Why Libya matters

The Friends of Libya conference held last week in Rome did little to change the international approach to Libya but served as an opportunity to rebuild focus on a country hamstrung by numerous challenges.

Two and a half years after Qaddafi’s ouster, Libya still does not have a new constitution while the elections for the new constituent assembly proved inconclusive because of low turnout (around 15 percent of eligible voters), boycotts from minorities, and growing insecurity. Meanwhile, the legitimacy of the two main institutions is continuously questioned: Prime Minister Zeidan is recurrently the object of attempts to overthrow him, either by parliamentary vote or by force, and his control over the country’s security and bureaucracy is tenuous at best; the General National Congress (GNC) was due to end its mandate on 7 February. Elections were promised “as soon as possible” under popular pressure, but it is not clear whether they could be effectively held given the security situation.

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Spiraling insecurity and economic crises exacerbate the situation. A mix between militias’ swagger, economic and ethnic grievances, and centrifugal forces has de facto stopped Libyan oil production since last summer. Given Libya’s reliance on energy revenues, it is no wonder that the economy is in shambles. On top of this, more and more Libyans are disaffected with democracy and supportive of attempts to establish one-man rule.

Yet, Libya is where the U.S. and Europe have the largest toolbox. Potential impact is bigger than in Egypt, given the lack of relevant intervention by regional players. Libya does not need money, which is what the West is lacking at the moment. Rather, Libya needs help to stabilize and to restore normal oil production.

Secondly, Libyan assets frozen in the U.S. and Europe should be used as a positive lever. Third, the U.S. and several NATO countries are training 15,000 soldiers and officers of the future Libyan army. This is a crucial element in the strengthening of central authority and should be used to encourage constructive behavior among those currently wrestling to control Libyan institutions. Fourth, Libya’s international partners are best placed to provide the education, technical expertise, and financial know-how to the country, as it needs to diversify its economy and financial investments to tackle unemployment and offer career alternatives to militiamen.

Western interests in the country should not be underestimated. First, the energy issue has geostrategic implications which are often overlooked: in 2012, Libya filled the gap in energy supplies created by the Iran sanctions. If the U.S. and Europe want to maintain their room for maneuver in their negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, stabilizing Libya should become a priority. Second, Libya’s security black hole has repercussions from the Sahel to the Sinai. Here, Libya is key to the control and repression of jihadism, human trafficking, and smuggling. Third, a failed state in Libya would sit just hundreds of miles south of Malta and of US bases in Sicily.  A Libya on the right track, however, could be a regional asset for the West both for its financial-economic potential and for its absorptive capacity of immigration from Tunisia, Egypt, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite these priorities, the current western agenda for Libya lacks a political strategy and is focused almost exclusively on the training of the Libyan army. If experience elsewhere is an indication, it will take between 5 and 15 years for that to conclude. The same experience tells us that “strengthening the central government” is an insufficient goal if the country is to become stable and under the rule of law.

The next few months will be decisive to make good use of the new international focus on the country, provided this also implies some significant changes in the strategy.  The U.S. and Europe can activate a multipronged strategy based on five baskets of policies: first, focusing on local authorities as well as on the central government; second, supporting the political transition and building incentives for inclusiveness – which in Libya means empowering women, civil society as well as engaging with minorities and legitimized local leaders; third, thinking of political, extra-judicial, and law enforcement means to tackle security in the long years before the Libyan army gains traction; fourth, implement a plan for the diversification of the Libyan economy through cooperation on education and training, protection of heritage, and creation of joint ventures. Last but not least, there needs to be a permanent structure for international support to Libya that provides monitoring, coordination, and expertise continuity along the lines of what the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee for the Middle East Peace Process does under Norwegian chairmanship.     

Ultimately, development aid funds are scarce in the West today, but that’s not what Libya needs. Its transition can benefit from a shared transatlantic agenda which requires political imagination and courage. The steps that the U.S. and Europe will take after the conference will tell us whether they can meet this challenge.

Mezran is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Toaldo is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

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