What happens next if the UN fails in Libya?

What happens next if the UN fails in Libya?
Comment: The alternative outcomes, should the UN's sixth envoy to Libya fail to bring about a political solution, are not enviable, writes Guma El-Gamaty.
7 min read
20 Oct, 2017
A man protests the drawn out constitutional process in Tripoli, Libya [Anadolu]
The current UN sponsored negotiations in Tunisia between delegations from the main two political factions in Libya - the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and the State Council (SC) in Tripoli - continue with reported difficulty.

The aim of these negotiations is to kick start the implementation of a recently announced action plan by the new UN Special Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salame, aimed at helping Libyans end their deeply polarised political and military conflict.

Reports from Tunisia are of difficulties bridging the gap between the two sides; of hard lobbying and squabbles over who will be appointed to form the new executive authority of the Presidential Council (PC).

The prospects for a successful outcome of these negotiations still appear weak without strong pressure from the international community, especially regional countries who have been taking sides in the conflict.

The suffering people of Libya are holding high hopes for the success of the ongoing Tunisia negotiations, which they hope will lead to the stabilisation of their country, as well as improvement in the security and socio-economic conditions.

The possibility of the UN failing to help both sides reach a sustainable agreement cannot be ruled out or ignored. After six years of direct involvement in Libya, with six consecutive special envoys, the UN still has not been able to end the scourge of violence and help stabilise the country.

It is certainly true that the UN's work in Libya has been made difficult by Libyan factions locked in the conflict and showing no willingness, so far, to compromise for genuine reconciliation and accord. It is also true that the UN's job has been hampered by detrimental outside interference and competing interests in Libya, both regional and international.

The UN has not been entirely effective in the past in conflict resolution throughout the world, especially in Africa and the Middle East. It has somewhat failed in Rwanda, southern Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria - not forgetting its failure in the oldest conflict of all: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, almost as old as the UN itself.

It can be argued however, that "the U.N. is not a world government, and it does not have a standing army of peacekeepers ready for deployment."

The prospect of failure is certainly painful to contemplate but it is real

It is true that the UN is only as effective as the countries it is made up of and will only succeed when its most powerful and influential members have the will to agree and implement common solutions.

The alternatives

So what if the UN fails to end the conflict in Libya through a sustainable political agreement in the near future? What are the consequences and likely scenarios? The prospect of failure is certainly painful to contemplate but it is real, certainly if the Libyan factions continue to indulge in a catastrophic self-destructive course in which they both believe that one side can win and achieve a hegemony over the rest.

One scenario, that the UN may consider, following a failure of the current political process, is moving into a more direct involvement strategy whereby the UN aims to de-escalate potential violence and secures vital installations and institutions.

This may be achieved possibly by using a "Blue Helmets" security force drawn from Islamic countries, for a specific period until a new constitution can be voted on in a referendum and elections for a permanent status are held. This scenario however, is likely to be very costly and difficult to implement logistically. It could potentially even galvanise local extremist groups to take arms against UN personnel under the justification that they are colonialists under the guise of the UN.

Another possible scenario is increased military involvement by neighbouring countries. A likely example would be Egypt whom will be tempted to bolster their ally Haftar with heavy weaponry. Newly empowered, he could then pursue the military option of moving his forces west to take control of the capital Tripoli.

Translation: Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan Armed Forces. General Khalifa Haftar:
The people are assured that the path of dialogue is the only solution to the current political crisis.
Other alternatives approved by the people remain open wide, and the army and all security services
subject to the orders of the people.

This scenario however, would further fuel the conflict and could lead to the other neighbouring countries (eg. Algeria and Tunisia) taking Tripoli's side. These countries will refuse to allow Tripoli to fall under Haftar's military control and Libya as a whole under Egyptian domination. In this case there will be a de-facto undeclared division of Libya with the eastern part totally dominated by Egypt.

Although the above two scenarios are less likely, a more likely third scenario is that in the case of UN failure, the international community, especially western countries, will switch to a "containment strategy" in Libya.

This strategy will mean that as long as the threats of terrorism and migration to Europe are contained, the major countries will just passively watch by as Libyans continue fighting until they are exhausted by the civil war and their conflict just dies out with time. This is essentially what the international community ended up doing in Somalia.  

To ponder this scenario further, is it likely that the international community will turn its back on Libya? Or is Libya too close and important geopolitically to be ignored? This seems unlikely judging by the flurry of western companies racing to do business in Libya, where the potential for reconstruction and redevelopment contracts are huge.

Also judging by the recent UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson's controversial statement, there is an eagerness for British business people to invest into Libya and possibly try turn some of it into a new Dubai.

Libya's problems are not caused by or limited to only external factors and policies of regional and international countries. There are also serious intrinsic weaknesses whereby Libyans generally have a weak capacity, inherited from the legacy of 42 years of Gaddafi's rule.

As a result of this weakness, Libyans have found it difficult so far to agree on a social contract and start a vitally needed process of state building. Such capacity is crucially required in order to deliver effective governance, security and stability.

Is it likely that the international community will turn its back on Libya?

Last year a top UN advisor on Libya offered me a rather pessimistic assessment of prospects in Libya when he told me that he cannot see Libya doing institutional politics for at least ten years. Indeed he could be right especially as experiences of other conflicts in the region are not encouraging.

The civil war in Lebanon, for example, took fifteen years before the warring factions decided to sit around a table and agree to share power. The conflict in Iraq has been going on for fourteen years, and still raging, with a new prospect of the country fragmenting apart.

Read more: Libya's path to peace needs grit and determination

The overwhelming majority of Libyans wish that Ghassan Salame performs much better than his five predecessors have in the past six years, and actually achieves a genuine sustainable breakthrough in the coming weeks.

While Salame is pursuing the political track, his real lasting success will only come from following the constitutional track, guiding Libyans to a referendum on a new constitution followed by permanent presidential and parliamentary elections.

The first UN envoy to Libya, Adrian Pelt of the Netherlands, in 1951 adopted a constitutional track which helped Libyans craft a modern constitution, gain independence and set up their modern state of Libya. I hope we can see the same experience and success of 1951 emulated by the current generation of Libyans.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab