New currents in Libya’s stagnant waters

The most important development in Libya’s recent history may have just taken place. And it was not a high-level summit, but a new expression of popular opinion on Libya’s future

Libya’s stagnant waters run deep. For years now, international partners’ depressingly regular exhortation for Libyans to head to the polls – made, again, at the recent Palermo summit – sound logical on first hearing. Elections were, and remain, the solution that partners tend to reach for. But there is no greater proof of elections’ inadequacy for solving Libya’s deep-seated crisis than their ineffectiveness to date. The inclusive and democratic forms of governance that Libyans and partners rightly desire are different to dictatorships at a very fundamental level. What too few have yet realised is that Libya is still very much a dictatorship: the tyrant may have died by the sword he himself lived by, but his culture and his Kafkaesque state live on. Amid all this are the Libyan people who, since 2012, have repeatedly asked the international community what comes next, but have themselves been left out of the discussions on what Libya needs.

To this backdrop, a development took place last month which could be the most progressive for Libya since the war ended. But it was not in Palermo with the diplomats and Libyan elites, but in the release by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) of a new report to United Nations Special Representative Dr Ghassan Salamé. This report is the product of no fewer than 77 consultations across Libya through which HD probed opinions about the national vision that different Libyan factions, communities, and organisations have for their country. It is an attempt to identify wide-ranging points of consensus drawn from far deeper into the Libyan body politic than any previous UN-led or internationally led process has attempted to do. And the points of consensus which emerge from the report light the way to stability for Libya.

If all the report’s recommendations are fulfilled before elections take place, this would have the distinct benefit of mending the system that elected bodies would sit atop first

The questionnaire that framed HD’s research sought to elicit ‘popular’ opinion on the issues which have become popular talking points, or over which Libya’s political elite have been squabbling (or even sought to hinder progress). The emergence of consensus positions on such issues could prove invaluable in guiding attempts to resolve them. For example, the findings repeatedly emphasise consultees’ view that Libya should remain unified; specifically, that a unified and effective government should be a prerequisite to unfreezing Libya’s state assets and lifting the UN arms embargo on Libya. The report also: sets out what government priorities should be at local and national levels; addresses the security situation by highlighting the need for the country’s various forces to unify in a process “free from regional interference”; and even proposes core tenets for distributing power and resources.

Consultees were most vocal on the need to end the transitional period Libya has been stuck in since 2012; this should take place through finalising a constitution and returning to the familiar territory of elections. To take this more nuanced approach towards stabilising Libya and then issue yet another call for elections may appear confused. But, done this way round, elections would represent the culmination of a more substantive state-building process. This differs from previous electoral processes: if all the report’s recommendations are fulfilled before elections take place, this would have the distinct benefit of mending the system that elected bodies would sit atop first. This is instead of trying to use elections themselves to patch up a political dispute.

The popular points of consensus emerging from HD’s consultations, such as support for a strong decentralised system, may appear overly vague to some or obvious to others. To ignore their potential political gravity, though, would represent a failure to recognise a new tool in what has, for too long, been a musty and rather bare policy toolbox. It reintroduces a more representative – and less venal – voice into what has thus far been a very exclusive conversation on Libya’s political development. But it also supplies guiding points for abstract processes like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘state-building’ which Libya requires but many seem unsure of how to deliver. For example, the steps needed to create a decentralised system, like consensually defining levels of autonomy and relationships between regions and the central state, would help generate some much-needed experience and political maturity among Libyan lawmakers and politically engaged citizens.

The conclusions of HD’s report will be the centrepiece of a national conference organised by Salamé for early 2019. If these conclusions are to be realised, however, the special representative will have to work out how this conference can operationalise them into policies, laws, and actions while maintaining the inclusivity which produced them. This is considerably easier said than done in a political landscape which is almost as divided outside Libya as within. The states which mandated Salamé could aid him in this endeavour through unified messaging which presents the national conference as ‘the only game in town’. Doing so would help generate momentum behind this more substantive political process, and focus minds towards implementing changes supported by a diverse cross-section of Libyan communities and groups. That may be just enough to bring the country’s period of stagnation to an end.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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