The U.N. has hit reset in Libya with the appointment of a new envoy, Ghassan Salame. A new plan has been presented to stabilize the country, review the agreement made in 2015 in Morocco between rival factions, and initiate a process that will lead to elections. In Libya, a country with great geographical, military and political divides, the chaos has accelerated the smuggling of thousands of migrants towards Europe and has allowed for extremist groups like the Islamic State to take root. Tarek Mitri, the United Nations envoy in Libya from 2012 to 2014 and currently a member of the Oasis Foundation’s Science Committee, reflects on the difficulties he encountered during his term, as well as the challenges the country is facing at the present. Hafez al-Sarraj, prime minister of Libya’s U.N.-backed government does not have the necessary means to rule the country, he says, and struggles to get centre stage since his rival, General Khalifa Haftar, formerly shunned by most governments and now an active interlocutor – was invited to Rome a few weeks ago and before that to Paris. According to Mitri, “The international community now recognizes the existence of a new relationship between the forces of the East and the West, between Haftar and Sarraj; however, this relationship is not symmetrical.”
Italy has invited Haftar, political rival of Libya’s UN-backed PM Fayez Sarraj. Before that, Paris had invited Haftar as well. Is the balance between East and West of Libya changing?
“The international community has acknowledged a new balance of power. Haftar already enjoyed the support of Egypt, Russia and the United Emirates. He now represents a military threat for Tripoli and is an actor who cannot be ignored. The international community is acting upon this basis. However, we must be careful: we must indeed acknowledge his role as a key actor, but Libya cannot be governed by a general. Haftar can be a part of the solution, but he cannot be the solution itself. The problem is that there are two politicians on the scene: one (Haftar) who would like everything but cannot have it; and the other (Sarraj) ready for a compromise but who has nothing to offer. There’s no symmetry.”
Is the international community betting on the wrong politician by supporting Sarraj?
“No. We chose the right man, but we did not give him enough means to take action. Sarraj’s weakness is the fact that he does not have a military force. He needed the protection of the militias, and he had it, but the militias are not tied to him. Haftar has what he calls an army, but in fact it is only a larger militia.”
What role do militias have in Libya’s instability and how can their action be contained?
“The militias can sabotage any political agreement they do not like. If the new U.N road map brings the formation of a new Presidential Council that lacks a regular army or a police force at its disposal, the Council could once again be forced to turn to the unstable protection of the militias”.
Italy signed agreements with local mayors to stem the smuggling of human beings and the flow of migrants. Does working with local realities mean acknowledging the weakness of national bodies?
“The problem is that so far nobody has managed to create a link between what can be done with the local realities, mayors, and the national political process. Over the long term, the work with local administrations is important, but in the short term it must lead to a national political processes.”
The number of migrants from Libya has decreased, but Italy’s actions have raised controversies. Human rights organizations denounce how those who are unable to leave to Europe face abuse and torture in Libyan detention centers. How can the issue of migration be addressed within such instability?
“The problem is how migrants are treated in Libyan centers, because there is no territorial control and racism is strong in the country. There has always been an exploitation of African workers. There is an internal problem that will only be solved through the Rule of Law and the constant pressure from the international community to implement a policy that protects immigrants’ rights. This is a greater problem than the problem of immigration itself: to leave these people in inhumane conditions is a greater risk than the risk of letting them depart towards Lampedusa, even if Italy has the right to block the flow of immigrants.”
What difficulties did you encounter in Libya as U.N envoy?
“The difficulties were of a varied nature, beginning with the United Nations itself. The task was to pacify Libya and build a Libyan state. We were a team of experts: we helped the Libyans organize elections and we advised them. But most importantly, we lacked the necessary means to stabilize Libya and build a state.”
What do you mean by “lacked the necessary means?”
“In a country that was at the centre of a NATO military operation, a country which did not have an army or a police force, normally an international stabilization force would intervene. In a much wider mission, political and military counselors would be sent in who were trained to form an army and police forces. Neither one happened in this case.
The second problem I encountered was that the members of the Security Council should have supported the United Nations’ plan, instead of each country having its own idea for Libya. We struggled to coordinate with the activities of the other states.
The third problem was linked to Libya itself: Libya is a state where intranational identities are very strong. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, all of these tribal and local identities came to the forefront. Every tribe, family, and city created its own militia: they had built a centrifugal force. We worked towards building a centralized state and they worked towards a recovery of the de facto local authorities.
The fourth problematic point: after 40 years of Gaddafi’s dictatorship, Libya lacked a political elite capable of governing the country. We worked with many people, politicians and military personnel with good intentions but with little ability to manage such a complicated state. For example, the members of the Constitutional Assembly didn’t have enough legal experience, and others were easily influenced in a country where militias rule."
In the past, you said the elections of 2012, the first after the fall of Gaddafi, were a mistake. Do you still believe this and if yes, why?
“It was a mistake: the society was not ready, as there were no institutions and no political parties. The elections exacerbated the divisions. Those who won did not want to share power, and those who lost felt excluded and found an alternative through arms. More effort should have been put on national reconstruction, by building parties and institutions. There were no legal institutions. There was no police force to guarantee that the elections would take place under conditions of security.”
You said earlier that the members of the United Nations acted without coordinating themselves on Libya. Your successor, Ghassan Salame, said: “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” How much do the divisions of the international community and Libyan internal divisions contribute to a lack of stability?
“They both have an effect. In such a fragmented society as Libya, in which a strong state disappeared, internal divisions have made our job very difficult. The incoherence and the lack of coordination of international politicians were already strong during my term. When I was in Tripoli, there were nine special envoys as well as ambassadors from various countries. I often said to the Libyans: ‘You must realise that the British envoy or European envoy have nothing to do with us…’ The Libyans were a bit disorientated. Still today, on an international level there are contradictory interests. Italians have economic interests in Libya and are affected by the flow of migrants, and they have a better understanding of Libya than others. The United States is only interested in the repression of Islamist terrorism. The British are sometimes active, sometimes not. The French, after the intervention of 2013 in Mali, are interested in the security in the region of Niger, Chad, and Mali. The Russians are completely uninterested: Libya for them is a way to demonstrate how the United States and Europe have got it all wrong, a reminder to weaken any kind of aspiration for an international intervention in Syria. During my term, the Egyptians were the most active and even more so after the coup d’état of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The dominant factor of his government is the fight against Islamists outside and within Egypt.”
How important are tribal divisions in the Libyan chaos?
“The whole issue surrounding the tribes has been a bit exaggerated. Tribes are scattered all around the territory. Gaddafi urbanized the tribes. Every tribe had its own geographical haven, for example the Warfalla in Beni Walid. Today, the Warfalla are everywhere (Benghazi, Tripoli, Sabrata…) but they have lost the social cohesion that they once had. Traditional tribal chiefs and codes of conduct have disappeared, and the tribal leaders don’t have the same authority of the past. Members of the same tribe have often assumed different positions on different political situations: in alignment with Gaddafi or against Gaddafi, in alignment with the Islamists or against the Islamists. The tribal sense of belonging has been weakened, but a culture and a specific mentality remains, even if the basis of tribalism has changed. In the East, in Cyrenaica, where there has been less mixing of populations, the tribal divisions are more marked compared to the situation in Tripolitania. There are even more recent identities in Libya linked to the cities. An example is Misrata, whose population has Turkish origins, with functionaries and tradesmen tracing back to the Ottoman Empire. The meeting between local realities are sometimes called ‘Conferences of Cities and Tribes,’ and by doing so Libyans recognize the existence of a city identity. It is quite reductive and misleading to explain the conflict in Libya as a simple conflict between tribes.”
Is the future of the country a unified or divided Libya? Or a federation?
“Libyans don’t want a divided Libya. And they don’t want a federation: this would be a backward step for them. The federalists ran during the elections and they did not gather many votes. Many in Libya, especially in the East, would like a reform of the state in the sense of a decentralization which would guarantee more autonomy on a local level. The problem in Libya is the redistribution of the oil revenues. In the East, there is constant resentment. They maintain that ‘oil is in the East, but the company that manages it is in Tripoli.’”
However, it seems the only two institutions able to function on a national level, both in the East and in the West, are the Central Bank and the NOC (the National Oil Company). In July, the production of crude oil reached one billion barrels a day for the first time in four years. Why is this model not enforceable on a political level?
“It is true, these institutions function because there is a tacit agreement between Libyan factions to let the NOC work and increase production. Its managers showed much skill in negotiating with every party, but their success rests upon the fact that they distanced themselves from the political sphere, maintaining neutrality and having as their only objective an increase in the crude oil production. Nevertheless, they have not yet addressed the revenues redistribution question.”