Libya: Peace deal now or full-scale civil war

Libya: Peace deal now or full-scale civil war
Comment: Libya stands at a crossroads of destiny, and must choose whether to accept compromise and consensus, or let brutal violence tear the nation apart.
6 min read
17 Mar, 2015
Libyans must be masters of their own destiny [AFP]

Two Arab countries currently face a grave danger of civil war, having gone a few steps beyond its precursors to reach the threshold of full-scale conflict.

A fork in the road presents itself here: one path, governed by both fear and reason, would lead to a change of course and a turn back towards a settlement before war becomes inescapable; the other would lead to a route past the threshold and a slide into a spiral of civil war before there could be any chance of a settlement.

Civil wars are the cruellest forms of conflict; they most distort people's value systems, have the worst effect on people's lives and leave the blackest of stains on people's memories and cultures.

We can always analyse the causes of civil war, going back to examine their historical, social, political, and economic roots. But, when it comes to the crunch, there is only one important cause worth mentioning: the failure of social and political forces to step back from the precipice and compromise.

It is in the ability to reach a settlement at the crucial moment that true patriotism lies, and in the absence of this ability that treason is committed.

In Libya, it should be easy to understand the necessity of a settlement, unless reason has given way entirely to irrationality. For no one can think the conflict can be settled militarily. No party in Libya can prevail by force of arms.

     No one in Libya can think the conflict can be settled militarily. No party can prevail by force of arms.

The countries of the world have started coming to terms with this reality, as have cool-headed leaders in neighbouring countries.

These countries can arm Libyan forces but they are afraid to get involved in the conflict directly.

Libya's options

In Libya now, two routes are open. Either the Libyan state can remain paralysed, the implication of which would be the continuation of the conflict on a low level that could flare up into a full-scale war at a time that cannot be predicted; or a settlement can be reached.

Now is not the moment for radical solutions or the imposition of a certain ideology. Rather, now is the moment to take tough decisions and make concessions that would allow people to coexist and avoid self-destruction.

The settlement would be better if built on stronger foundations than merely the inability of either side to prevail in war. In Libya's case, a strong foundation would be the country's unity, based on the goals of the 17 February Revolution as the source of legitimacy.

Given the failure of the transition in Libya, the elected Tobruk parliament cannot be ignored. It is indeed elected, whether or not the countries of the world recognise it. It was elected just like the parliament in Egypt that the Supreme Court was used to dissolve.

On the other hand, the armed revolutionary forces and the General National Congress (GNC) cannot be ignored either.

Together, they represent revolutionary social segments that are rightly concerned about the possible return of the old regime, in line with what happened in Egypt.

   What's going on in Libya?

The General National Congress was the Islamist-led elected body ruling Libya for two years following Gaddafi's ousting and death. After its 18-month deadline to form a new constitution passed in January 2014, the body resolved to extend its mandate.

General Khalifa Haftar, a senior figure in the forces that toppled Gaddafi, called on the GNC to disband. In May, Haftar led troops against Islamist militias in Benghazi and the GNC in Tripoli in an offensive named Operation Dignity.

Amid the chaos, an election was held to form the House of Representatives, which took power from the GNC in August. With rival militias ruling Libya's streets, the election turnout was just 18 percent. Islamist militias then launched Operation Libya Dawn to fight Haftar's troops.

With the lack of security in the capital, the House of Representatives hired a Greek car ferry harboured in the eastern city of Tobruk as a temporary legislature.

In late August, a group of GNC members reconvened in Tripoli and claimed legislative authority over the country, effectively replacing the House of Representatives as Libya's parliament. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives remains the internationally recognised government, though its actual authority on the ground in Libya is limited.

Libya's Supreme Court, based in Islamist-held Tripoli, ruled in November that the formation of the House of Representatives was unconstitutional, legally dissolving the Tobruk-based legislature and nullifying its decisions.

The Tobruk-based parliament refused to accept the court's ruling, saying it was made "at gunpoint".

Libya remains torn between the rival parliaments and the heavily armed militias that support each. Allegiances between the militias change frequently, which only adds to the instability, violence and danger faced by ordinary Libyan citizens.

At this stage, the conflict between these factions cannot be settled by the ballot box. Nor is there a "deep state" as in Egypt, which could exploit divisions to settle the battle in favour of the counter-revolution.

The Libya Dawn movement is not a terrorist group, or even a moderate Islamist one.

It is a real popular force that resembles the Libyan people in its configuration.

Libya Dawn cannot confront the real extremists as long as it is engaged in a war with those trying to eliminate it.

Likewise, the Tobruk parliament cannot confront the extremists in its camp, as long as it is involved in an existential battle.

The extremist dynamic

Therefore, the continuation of the conflict means the continuation of a dynamic that fosters extremism in both camps, a dynamic that is hard to control in wartime.

A short while ago, Khalifa Haftar was not an acceptable figure to everyone in Tobruk. Meanwhile, Ansar al-Sharia was once a marginal group in Derna and some districts of Benghazi, yet both these forces are now expanding in the two camps respectively, exactly because of the conflict.

Any political solution in Libya must be based on recognition of the elected parliament. This must be directly followed by a sovereign decision from this parliament to accept a settlement that would create a comprehensive national body or congress for all Libyans, and a government of national unity.

It would be the responsibility of such a government to rebuild the army and security forces on the basis of an agreement among the rival parties, whose armed forces would have to be integrated into new national institutions.

The unity government must also repair the economy, and prepare for elections after a few years.

None of this can be achieved in the presence of armed militias that can threaten the government whenever they like. It is therefore crucial to reach an agreement to integrate these forces into a national army and police force. This is fundamental for national unity, and regional and neighbouring countries must facilitate this.

The important thing now is to establish a new system of government that would prevent the return of tyranny, guarantee the rights and freedoms of the citizenry, foster political pluralism, and combat the extremist forces that refuse to recognise these principles.

The new administration must then plan for elections, even if this takes two years or more, provided that these elections are held in a context of established national unity. To be sure, elections must not lead to further division.

Otherwise, the alternative to a political settlement is a civil war in which no foreign state will want to intervene.

These are the choices for the Libyans, the masters of their own destiny. And they must blame no one else for what they choose at this historic moment.

Dr Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian writer and intellectual.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.