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Libya talks gain urgency

February 4, 2015 at 6:36 pm

If further evidence was needed to demonstrate the desperate situation in Libya, the attack by ISIS on a hotel in Tripoli last week was it. Ever since the ousting of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 the country has descended into chaos. Thousands are dead, towns have been wrecked and more than 400,000 of Libya’s six million population are now displaced.

Desperate officials trying to cobble together a peace plan before ISIS takes advantage of the power vacuum hope that the group’s attack will be “a wake-up call”, in the words of UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Léon. Since 2011, hundreds of Libyans have travelled to Syria to fight Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, with some returning and establishing a Libyan wing of ISIS.

Talks to end the conflict, described as a last chance for peace in the country have been taking place in Geneva. As no representatives of the armed factions are yet taking part – though the UN plans to include them – many are sceptical of their potential for success.

Libya today

Armed groups allied to Libya’s rival governments – one a militia-backed self-declared administration that took power in Tripoli after the internationally recognised government of Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni fled to Tobruk, in eastern Libya – are locked in a battle for control of the oil-rich nation. The government of Al-Thinni and the internationally-recognised parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), which was elected in June 2014, are considered to be anti-Islamist; the conflict has come to be viewed as a battle between the two opposing blocs of Islamists against anti-Islamists, nationalists and secularists.

On the “Islamist” side sits Omar Al-Hassi and the General National Congress (GNC), the Tripoli-based predecessor to the HoR. In 2012, power was handed over to Libya’s newly elected parliament, the GNC, after the country’s first free national election in six decades.

However, the HoR was forced to move to Tobruk after fighters from Libya Dawn, an umbrella of several armed groups whose allegiance lies with the GNC, took control of the capital’s major arteries and airport after months of fighting against rival fighters drawn largely from the mountain stronghold of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli. Libya Dawn then set up its own administration and reinstated the old parliament. It controls much of western Libya, including Misrata and Tripoli, and is led by fighters from the former, a city which played a key role in the resistance against Gaddafi’s forces.

General Khalifa Haftar, leading the Libyan National Army (LNA), has been the key force fighting the “Islamist” advance. He is keen to push Ansar Al-Sharia, a militant group not in the Dawn coalition, out of Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolution. His crackdown, dubbed Operation Dignity, has support from disaffected army, police and air force officers to politicians and tribal militiamen.

What went wrong with Libya’s revolution?

When Gaddafi fell there was genuine hope that Libya was on the path to democracy. Ashur Shams, an anti-Gaddafi activist and Libyan dissident, remembers the feeling of elation on the streets of Tripoli. Soon after, however, he says that it became apparent that there was absolute nothing for the revolution to build on.

“Gaddafi didn’t just leave a country destroyed, he actually destroyed the very basics of the state,” he says. “We were not like Egypt or Tunisia with a bureaucracy already in place, a system. We didn’t find that; we found absolute rubble.”

Anas El Gomati, Director of Governance and Security at the Libyan think tank Al Sadeq Institute, says that while the uprising was NATO-backed, many states were reluctant to support nation building following the end of Gaddafi’s rule. He points to the international community’s lack of pressure when it came to the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) scheme, a crucial post-conflict process involving the collection of weapons and the controlled discharge and reintegration of ex-combatants. “They hoped the ballot box would fix everything,” he says.

While Jason Pack, an author and president of, also mentions the lack of state infrastructure, he believes that the biggest mistake was the appeasement of the militias. Having filled the political vacuum left after Gaddafi’s removal, competing armed groups received government-funded salaries in an attempt to draw them into the political system. “The militias were needed to defeat Gaddafi and they sprung up authentically during the revolution but they didn’t need to be paid government salaries at the end of the revolution,” he argues. “By paying them government salaries and also giving them new titles, they enshrined all of these non-state groups as the arbiters of Libyan democratic transition.” This made more and more people sign up to a militia, more than had ever signed up to the revolution, he added. According to Pack, while only around 30,000 people fought in the revolution, in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall from power 250,000 people joined the militias, largely due to the lure of a government salary in a country with high levels of unemployment.

Islamist versus anti-Islamist

There are no clear-cut lines between the two broad camps defined as Islamists or anti-Islamist. Both are subject to internal fractures and infighting, and, as coalitions, they tend to be loose alliances of convenience.

As Pack points out, there is a myriad of actors within the “Islamist” bloc. For example, the GNC camp includes Muslim Brotherhood members and Salafists, groups from both ends of the spectrum of political Islam. While similar ideological positions have drawn these groups together, Pack believes that the bloc’s only shared ideological ground does not pertain to a specific view of the role of Islam in governance, but rather to their opposition to former Gaddafi functionaries in positions of power.

Haftar has attempted to recruit the Islamist vs anti-Islamist division for his own gain, linking his activities to the global war on terror. His operation has labelled all opponents, including moderates, as “terrorists”, said Gomati. “It’s not really about Islamist or nationalist. It’s about a narrow political elite trying to get their hands on economic and military resources.”

On Tuesday, fresh fighting is reported to have erupted for control of the country’s biggest oil port. Oil is Libya’s main natural resource, with a pre-revolt output capacity of about 1.6 million barrels per day, accounting for more than 95 per cent of exports and 75 per cent of the national budget.

Peace after the peace talks?

On Monday, the UN’s Bernardino Léon visited Tripoli to discuss the immediate resumption of talks inside Libya. As the country descends further into chaos, officials hope that the talks will lead to the formation of a unity government and an end to the fighting. The talks will have to take a multi-track approach, encompassing all the actors who have a stake in the conflict, including political, military and local players; local conflicts are feeding into the national struggle.

International players must also be extracted, as various global powers are backing opposing sides of the conflict. The UAE has been accused by the US of bombing sites held by Misrata forces with the help of Egypt, which is especially desperate to contain any spread of influence by the Muslim Brotherhood. It has also been alleged that Qatar has provided weapons and support to Brotherhood-affiliated groups battling Haftar. The conflict in Libya has been drawn into a wider regional battle, pitting the likes of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey in their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. As Ashur Shams says, “We must protect Libya by essentially isolating it.”

However, he is not too hopeful that the talks will succeed. “I don’t know whether they are the ‘last chance’ or not; this is just a slogan. The situation is much more complicated than that, there are deep divisions in Libya and unless you tackle those divisions…” he tails off. Even if the talks succeed, he adds, they will be a side show. “The main show is with the people with the weapons. You have to talk to the people with the weapons or get them to talk to each other.”

However, Pack insists that the talks must succeed. “The only way to bring peace to Libya is through these talks.”

As militias battle for key areas and oil ports, ordinary Libyans are no doubt struggling to see the fruits of the revolution. For them, an end to the bloodshed can’t come soon enough.