Is Libya a New Somalia? The EU Has a Chance to Significantly Affect the Peace Process

The Libyan civil war has dragged on for nearly a year and half and both rival governments are trying to destroy one another whist the power vacuum is playing into the hands of the terrorists of the Islamic State. After unsuccessful negotiations led by the UN, perhaps it’s time for the EU to start its own peace initiative.

The Libyan Civil War stands in the shadow of the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria where the terrorists of the Islamic State (IS) control a considerable part of the territory. But IS has also managed to take root in North Africa where it contributes to the slow decay of this civil war-torn country. Political instability and the power vacuum that arose after the deposition of the leader Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011 created ideal conditions in which terrorist organisations such as IS may flourish. After the recent scandal concerning the peace treaty under the auspices of the UN, the time has come where the EU has a chance to influence the course of events in its immediate vicinity. Through its diplomatic and military initiatives the European twenty-eight can contribute to the peace process in this North African country.

The second round of the Libyan Civil War flared up again in May 2014. The current situation is very complicated – research has said that up to 1700 armed groups are operating in the Libyan territory and are often supported by other states' governments. The current state of violence and instability is mainly due to the fighting between the two rival and mutually unaccepted governments – the New General National Congress (NGNC) based in Tripoli and the Libyan National Army (LNA) from Tobruk. One of the impacts of the conflict between NGNC and LNA is that it created a space for terrorist organisations, such as IS or Ansar al-Sharia (ASL), which follows the legacy of al-Qaeda. Jihadists from these groups try to use the current power vacuum for their own advantage – the destabilisation of the region, revenues from the smuggling of drugs and arms, and the real possibility of using the space for planning terrorist attacks.

One of the reasons for the current fragmentation of the Libyan political scene is the fact that historically, Libya has never been a homogeneous unit but more of a complex of autonomous and unaccountable tribes and clans. Political fragmentation at the national level fully reflects the reality at the local level where local tribal elites lost the chance to represent their communities. Connecting elements that ensured relative peace used to be revenues from oil sales and the Muammar Gaddafi who ruled Libya for over 40 years using the tactics of carrot and stick – an absence of democratic principles replaced by fast economic growth and an improvement in the living standards of ordinary Libyans.

In the current situation, Libya poses a security threat to Europe in the form of an uncontrolled flood of refugees due to conflicts in Syria, Eritrea and other countries of West Africa. According to statistics,  in the last year around 170 thousand refugees arrived in Italy, of which the vast majority came from Libya. Another security threat is the presence of IS which has the potential of destabilising the entire region – neighbouring countries are concerned about the "spill over effect" when Libyan unrest will start to influence events in surrounding states, as it happened in October when a group of armed men kidnapped 55 Tunisians in northwest Libya.

Libya also presents an opportunity for Europe – mainly in that its oil reserves (the ninth largest reserves in the world) and natural gas (the fifth largest reserves of all African countries) could be a way especially for southern European countries to diversify their energy sources. Europe, and by extension the European Union, could also improve its international reputation as the UN suffered a diplomatic scandal. It was found that the negotiator of the UN, Bernardino León, was not completely impartial and held private discussions with politicians of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who publicly support the government of the LNA in Tobruk. In addition to influencing negotiations, the UAE government was also bypassing the arms embargo and supplying the rebels allied with the LNA. León was supposed to act as a mediator between the two rival governments and his goal was to establish a unified national government, in which both parties would be proportionally represented. The leak of his private e-mail correspondence, in which he is describing his actions while arranging a highly paid position for himself in the emerging think tank in Abu Dhabi, discredited all his endeavours. On November 17, León was replaced by German diplomat Martin Kobler.

Therefore, the EU got an opportunity to show its diplomatic strength. Military attacks, like the recent air strikes launched by the US on 13 November, during which one of the highest members of the Libyan IS al-Zubaydah (Abu Nabil) was reportedly killed (awaiting confirmation), temporarily paralysed fighting capabilities of the terrorists. Nevertheless, their weakness is that they concentrate only on the terrorists, but the long-term solution of the Libyan crisis has to be political and therefore they should concentrate on the two rival governments - the NGNC and the LNA. The biggest concern of the pro-Islamist government NGNC is that it will suffer the same fate as e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which was brutally suppressed by President Sisi.

So far the European response to the crisis has been relatively tepid – in May operation EUNAVFOR MED was launched while its first phase began in June 2015 with surveillance and research of smuggling routes. The second phase began in October 2015 and among other things the mission’s participants may search and confiscate vessels suspected of smuggling people across the Mediterranean Sea. However, only six European vessels are part of the operation which is by far not sufficient enough to cover the 1770 km long Libyan coastline. The third phase will enable the removal of smuggling vessels and arresting people smugglers.

The EU should focus more on supporting a constructive dialogue between the rival Libyan governments as well as supporting local communities – as mentioned, Libya has mostly a tribal organisation and the local officials are often the only functioning institutions. Agreement at the local level could be reflected in agreement at the regional level and so on. This "bottom-up" approach has support in academic literature where it is argued that the involvement of the local population in the peace process significantly increases the chance for a long-term peaceful solution. The European twenty-eight should also reconsider its approach to the negotiations with the pro-Islamist government in Tripoli – the negotiations do not need to concern concessions and relief efforts but they should establish a dialogue that would help to overcome disagreements between the two governments.

About author: Jan Faltys

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