If you zoom in through geopolitical binoculars and focus on the micro and daily aspects, the situation in Libya frequently oscillates between tiny improvements and new outbreaks of violence and tension. The impression is that of a political and security scenario that leaves little room for optimism and much for a frustrating sense of being stuck in total chaos, anarchy, exasperated tactics, and lack of planning. For five long years, all of this has characterized the post- revolution years in the country.
However, if one looks at the macro-aspects and the political outlook, one can notice a change in direction and balance between rival forces, a change that seems to justify the controversial position taken by Italy: to side with the United Nations’ multilateral efforts and to always support Libya’s political unity. And to avoid the temptations of taking military and political shortcuts, which have contaminated many regional and international actors.
As it is well known, especially after 2014 (the year in which the new institutional system crumbled), the divisions among the various Libyan regions have grown – a centrifugal trend that united the traditional tribal and geographic rivalries among Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan and the growing fragmentation of political revolutionary fronts. In this context of growing fragility, the interference of a number of regional and international actors has been accentuated. Some of them aim to support the United Nations’ work – which is actually weak and ineffective – to stabilize the country; others aim solely at maximizing national interests; others to increase confusion and destabilization.
Over time, two main lines of action have emerged: those actors who supported the Government of National Accord (GNA) of the weak Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (certainly a unlucky choice by the United Nations) as the only recognized representative, and those who saw in General Khalifa Haftar, commander of alleged Libyan national armed forces that guide Cyrenaica, as the one person capable of eradicating the plague of a thousand militias and fighting radical Islamist movements, thus restoring stability in Libya.
However, this pro-Haftar narrative, while acknowledging all the mistakes of the confused and incompetent GNA of Tripoli, does not hold when one looks at it carefully: the general does not represent the national military force, but rather a colorful aggregation of militias, regular troops, mercenaries paid off with the money of the Gulf Emirates, salafists linked to Egypt and Saudi Arabia (who for some reasons escaped the label of radical Islamists, unlike the Muslim Brothers). All of them leverage and see in Haftar the man who can safeguard their interests. He remains possibly the one who can also ratify the division between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, since actually it is a convenient division for many. Presented as a possible solution to the Libyan problem, he ended up being the variable that has exacerbated its descent into chaos.
Moreover, the sudden move, at the end of July 2017, by the hyper-kinetic French President Emmanuel Macron, who hosted a meeting in Paris between Sarraj and his arch-enemy Haftar, welcomed as a statesman, has also contributed to accelerating the falling apart of international action. The move by Paris was very clever from the point of view of communication, with the proclamation of a ceasefire between the parts, which then turned out to be a pure rhetorical artifact. From the point of view of its substance, it only led to a further fragmentation of the too many efforts of stabilization, which irritate the new UN representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. In addition, it represented the latest cheap shot against Italy, not invited to the summit despite Italy’s priority role in peace negotiations. Paris, and also London, have very serious responsibilities regarding the disintegration of Libya today; yet, they continue to play their game without real coordination with Italy, which suffers the most severe consequences in terms of security threats and migrants.
Precisely such problems, coupled with the awareness of the fragility and inability of the government of Tripoli, have pushed Rome, on the one hand, to start direct relations with the mayors of the main cities and with many tribal representatives, and on the other, to strengthen and make public the relationship with General Haftar – a relationship maintained unofficially, even during the periods of greater tension between Cyrenaica and Italy. But this very step highlights the limits of any project of stabilization. Both major actors, the GNA in Tripoli and Haftar in the East, have little space for maneuvers: among their supporters and sponsors there are forces that reject any compromise and aim to maintain the maximum revolutionary initiative of the post revolution period, thus sabotaging every possible moderate Thermidorian. This is especially true for Prime Minister Sarraj who does not have his own militia and therefore must rely on a number of factions (whether of Islamic inspiration or otherwise) who perceive any compromise as a threat to their role and power. If there were a real agreement in place between those who have control over Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, for example, the current political weight of the forces of Misurata would necessarily be downsized. Moreover, a possible peace agreement would lead to a reduction in massive illicit trafficking; smuggling of weapons, goods and men, oil, gasoline and stolen first-aid supply; as well as revenues from human-trafficking – issues in which all factions are all more or less involved.
The reasons for the split along the traditional geographical boundaries of Libya, therefore, arise from rivalry and personal ambitions, external interference and the sordid economic interests in illicit trafficking, rather than from ancient tribal and local rivalries. Unfortunately such realization does not make it easier for the United Nations to mediate. For years, they have been stuck in a limbo of good intentions and bad behavior of almost all actors interested in playing a role in the Libyan chaos. At the same time, however, the same realization reaffirms the fairness of Italy’s position: outside the perimeter of a united Libya, there is no reasonable plan that can avoid the infections of jihadism, fratricidal confrontation, and the spread of trafficking between Northern and Southern Mediterranean shores.