BY DOMINIC GILONIS
Libya’s post-independence story has seemingly followed the tragic path trodden by much of the Arab world, and the rest of the world generally. It mirrored the late 1960s insurrection of left-wing movements across the world when its monarchy was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1969, led by Muammar al-Qaddafi. For several years, nationalisation of foreign assets and an uptake in oil revenues fuelled investment in social services and modernisation under the revolutionary government. Within a decade, however, the hopes for genuine local democracy were crushed by the establishment of revolutionary councils to control such democracy, and Qaddafi consolidated his own dictatorship just as the rest of the world also began to slip into an insurgency from the political right from 1979 onwards.
Qaddafi’s regime endured great international seclusion, due primarily from its own foreign interventionism and support of terrorism (from Muslim seperatists in Thailand to the IRA), before being somewhat rehabilitated in the early 2000s. This all changed with the Arab Spring; many hoped that the democratic zeitgeist engulfing much of the Middle-East would topple the ‘Brother Colonel’ of Tripoli, and bring about a genuine republic. As with many other Arab countries, these hopes were dashed when the General National Congress rejected the outcome of the 2014 elections, eventually spawning rival governments in western Tripoli (now the Government of National Accord), and eastern Tobruk (led by the House of Representatives that resulted from the elections).
The Civil War that resulted from this has devastated the country, leading it to be popularly described as a ‘failed state’, alongside Yemen. Third actors are replete in the conflict - not only the various foreign governments backing either side with troops and materiel, but the sinister tendrils of Islamic State and its allies hoping to take advantage of the chaos. Indeed, Islamism has played its own sorry role in the conflict, with the Islamic fundamentalist Libya Shield Force aiding the GNA in its defence of Tripoli. Above all, however, what comes through when reading about this conflict is the internal divisions rampant in the country. As of January, Libya ranks first in terms of attacks on health facilities and workers, even as Covid-19 spreads. Over 130 tribes exist in Libya, continuing to play very important political roles to this day. Most towns have their own militias, operating semi-independently, or in coalitions (such as the Islamist Libya Dawn). With violence and conflict continuing to operate well beyond the control of the state, it is no wonder that James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle-East, has agreed with his opposites in the UN that ‘there can be no military solution in Libya’.
It is no wonder then that the ceasefire announced by the GNA’s Fayez al-Sarraj and HoR’s Agila Saleh has been greeted with relief from many western governments, keen to move past their own embarrassing interventions in the conflict. However, the ceasefire is not unprecedented; indeed, there have been two so far this year, in January and March. Both quickly broke down. What is different about this one then? Well, it appears to have survived so far, and Sarraj has publicly called for elections to take place in March 2021. An attempt to normalise politics in Libya, whatever the compromise needed to achieve that goal, is a vital first step to the end of the violence. Foreign powers have been steadily withdrawing as well, with the noted exception of Russia and Turkey, each supporting rival factions. As these two nations move to cooperate further in their foreign policies, the so-called ‘power brokers’ of the Libyan conflict could cement this ceasefire even further. Finally, the slow death of IS breathes new hope that radical Islamism will no longer destabilise attempts to unite Libya under a national government.
Hampering all this, however, are a number of very key problems. There still remains the post-Arab Spring tension between Islamist and secularist factions, notably the Libya Shield Force. General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (who are supposedly loyal to the HoR), has dismissed the ceasefire, although it remains to be seen if he will break it. Above all, the lack of a clear monopoly on force by either side will continue to hamper efforts to establish a clear national government. Integrating or disarming the militias will be necessary to this, while a clear consensus on the future politics of the nation will help to build a coalition dedicated to reconstruction. Perhaps equally vital to this will be an agreement over the future of the oil industry, its current 106,000 barrels a day now a far cry from the 1.6 million barrels a day it provided under Qaddafi.
This ceasefire is a good step towards stabilising and rebuilding a country exhausted by war and foreign adventurism. From a western perspective, perhaps the most important thing to do is not to take a partisan stance, and not intervene in the conflict on a particular side; putting peace first is perhaps the best option, if only to prevent the consistent civilian casualties and human rights abuses, and protect the country from Covid-19. For now, there seems to be a ray of hope emerging from the bleak Arab Winter.
Image - Flickr (Ziad Fhema)