Libya isn’t too big to fail, but it mustn’t be allowed to

The Libyan crisis will have repercussions for the country’s system of government and the region as a whole, writes HA Hellyer

Members of Libya's Shield Brigade clash with gunmen accused of being loyal to the former Qaddafi regime. Mahmud Turkia / AFP
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Eighty-three years ago, Libyans were remembering the ultimate sacrifice made by Omar Mukhtar.

The famed resistance leader passed away on September 16, 1931, executed by Italian occupation forces in Libya. Eight decades later, memories of Mukhtar motivated many on the front lines against the tyranny of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.

Today, three years on from the 2011 revolution, Libyans are involved in another conflict – this time against each other. How they eventually resolve that conflict has repercussions for the country’s system of government and the region as a whole.

It is difficult to pinpoint when Libya became so polarised.

Depending on who you ask in the country, this event or that moment was the turning point – and there’s no agreement on the issue. But what is clear now is that the polarisation that does exist is deep rooted and the question that now hangs over Libya is how the country avoids sinking further into civil war.

The stakes are high for the whole region. No one now speaks of Libya as a country that is “too big to fail” because many can, indeed, imagine Libya failing. It has been teetering on the brink for many months.

A failed Libya would be a country of 6.2 million people traumatised by the experiences of the last few years, and one that was awash with guns and with radical groups such as Ansar Al Sharia enjoying free rein.

That is a regional and international threat that is potentially very destructive.

It is a threat that ought not to be underestimated: the spillover of the security situation in Libya has already taken the lives of scores of Tunisians (many of them unreported), as well as many Egyptians.

In the midst of that backdrop, there are a few points that ought to be uppermost in the international community’s perspective on Libya.

The key to reducing the tension is turning from the power of the gun to the power of politics and ensuring that those with disparate views are able to discuss them in the context of a political environment, as opposed to relying on brute force.

In this regard, the establishment of the House of Representatives is key.

The very fact that it came into being via a genuine political process is a great achievement.

The people of Libya do not now have to solely rely on the gun. The House of Representatives possesses international and regional legitimacy – indeed, no foreign government has refused to recognise it, even those who have discreetly sought to undermine it.

That position endows the House of Representatives with a huge responsibility. The competing force – the remnants of the General National Congress (GNC) in the west of the country – is not the government of the country. While supporters of Operation Dawn and the GNC engage in provocative actions, the legitimate government has to stand above such practices.

The House of Representatives has to ensure that there is no excuse for any Libyan to feel they are not properly represented. This is not the case as it stands.

In rhetoric and action, it must set the model for responsible politics – and not fall into making provocative, partisan gestures.

There is no choice to be made between the House of Representatives and the GNC, but there is a choice to be made between a House of Representatives that makes Libyans proud, and one that does not. Its moves thus far haven’t earned it any points. The House of Representatives cannot claim all of its members have taken up their seats and regardless of the reasons, it must do whatever is necessary to change that.

The stakes are high. If it lives up to its mandate, then it may preside over a Libya where, in a year’s time, young Libyans remember the sacrifice of Omar Mukhtar and so many others like him, in fighting for a free and independent homeland.

If it does not, then ISIL may be only one the region’s worries.

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