have been going on for months and what the country needs now is to find a way for all groups to coexist.

It is unclear if Haftar’s new military intervention is going to lead to that or not. Certainly, his rhetoric includes a discourse that demonises his political adversaries in a way that would only deepen polarisation in Libya.

Prior to his intervention, many of his adversaries and others had engaged in widespread violence. The bedlam continues to unfold.

Calling for Haftar to halt his offensive may very well be an appropriate course of action – but incomplete if it is not established that there are serious structural problems that have to be addressed.

One suggested alternative is to go back to the democratic drawing board, and admit that the current General National Council has lost popular legitimacy, even if it hangs on to a semblance of legal, but incapacitated, legitimacy.

If the GNC were to step down now (instead of in a month’s time, as is currently the timetable), and call for immediate elections, with legislative authority falling to the constitutional committee in the meantime, that could be a way out of this crisis. It would also be a healthy third option between backing a predictably destructive status quo, and an unpredictably destructive upping of the ante.

That third option, if enough people were to rally around it, would reintroduce a popular legitimacy to the GNC, which it now sorely lacks, and ensure that there was an authoritative legal structure that could receive support from the major armed forces in the country.

That sort of outcome would be far more preferable to a deepening of polarisation in an environment where the widening gaps only promise to lead to more blood. If there is another option that brings mediation to the forefront, building a truly national salvation government, as opposed to further violence, then it must be welcomed.

It may very well be that such a third option is incredibly unlikely – and perhaps the most likely outcome is that this current crisis will simply follow its own destructive path and wear itself out.

If that happens, eventually, a solution will still have to be found. If the international community is to bear its own burden in this quagmire, it must first and foremost bring all sides together under a rubric that places authority among universally trusted institutions.

That has not existed in Libya since the end of Qaddafi’s tyranny – and what is happening today cannot be separated from the absence of such institutions.

If Libya is to truly move through to a stable and democratic transition, it needs to be helped beyond this crisis – and not simply ignored until the next one erupts.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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