Has the UN failed in Libya?

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Dr Ibrahim Natil examines the political fallout of UN negotiations in Libya and finds political and geographic divisions have deepened, compromising the future of a civil state in the coming decade. 

The impartiality of the outgoing United Nations Special Envoy Bernardino Leon, was not the only reason behind the political fallout of negotiation in Libya.

Leon has been recently appointed Emirates Diplomatic Academy Director General — a position training diplomats in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

However, a number of key players in the regions have engaged in Libyan politics and conflict over political, security and economic interests to attain their declared and hidden agendas of supporting division in and, or “rebuilding” Libya.

Without genuine third party intervention to solve the conflict over power-sharing the state’s identity and resources in Libya, rebuilding the state and the negotiation and reconciliation process became virtually impossible after the revolution of February 2011.

However, a number of reasons complicated the impact and the engagement of all secular and religious groups in the negotiation process to build a “new democratic and pluralistic system”.

Absence of Civil Society

Prior to the Arab spring of 2011, Libya had a strange and special state structure under Muammar al-Qaddafi’s (commonly known as Colonel Gaddafi) rule of more than 42 years. It also had a particularly tribal and conservative society without any political participation at all.

The absence of political awareness and its practice of regulating the relationship between the ruler “governor” and the ruled “citizen” imposed a serious challenge to rebuilding a civil state in Libya.

This lack of political awareness would play a very significant role in influencing and directing the revolution post Gaddifi’s rule. Libyans had not been engaged in real politics and the relationship between Gaddafi and the ruled citizens had existed since 1969.

Civil society was non-existent as he banned all forms of civil associations such as free press, trade unions and political opposition. Libya was left without any institutions at all when Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown.

Libya was left in a vacuum and the state collapsed. The new Libyan politicians, who mostly lived and were educated in and oriented towards the West, however, also failed to transfer or lead the country into developing a civil state.

They failed to adopt a model of governance maintaining the state’s civil character, such as that adopted by Tunisian politicians. They did not compromise their differences under one parliament or government. Each group has sought, instead, to remove the other group from the political scene. They were not able to engage in a process that promoted politics as a language of communication to manage their differences and violence.

However, the civil society of the neighbouring country Tunisia, is very strong with its liberalism and modernism. For example, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is the biggest civil society organization. UGTT has taken a leading position in Tunisian life, from fighting for independence to the transitional period post 2011 revolution. Civil society organisations like UGTT led the national dialogue quartet that contributed strongly to the ratification of the first constitution in January, 2014.

The national dialogue quartet, including the powerful central union forces of the UGTT, Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts, the Bar Association and the Tunisian Human Rights League, conducted very hard and tense negotiations with the different political factions in order to agree on a consensual constitution. UGTT also led the dialogue for replacing the Islamist led government by a new government, in order to prepare the country for a new election.

UGTT succeeded in performing this complicated role, as there was a balance between the Tunisian social and political spectrums. The national dialogue succeeded as various parties were fully committed to saving the country from terrorism.

Political and Geographical Division

Libyan society is tribal in nature, conservative and religious. It is a very large country and the desert composes the majority of its land mass. The nature of this society and its inhabitants play a very serious and significant role in reshaping and rebuilding the state in the post revolution era. The conservative elements of Libyan society could challenge the formation of the Madaniyya (civil state). Libya today, is divided, with Islamist groups and nationalist groups in dispute over power and the identity of the state.

The conflict between the coalition of Dignity Operation and the Dawn Coalition also imposed another threat challenging the unity, security and rebuilding of the civil state in Libya. Dignity Operation includes coalition forces from the eastern tribes, ex Gaddafi officers, and the Zintani militia of the west. Dignity Operation is led by retired general Khalifa Hifter to restore security to the troubled cities. Dignity Operation is supported by the House of Representatives (HOR) and the internationally recognised government, based in Tobruk. The conflict between Dawn and Dignity Operations is not only ideological but has also been caused by the inclusion of ex Gaddafi officers in the political process.

The political and geographical division was deepened horizontally and vertically when the transitional council governing Libya after the fall of Gaddafi’s rule, enforced the Political Isolation Act in 2011. It did not allow for all statesmen of Gaddafi’s rule to become engaged in the new political life and building the new Libya. Gaddafi’s officers were not only a few officers — there were hundreds with very close tribal connections to the societal ranks of Libya.

It was not easy to eradicate them from Libya’s social and political life. The Gaddadfa clan, for example, is considered the biggest in Libya, where tribal connections and family ties are highly considered and respected. This law deprived an important segment of society contributing to the new Libya. It created a tense relationship between the former regime’s loyalists and guards of the revolution.

This law has led the country into a severe political crisis leading to violence over interests and power. Conflict of interests and power have been galvanised by political differences and religious ideology. Because of a failure to use dialogue to solve the conflict peacefully – as in Tunisia – it has led to violent confrontation and now a civil war. Libya has no civil society organisations to influence the negotiation process.

Libyans have, however, become lost and trapped between different key players without an explicit plan supported by the UN Security Council. Rebuilding a civil state in Libya requires placing Libya under the UN for a transitional period — as in East Timor. Nevertheless, the international envoys that mediated between the rivals have divided the Libyans into tribes: secularist, Islamist, eastern, western and so on.

Thus, the political fallout of the UN Special Envoy is a contributing element in a range of factors including mistrust, cultural and political differences and interests of political groups involved in the negotiation process. The international community has, therefore, failed to assist Libyans in solving the conflict so far. 

Dr. Ibrahim Natil is currently a Visiting Fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin (UCD).


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