The Libyan Crisis and the Ineffectiveness of the International Community
Moncef Djaziri 22 November 2019

“Men make history, but do not know the history they make”! Raymond Aron’s sociological argument[1] (inspired by Karl Marx, whom Aron had a profound knowledge of)[2] is fully represented in the Libyan crisis. The national and international actors who took part in the downfall of Khadhafi’s regime in 2011 were far from imagining all the unintended consequences of their actions. Not only, has democracy had had difficulty taking root in Libya, but worse still, the State has decomposed, and the country has regressed both economically and sociologically, without mentioning the increasing insecurity and the presence of the Islamic State – Daesh over part of the territory.

The most recent reports like the “African Governance Report” by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (2019) and Economic Perspectives for Libya published by the World Bank as well as others, indicate growing poverty in the middle class (40% of the population lives in poverty), a healthcare sector in crisis with hospitals without medication and ever-decreasing medical staff. The country is missing water and electricity is rationed. Add to this, runaway inflation and a critical deterioration of the terms of exchange and the trade balance. We cannot forget the desperation of unemployed youth (50% of the population is under 25) with no prospects and an increase in the number of suicides in a country where it used to be a rare occurrence.

The Skhirat Accord of 2015 did not allow Libya to emerge from the crisis. The Accord should have permitted an effective supervision of the transition period, which should have led to parliamentary and presidential elections, did not have any consequences. The crisis was only aggravated by the Accord, with a duplication of institutions and powers between Benghazi and Tripoli with the consequence of the largest economic and social deterioration and the outbreak of civil war pitting the National Libyan Army of Marshal Haftar against the militias under the control of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.[3]

The power structure implemented in the Skhirat Accord never really got off the ground in a satisfying way. The GNA headed by Prime Minister Sarraj was never able to govern the country effectively and legitimately. Its decisions were constantly contested by the East Elites of the country. Besides problems with corruption and abuse of the financial resources deriving from oil, the government was not up to the task of disarming the militias and cutting them loose.

The Presidential Council made up initially of 8 members, was reduced to 4, with the members representing the East and the South resigning in protest against the hegemony of Tripoli and Misrata. The consensual cooperation proposed in the 2015 Accord between the elected parliament of Tobruk and the High Council of State (HCS) never took place. The parliament of Tobruk, called the House of Representatives (HoR), has always contested the legitimacy of the HCS, which was the vehicle through which the Islamists of the first parliament, the General National Congress (GNC) under the leadership of the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) were able to regain some influence. It is therefore essential that the Skhirat Accord of 2015, which remains a foothold for the Islamists in the HCS, be abandoned or, at a minimum, be deeply reworked.

Between 2017 and 2019, the Libyan crisis was again aggravated followed by a strong deterioration of the socio-economic conditions in the country. The institutions are as divided as ever with each having its de-facto duplicate: an army in the east and another in the west; two presidents of the Libyan Central Bank (each one printing its own bills), practically two national oil companies with two distinct policies for the management of oil resources, two governments and two parliaments. This situation is a sign of a profound crisis of the Libyan political system.

With regards to the actions of the UN and of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) one has to admit the defeat of these operations. The “roadmap” or “UN Action Plan” of 2017 was not able to be implemented due to inconsistencies between the deadlines that on the one hand provide for the amendment of the 2015 agreement and the organization of elections in 2018 and on the other, the convening of a congress for reconciliation that would set new priorities. In reality, these elections never took place and neither did the national Conference. This indicates the degree of inefficiency of the UN in Libya. Since March 2011, six UN representatives have succeeded each other and none was able to propose a pragmatic, solid, viable, and sustainable solution to the Libyan crisis. The current representative, Ghassan Salamé is no exception.


Eastern military operations 

The current highlight is the military offensive in action since April 2019 conducted by Marshal Haftar against the pro-Islamist militias and their allied authorities in Tripoli. Indeed, after multiple warnings towards the Sarraj government, Haftar decided to launch a military operation with a view to disarm the Islamist militias in Misrata and Tripoli and to establish his authority over the whole of the Libyan territory. This war has led to over 1000 deaths, thousands of injured and tens of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees.

For Marshal Haftar, a military solution became the only possibility when faced with Sarraj who did not seem to have the situation in hand: “On numerous occasions we tried to establish discussions with Fayez el-Sarraj (prime minister of the Government of National Accord [GNA],  based in Tripoli and recognized by the international community). First in the United Arab Emirates, then in Paris and finally in Rome. Each time Fayez el-Sarraj reacted in the same way: in front of us, he says yes to everything though he also says that he must talk to his advisors. But in the end we never get a clear answer from him. At the last negotiations – the sixth round – I understood that it was not him that decided. As head of the Libyan National Army, I had to act, especially since the inhabitants of Tripoli asked us to release them from the grip of the militias, from Fayez el-Serraj and his government. We only did our duty, which is to extend the power of the national army throughout the territory, to bring peace and security.” This is Haftar’s justification for the military operations he has engaged in since April 2019.

In reality, the reasons for Haftar’s war against the government in Tripoli are multiple. Without a doubt, the fight against Islamic terrorism is one of the reasons for the Marshal’s military operations. The need to disarm the militias is another, equally important, motivator. Nonetheless, there are other reasons for his military intervention. There is the financial and economic marginalization of the East of the country, already present under Kadhafi, which has worsened under Sarraj’s leadership. The East already considers itself underprivileged and receives only a small portion of the oil revenues that have been unequally redistributed, even though most of the resources are located in the East of the country in what is known as the Oil Crescent. More broadly the leaders in eastern Libya, as well as Marshal Haftar, consider the power structure in Libya as unfavorable and that the East and the South are marginalized and with no influence on the decision-making process. This, undoubtedly, is one of the reasons for the military operations launched by Haftar on the 4th of April 2019.

There are also geostrategic motivations. As an ally of Egyptian president Al-Sissi, who is himself conducting a relentless battle against Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, Marshal Haftar had to pursue and apply the same policy in Libya. The military operations against Tripoli are also aimed at the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. The aim is to destabilize them and to complicate any effort by the Muslim Brotherhood to exercise power in Libya. Saudi Arabia, like the United Arab Emirates, are also opposed to the idea of integrating them into the Libyan power structure. Added to this is the military and diplomatic support that Russia gives due to its economic interest in the country.

Finally, the choice of date to begin his military operations is not without importance. Indeed, when Haftar decided to engage his troops on the western front, an inter-Libyan congress was scheduled to take place in Ghadamès and the results would likely have led to the exclusion of Haftar himself from the political process. This provides a circumstantial reason for the military operation whose aim would have been the upending of the Congress in question. In addition, some days after the start of operations, the UN representative in Libya, Ghassan Salamé, announced the “postponement of the conference until a later date”.

Seven months have passed since the beginning of military operations and the situation on the ground has been evolving slowly and progressively in favor of Haftar. Despite the military support shown by Turkey, Qatar and to a lesser extent, Iran, the pro-Islamist militias in Tripoli and Misrata remain vulnerable. The power in Tripoli is precarious and Prime Minister Sarraj is under pressure from pro-Islamist militias, who would like a firmer military commitment and the international community who would like for him to negotiate with Haftar. All of this, in an international context where France, Russia, and Egypt are favorable towards the disarmament of militias and the unification of institutions and tacitly support Haftar’s military operation. On the other side, the United States is in a holding pattern where their main concern is to stabilize Libya and to oppose Islamic extremism. All this explains the political impasse at which Libya currently finds itself and at the same time also explains the current military actions.


What to expect from the Berlin Conference

Will the Berlin meeting under the auspices of the UN, scheduled for December 2019, with Germany as the meeting’s linchpin, help Libya out of its crisis? It will permit the UN and the head of UNSMIL, Ghassan Salamé to gather the UN Security Council veto-wielding powers and shepherd them into adopting a coherent position concerning the situation in Libya.

The Berlin Conference and its agenda, as far as we know, will most provide for the adoption by the UN Security Council of a binding resolution for a cease-fire, the presence of neutral observers on the ground, efforts to bring together Tripoli and Benghazi and aid in their dialogue. The Berlin meeting will have to be followed by a larger international summit, which will discuss the formation of a new government in Libya, the appointment of a president for two years, the appointment of an ad hoc parliament for the transition period, the unification of institutions, the end of the House of Representatives and the HCS. A committee to follow-up on the summit will oversee the implementation of these decisions.

Two legitimate questions arise: why, despite the UN’s efforts, the contending Libyan parties were not able to reach an accord, and finally isn’t the road of dialogue and diplomacy leading to a stalemate?

Many reasons can explain why any attempt for a solution, has been a failure. First of all, there is the issue of the redistribution of wealth from energy (oil, gas, solar) and mining resources. The leaders in the East and the South of Libya consider these resources, concentrated primarily in their regions, as unequally distributed and that a more equitable system should be found. These same leaders sustain that the decision-making power is too concentrated in Tripoli and Misrata and appeal for the implementation of a more decentralized decision-making process. The last reason for the failure to find a solution is the Islamists’ place in the power structure. Leaders in the East believe that Islamism is an ideology foreign to the tribal culture of Libya and oppose any Islamist influence. These are the three main causes of the current political impasse. In these conditions, is the option of dialogue and diplomacy still relevant?

In principle, it is preferable and desirable to adopt dialogue as a way of resolving political differences. But this peaceful approach to the resolution of conflict and differences has shown its limits in the Libyan crisis. In just over two years, from 2013 to 2015, the conflicting Libyan parties discussed and negotiated fiercely under the auspices of the UNSMIL Chief then Bernardino Léon to reach the 2015 Skhirat Accord (Morocco), which in fact solved nothing. Worse still, the failure of dialogue aggravated the crisis. The demonstrating effect of the inefficiency of dialogue has led to the eastern leaders’ conviction that there can only be a military solution. It’s the reason for which Haftar engaged in military operations considering that negotiations were not successful and will never be.


Perspectives on emerging from the crisis

 If the crisis is to be resolved, it is crucial that the international community should take a new point of departure and should have a new perspective. An update is necessary.[4] The current UN representative in Libya, Ghassan Salamé has demonstrated himself to be powerless in the task of implementing his Action Plan for emerging from the Libyan crisis, presented to the UN Security Council upon his appointment in 2017. Also, the plan is evermore contested within Libya as well as by a number of African countries. In this regard, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinee presented in July 2019 a request to substitute Ghassan Salamé for a new representative to be jointly nominated by the UN and the African Union (AU). This request, provisionally put aside by Western powers, remains current.

This means rethinking the conditions for a new transition phase leading to elections. In the meanwhile, the Presidential Council should be reduced to three members. A triumvirat (made up of representatives from Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania) should appoint a provisional technocratic government (National Union Government – GNU) whose task it would be to secure the border and Libyan energy resources, threatened by terrorist groups. The international community and the UN should facilitate the reunification of institutions and of the army, starting with the core that makes up Marshal Haftar’s National Libyan Army. The Government of National Accord (GNA) should be replaced by a National Union Government (GNU) that should restore security to people and goods, aid in the disarmament of militias, reconstitute State institutions and restart economic activity as well as lay the groundwork for presidential and parliamentary elections that should permit the transfer of power to legitimate authorities.

Too much time has been lost in negotiations that have not stopped the situation from deteriorating. It may be regrettable, but a military solution seems to have imposed itself on both sides. The contradictions and divergence of interests between the Western powers and the attempts at marginalizing other countries, nonetheless influential in Libya, such as Italy, are not helping to reach a diplomatic solution to the Libyan crisis whose economic, social and human consequences are catastrophic.


Moncef Djaziri has been professor of Political Science at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and is a Specialist and Expert in Libyan politics (1951-2019).


[1] Raymond Aron, “Leçons sur l’histoire: cours du Collège de France (1972-1974)”. See also, R. Aron, “Karl Marx”, in Les Etapes de la pensée sociologique, Editions Gallimard, 1967, pp. 143-221.

[2] Karl Marx wrote the following: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances…” Cf. Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

[3] Moncef Djaziri. “Libya: The Deadlock in Reaching a Political Agreement and the Problems Posed by the Democratic Transition”, in Arturo Varvelli (Ed.), State-Building in Libya: Integration Diversities, Transitions and Citizenship; Reset DOC, 2017, pp. 102-125.

[4] Moncef Djaziri, “Libye : Propositions pour sortire de la crise”, Politique internationale, No. 159, Spring 2018, pp. 313-327.


Photo: Etienne LAURENT / POOL / AFP

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