At a Fork in the Road: Will Libya Succeed or Perish?
March 26, 2014
Event: Assessing Libya’s Transition
Ambassador David Mack, Adjunct Scholar, the Middle East Institute
Dr. Karim Mezran, Senior Fellow, the Atlantic Council
Dr. Frederic Wehrey, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Three years after the NATO led intervention in Libya – the only instance of Western forces intervening in an Arab Spring country – democracy and political stability still remain a distant goal in the North African country. Since the overthrow of the country’s longstanding dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, every major democratic development in the country has been seemingly met with an equally large setback. Following the revolution initial democratic developments like the formation of the General National Congress (GNC) and the subsequent election of Prime Minister Zeidan, were quickly undone by the unilateral efforts of local militias. As time has gone on, and the GNC has become gripped by political gridlock, the influence of militias has grown and they have achieved greater political integration. Politicized groups in Tripoli played a key role in ousting PM Zeidan, while militia leaders in the East have attempted to secede from the country and enrich themselves by monopolizing the country’s oil fields – the largest reserves in North Africa.
Amidst this political, economic, and armed instability, Dr. Mezran sees little room for hope. Though he recently experienced brief optimism when the GNC announced it would vote on the country’s political roadmap, his pessimism quickly returned when the results of the vote turned out to be extremely partisan – with a clear divide between Islamist and non-Islamist politicians – and further pushed back the deadline by which a constitutional committee must produce a document. Dr. Mezran claims to have seen this process play out a number of times over the years, in which the deadlocked GNC simply pushes back deadlines or amends policies at the last minute. The result of these sporadic actions is an interim government that is unsure of its powers and duties, a country that is losing faith in its politicians, and a Congress that is increasingly turning to armed militias to bolster their positions.
There is no easy solution to these problems. Dr. Wehrey sees the country as being caught in a catch-22 situation: political leaders in Libya are currently unable to enact large-scale policies due to opposing militias; simultaneously, political groups are reluctant to disarm and disband their armed supporters due to a lack of central power. No one wants to be the first to cede power due to distrust for the others. It is precisely for this reason that he and Amb. Mack argue that the only way for Libya to succeed in the future is through international development. An independent party is needed to bring together Libya’s political parties, strengthen its central institutions, and promote economic and democratic developments. On the security front, progress is already being made. The training and formation of the General Protection Force, planned to consist of 20,000 soldiers, has the potential to be the country’s first autonomous military body and will hopefully disempower the militias. Similarly the UN, World Bank, and other institutions can do more to invest in Libyan businesses and integrate the country into international bodies it had previously been excluded from under Qaddafi. This economic plan would not only generate future wealth for the country, it could also have immediate security implications, as it would provide better job opportunities than those that militias currently provide.
In short, there are several opportunities facing Libya. Economically, the country is faced with numerous opportunities to engage on the world stage like never before, and also has the potential to become a regional energy supplier – Amb. Mack specifically highlighted the potential for future Libya-EU energy deals given the rising tensions between the West and Russia. However, before it can capitalize on these opportunities, the country must overcome its internal problems. Though lacking experience in democracy, the Libyan people must learn to put faith in their leaders rather than act unilaterally through protests and militias. The country also needs a constitution around which the public can rally. Centrality and unity are needed above all else in order for Libya to succeed. It cannot progress through divided and one-sided politics. If the country and its leaders can meaningfully advance democracy the country can succeed. Without that however, the country is in store for more of the same.