Jean R. AbiNader
April 30, 2018
If you have been following regional and international press these past two weeks, you have been treated to a Middle East and North African specialty, news by rumor. In countries where information was long controlled by government agencies, the age of the Internet has freed up the creativity and spread of the art of “fake news” Arab style. From The Economist relying on local sources to Libyan press, there is no certainty in the uncertainty around East Libyan Commander General Haftar’s health and pending return to Benghazi after visiting Cairo, or so it is being reported and repeated.
The Economist informs us that General Haftar suffers from life-threatening if not life-ending maladies according to its unnamed French and Libyan sources. About the only thing the reporting is clear about is that a succession competition is already underway not only between the east and west contenders in the current civil war, but among those in the Haftar entourage who see themselves as worthy successors.
Perhaps the most useful summary of the implications of his demise or enfeeblement was a reprint of a European Council on Foreign Relations account in the World Affairs Journal. “Haftar’s weakening position will have ramifications for the stability of Eastern Libya, the activities of regional states that have based their policy on him, and on the diplomatic efforts to unify Libya’s fragmented political and security actors.” The article presents some of the contenders: former generals in the Qaddafi army, Haftar’s sons, and several tribal leaders. Even in East Libya, Haftar’s powerbase, it is uncertain as to whether or not another member of his Ferjani tribe would be acceptable. “Appointment of another Ferjani could expose the underlying tribal fault-lines already threatening to splinter the organization. Eastern Libya’s tribes currently enjoy a dominant security role and it is doubtful they would accept further Ferjani leadership.”
Another complicating factor is the competing agenda of Haftar’s troika of sponsors: Egypt, Russia, and the UAE. There is no certainly that they are prepared to either moderate their competition around a single successor or push forward with moving quickly to fill any resulting power vacuum. The article notes ruefully that “renewed instability seems to be Haftar’s most likely legacy.”
Absent strong and decisive UN leadership backed up by the Security Council aimed at ending the civil war and negotiating a sustainable political settlement, Libya faces even more conflict.
This is the concern raised in a post in The Arab Center of Washington, DC, which points out that Haftar’s supporters in the House of Representatives already oppose the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) tabled by the UN in 2015, under which West Libya operates. It underscores the challenges ahead noting that “Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, son of the former dictator, has made a comeback, claiming the support of tribes previously constituting his late father’s political base.” I wonder why he isn’t yet facing charges at the International Criminal Court that were brought after he directed the Army against the Libyan people during the first civil war.
“Meanwhile, Ghassan Salamé, special representative and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), continues to seek a working formula between the parties in accordance with the LPA and its provisions. He hopes to be able to organize a round of national elections for a unified parliament and a president but complains that essential conditions for that do not exist: a constitution governing the nature and politics of the country, an electoral law that assures good representation, and a legal and successful voter registration drive.”
Even if conditions and instruments are created in the next year or so, attracting the agreement and participation of the array of political forces and guarantees to support the outcomes from the international community are far from assured. At a minimum, any such process requires the participation of all political forces and a commitment by the international community to assist in implementing it.
The US can play a constructive role if it decides to shed the ‘non-involvement’ mantra of the Trump Administration. It could bring pressure to bear on Egypt and the UAE to be constructive players in any reconciliation process, and it could seriously support a reconstruction effort that is transparent and inclusive. As the article concludes, “Washington can also work with the United Nations to help its special envoy Salamé in devising the much-needed political arrangement for peace in Libya.”
Finally, for those who are looking for a close-up look of how all this came about, a book by Frederic Wehrey was released last week on the Libya crisis, aptly titled “The Burning Shores.” He notes that President Obama said that his single biggest foreign policy mistake was the lack of a strong US response to the Libyan uprising, being unwilling to take leadership at the onset and then being absent in assisting Libya after the death of Qaddafi. Ironically, this is essentially the same policy as the current administration, with, it appears, the same consequences. Not only are regional actors, including Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, and Qatar fouling the waters of reconciliation by supporting competing factions, there is little that is being done to enable the Libyan people to organize and constructing solutions at the local level.
Haftar’s rumored demised only brings to center stage the constant threats that emanate from lawless and failed states, whether from migrants risking their lives to escape, militias and extremists such as ISIS thriving in power vacuums, or the continued degradation of the humanitarian conditions of the Libyan people. The recipe for chaos and uncertainty can only benefit from a disjointed, uncertain response from the West.