For the past eight years, almost every regional and international power, as well as the UN, has been agreed that the solution for Libya is not military but political. An agreement, we are told, can only come about through inclusive negotiations among Libyans. They are all wrong.
The champions of a political solution argue that the nature of the conflict, its roots, tribal dimension and, above all, its causes make it impossible for one party to dominate. They also think that the lack of a strong enough military force among the factions excludes the possibility of any side emerging victorious on the battlefield. The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar might not be able to win the war outright against an array of militias fighting under the nominal banner of loyalty to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli but, so far, GNA-allied armed groups have failed to push back the LNA to where it was on 4 April when the current round of fighting began. Likewise, the LNA has not won and held any of Tripoli’s suburbs beyond what it gained in its first push. The battle for Tripoli is stalled on the ground while it is increasingly being fought on the political front, particularly in rallying foreign support.
However, Libya’s little wars since the former regime was toppled with NATO help in 2011 have been about political power and the sharing of natural resources, primarily oil. Libya has enough for every one if only they could agree to share it.
Much of the conflict is also fuelled by what social scientists call the “basic personality” of Libyans themselves. Generally, they are shrewd, stubborn people who drive hard bargains with little room for manoeuvre, and an inclination towards taking revenge, no matter how long it takes. They value victory not only for its benefits but also for its impact on the enemy. Most seek to defeat the enemy, whoever that might be, humiliate it and deny it any economic advantage; this is more honourable than any prizes they might get.
Moreover, the Libyans — with generations of tribal indoctrination behind them — believe that defeating the enemy can only be achieved by denying the adversary any military or economic advantage whatsoever. The winner takes all. A strong figurehead rallying people behind him is the cornerstone of this tribal culture.
In the context of the current conflict, this means that the LNA, with relatively wide public support, will neither accept a conditional ceasefire nor defeat, since either could deny it and, more accurately, Haftar, any say in a political settlement once UN envoy Ghassan Salame is able to resuscitate the political dialogue.
In the absence of any political settlement, the militias fighting on behalf of the GNA have very little choice but to continue the war until whatever end is reached. They rally around their shared hatred of the LNA and Haftar, while quarrelling about everything else, including their respective turfs inside the capital. Even their front lines are separated from each other, although they might coordinate their fight to repel LNA advances. Their weaknesses are their differences rather than any lack of military power.
Most Libyans are eager for some kind of unified semi-professional army under one strong commander, rather than continue to be subjected to a multitude of armed groups with separate command structures and little common leadership and even less respect for the law. The LNA, despite its many structural flaws, human rights abuses and lack of professionalism, seems to fit the bill, at least in part, for the majority of Libyans who are bearing the brunt of the conflict.
The political climate that emerged after the Gaddafi regime was overthrown in 2011 produced a corrupt and selfish political elite which has failed to build a stable and democratic Libya simply because to do so would be against its own interests and very existence on the political scene. Both the parliament in the east and the GNA in Tripoli are doing everything possible to prolong the status quo as long as possible. Most MPs, for example, know that they are likely to lose in any fair and peaceful elections and so every day that passes while they are still in parliament is regarded as a bonus. They are well paid and live comfortably compared with ordinary Libyans. Above all, they face very little accountability in a country where corruption is a national pastime, with few checks and balances in place within the system. Western Libya’s political elite, including the current GNA, enjoys more or less the same benefits. Hence, neither side has any real incentive to see a new Libya emerge; a country in which the rule of law, accountability, democracy and institutions are intertwined to produce good governance.
Against this background, neither the UN nor any impartial regional mediator can actually deliver a political settlement. Thus, sporadic fighting in different parts of the country will continue until a clearly dominant force, even if tribally based, emerges from the ashes and imposes its own agreement upon everyone else, by force of arms or peacefully.
Libya’s existing political parties and civil society organisations have very little incentive to be progressive patriotic forces in which loyalty to Libya comes before anything else. They are either tied very strongly to tribal or foreign backers or focused on their own gains, however small they might be. Even organisations with Islamist inclinations, including the Muslim Brotherhood — usually well-organised political forces — suffer from patriotic deficiency and have deep and suspicious foreign links which many Libyans despise. This situation is aggravated further by active foreign meddling by both regional and international actors backing different sides whenever conflict erupts.
Faced with this reality, a political solution becomes less of a priority, suggesting that a military solution will, eventually, rally the majority around a national agenda. Unfortunately, this will be a costly solution unless the elites, the political environment and Libya’s political culture are all changed drastically.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.