León’s Libyan Folly

By Ethan Chorin - Guest contributor | Jun 16, 2015
León’s Libyan Folly
UN Libyan envoy Bernardino León, March 2015.

The United Nations has played a critical role in Libya’s modern political history, starting with a stewardship process that led to independence in 1951. It prepared a partial stabilization plan after the 2011 NATO intervention, which unfortunately was not imposed as a precondition for that intervention, and established an essential humanitarian channel to the outside world following the revolution. But for the last months, UN attempts to broker a unity government via its Libya envoy, Bernardino León, have worked against this legacy. Despite good intentions, recent UN efforts to seal a deal at almost any cost ironically have exacerbated Libya’s vulnerability to outside spoilers, notably ISIS.

Western policymakers, confronted with increasingly direct challenges to their security interests, are not without options in addressing the volatile conflict. Some would seem obvious and deceptively simple, like discontinuing the regular flights that shuttle fighters back and forth between Libya and the Syrian-Iraqi front. Others, including implementation of non-standard models of para-state governance, are not without risk and involve expenditure of significant resources. But all require intensified coordination with the existing Libyan government, as well as far more serious attention than has been paid since the 2011 intervention to local economic development and the provision of basic public services—a long-proven and well-honed Islamist strategy for winning local support.

The latest draft of the León plan, as it is known, is based on assumptions that are off the mark if the goals are to halt Libya’s takeover by extremists, create stable institutions, stem the flood of nearly millions of African refugees bound for Europe, and end the ongoing humanitarian disaster as human traffickers send thousands to their deaths at sea. The basic flawed assumption is that of moral and legal parity between two organisms that physically control parts of eastern and western Libya. Libya currently has an elected government, the House of Representatives (HoR). It is based in the east at Tobruk, and is the legitimate procedural heir to all governments that came before it, dating back to the National Transitional Council (NTC) of 2011. It is a testament to Libyans’ success in defending their will against well-organized minority groups and outside money and intervention, and for this reason remains important. 

The media frequently refers to the HoR as the “internationally recognized government.” The opposition in the western part of the country, by contrast, is referred to as the “Tripoli government” or the General National Congress (GNC), which was re-formed by those who lost the last election in 2014, in what was a de facto partial coup. The GNC then attempted to delegitimize the HoR by pressuring the Tripoli-based Supreme Court to issue rulings nullifying the 2014 election process. The latest version of the León plan freezes the HoR as the primary legislative body, but it introduces another 120-person consultative body, 90 of whose members it proposes to take from the ranks of the first GNC, elected in 2012—that is, current GNC members or sympathizers. At the same time, a proposed Council of Ministers introduces more complexity with the addition of two deputy prime ministers.

This notion of competing governments is unwarranted and toxic. The GNC did not emanate from the “inviolable democratic process,” which León insists is a core principle behind the framework. The current version of the León plan not only assumes legal and moral parity between the two bodies, but makes concessions to the opposition that would enable it to block legislation emerging from the HoR. It is telling that the opposition coalition, Libya Dawn, which called for León’s dismissal a little over a week ago, is “very happy” about the latest draft, which grants its partisans significantly more power than did previous drafts.

The second incorrect assumption is that the GNC is, or could be, a reliable partner in the fight against ISIS and other Islamist groups in Libya. There is no convincing evidence of this, and much to suggest the opposite, including but not limited to the fact that Libya Dawn is heavily infused with, and influenced by, members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), Libya’s prototypical radical Islamist organization, and Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood. While not all of Libya Dawn is Islamist, the organization consists of groups that are targets for ISIS’s infiltration and cooptation.

The third fallacy is that since neither side has the clear military advantage presently, an immediate political settlement between the warring parties is the only option. This is the same argument that was used to support last-minute contacts with Muammar al-Qaddafi in July and August of 2011, during that period of seeming stalemate. Tripoli fell shortly thereafter. One of the main reasons for the current stalemate is the lack of decisive external support for the Libyan government. 

The supporters of a unity government conveniently forget that the current operating framework holds for national elections to be held in October. If the opposition wishes to be “unified,” this is the natural vehicle for this kind of reconciliation and amnesty, under cover of a stronger HoR. In order to push the latest plan through, the UN offered belated and weak sanctions against those seen to be obstructing unity government talks in Morocco. Such efforts, aimed at mid-level political operatives on both sides, weaken international credibility, as do proposals that the flow of illegal immigration can be stemmed by limited commando raids on suspected human traffickers. The only way to solve these problems is by getting at their roots, and decisively. 

León had repeated that the West would like to see a resolution to the Libya problem by Ramadan, which begins June 17, and that Libya is now “on the verge of collapse.” But Libya has been on the verge of collapse for some time. The pressing issue now is the rapid advance and enablement of ISIS and al-Qa‘ida in whatever proportions, a danger that has been heightened, not lessened, by the rush to an artificial unity government. An agreement allows the international community to register a paper victory but sets the stage for an outcome that will compound the current disaster and remove hard-won legitimacy for the HoR.

The HoR is not a paragon of order, however. One of the government’s biggest liabilities is also one of its biggest assets. Khalifa Heftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, took the spotlight in May 2014 with a national campaign called Karama, or “Dignity,” whose stated aim is to drive out the Muslim Brotherhood, which Heftar sees as synonymous with all Islamist or Islamist-sympathizing organizations operating in Libya, including Libya Dawn. Heftar is a polarizing figure who does not hide his aspirations to be the Libyan Sisi. If it were possible to harness and rationalize the Libyan National Army and command, the situation might be different. But this requires political capital and cover that the HoR does not currently have.

The current choice is not “unity government or nothing.” It is still in the West’s (and Libya’s) best interest for the international community to support the Libyan government decisively, and with specific conditions. It should offer matériel, advisory, and development assistance. This implies, among other things, a selective lifting of the current arms embargo so that the Libyan Army has sufficient resources to take control of the country and establish order. In return, the HoR and the Libyan Army must agree, among other things, to a legal-constitutional framework that puts the army under firm government control. An attempt to introduce new complexities and structures at the eleventh hour via sides that are not reconcilable in their present form is folly. If major conglomerates have difficulty effecting mergers in a short period of time, imagine how this will look in a near-failed state, where one side is more than partial to the formation of an Islamic state.

These conditions could be considered within the context of bolder, more creative proposals, such as outsourcing elements of the management of finances and security within a defensible geography to a consortium of Libyan administrators and foreign trustees, answering to the HoR. One promising zone could link Bayda, Tobruk, and Selloum on the Egyptian border with the major oil fields in the southeast, including Jalu, Jufra, Zliten, and Sarir. This is a variant of “imported governance” advocated in recent years by noted economist Paul Romer for counties with high economic potential but far less severe institutional and governance issues than Libya’s. In Libya’s case, this deficit could prove a plus to the degree that an overextended HOR sees the benefits in accepting help to expand its effectiveness and ease the pressures on it.

An effective charter city, or charter region, could bolster security for the government; help sequester and manage Libya’s oil resources and dwindling cash reserves; provide a buffer zone between Libya and Egypt (which of Libya’s neighbors is most apt to intervene to protect its own interests); and define an area in which foreign-backed industrial activity could be introduced at reasonable risk in order to generate desperately-needed training and jobs in, for example, the medical field. In the 1990s, Tunisia built a medical services corridor along its border with Libya to serve Libya’s unmet medical needs, and then developed that area into a hub for medical tourism. Libya is in desperate need of a safe place where its sick and wounded can go for treatment, regardless of their political or ideological affiliations. With its flank protected and the HoR gaining a monopoly over the use of force, more attention could turn to essential state-building tasks such as completing the constitution, disarmament, reconciliation, and reconstruction—within the existing electoral process and timetable.

Some actions that the international community must take immediately to slow the rate at which Libya is contributing to regional disorder are: a partial coastal and air blockade to stop the passage of fighters between the Syrian-Iraqi front and Libya; more patrols and surveillance to disrupt the economics of human trafficking and reduce deaths at sea; the pursuit, in coordination with a cooperative HoR, of precision military action against ISIS and al-Qa’ida infrastructure within these organizations’ expanding strongholds of Derna, Sirte, Sabha, and Harwa. The lives of the 88 Eritreans recently captured by ISIS, and likely many more, depend on it. A U.S. airstrike within Libya this past weekend, apparently motivated by intelligence provided directly by the HoR and its allies, is demonstrative. The sortie may have killed notorious Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who had stoked instability across the Sahel with increasing effectiveness since the Libyan revolution. Belmokhtar was not ISIS, nor allegedly still al-Qa‘ida, but had been using Libya as his base of operations for more than a year.

It may well be too late to save Libya from further protracted chaos and deprivation. But the costs will certainly be greater the longer the Libyan government is not the focus of international pressure, support, and coordination, and as long as the West believes that treating Libya Dawn and the Libyan government as estranged partners is conducive to stability, or that Libya Dawn can be counted on to fight ISIS and al-Qa‘ida. There is great urgency, but no urgency for this particular national unity government.