Can Libyan Government National Accord overcome 40 years of conflict over oil?

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(Image via crisisgroup.org)

The ongoing conflict between militant groups in Libya has caused the death of thousands, contributed to the refugee crisis and continues to threaten international peace and security, writes Dr Ibrahim Natil.

THE LONG HISTORY of the former Gaddafi regime of Libya left a deep psychological and political influence and impact on the entire nation.

I interviewed Libyan activist Mohammed Hagagi, who said:

“We had only one Gaddafi, but now we have thousands of Gaddafis fighting over oil and power. One of the main reasons [is] the unjust distribution of resources in the period of Gaddafi. The Libyans had never enjoyed the rich resources of their own country for almost four decades, which was controlled by the Gaddafi family.” 

Today, Libyan fighting groups have been disputing over oil installations, not over the identity of the state. They seek power and financial benefits of the state despite the peace deal backed by the United Nations in December 2015.

U.S. political scientist William Zartman argues that political actors have not negotiated peace agreements while they believed they could win militarily. This escalation would most likely come from an advance on Tripoli of Islamist-controlled General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). Fighting erupted in the Gulf of Sirte and in Tripoli between local forces and factions from Misrata. The armed coalition Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB), comprising mostly fighters from Benghazi opposed to General Khalifa Haftar and including members of jihadist group Ansar Sharia, took over the key oil terminals of Sidra and Ras Lanuf, ousting Haftar’s LNA. 

Libya is a very rich country of oil deposits, but its people have been poor and marginalised because the resources were controlled by Gaddafi and his sons. There was no just distribution of resources, despite the fact that there were professional, well-educated graduates from western based universities in the Gaddafi regime. The unjust distribution of resources for more than 40 years under the Gaddafi regime left a serious impact on the warlords in Libya today. 

40 years of the Gaddafi regime left a serious influence and negative impact on the politicians and militant groups of Libya, who have already failed to reach compromises to save Libyan society and its future. There are a number of others reasons influencing the fighters, who lack political experiences of state building. They have never been professional politicians or enjoyed political participation and participatory democracy in a democratic system. The Libyan state had already collapsed after the old regime of Gaddafi. All apparatuses and institutions of the state failed to function or were destroyed and Libya now has very weak civic organisations. Due to a number of human rights activists being subjected to violence, most active community organisations have also moved to Tunisia. 

In addition to this, the political process has already failed as there have been no serious and direct collective intervention from the United Nations or the umbrella of the African Union and the Arab League in Libya — which are considered important institutions of Northern Africa. These two institutions, however, are powerless in the region and have contributed to intensifying the fighting and violence. However, the African Union and the Arab League have publicly maintained the same position of preventing the escalation of violence. The UN, EU, AU and Arab League in Cairo, on 18 March, underscored the commitment to the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement. Egypt is now attempting to bring Khalifa Hafter and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj together. 

General Hafter is close to Egypt, but he refused to work with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Sarraj. Zartman argues that groups or governments only look to negotiate peace agreements when they perceive a "mutually hurting stalemate" conflict. But Hafter and his army still think military victory is possible — they pursue it and will try to clean up the mess later. Despite the fighting over the oil and power, there is still little hope of diplomatic progress as Egypt attempts to solve the conflict between two sides to assist the Sarraj government to function, though it has barely functioned yet.

The regional actors and/or mediators from all neighbouring countries must work together to influence all militant groups to end the conflict in Libya, which threatens international peace and security. The Libyan conflict has also contributed to the refugee crisis and caused the death of thousands in the Mediterranean, following the Arab Spring. Zartman also argues that the role of international mediators can often be to push conflicting parties towards seeing a peace deal as a better outcome than continued fighting. This includes agreeing upon reaching a comprehensive plan to rebuild and reconstruct Libya under the United Nations regional umbrella.

Dr Ibrahim Natil is a Fellow at the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction, Dublin City University. He is also a human rights campaigner, nominated for the Tällberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize 2016.

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