Libya-On April 4, 2019, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched a military strike against Tripoli, the Libyan capital and the headquarters of the internationally recognized, UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Fayez al-Serraj.
The attack was a clear sign of the field marshal’s intention to challenge the GNA through military means, take control of the entire country and impose himself as the undisputed leader of post-2011 Libya.
In 2014, with the launch of Operation Karamah(Dignity), Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) took control over Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern region, and from there expanded south.
In summer 2018, most of Fezzan, the southern Libyan province, was brought under his control.
Tripolitania, Libya’s western region, was the last piece of the puzzle –– the most populous and difficult to subjugate.
Six months after the launch of the military offensive, what was envisioned as a quick victory turned into a yet-unresolved, low-intensity conflict between Libyan parties as well as regional and international actors.
Haftar’s assault on Tripoli caused new havoc in the country. According to the available data, since the beginning of the offensive, the number of internally displaced people has reached at least 199,925, while the number of deaths is reported to be about 1,048, of which more than 100 were civilians.
To this should be added the devastating effects on an already shattered infrastructure.
If this were not enough, the crisis also opened a new rift internationally. France, the United States and Russia did not directly confront Haftar’s actions but de facto condoned his military campaign, with a twofold consequence.
On the one hand, a divided international community failed to reach a ceasefire and send the warring parties back to the negotiating table.
On the other hand, such tacit support for the field marshal undermined years of democratic talks about civil-conflict termination and compromised the mediating role of the United Nations, already weakened by the unilateral actions of countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Qatar.
The stalemate in the transition dates to June 2014, when a new round of elections heightened tensions among the multiple parties that coalesced around two camps: Operation Karamah and Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn).
These artificial alliances were the result of a divisive process involving several areas of conflict: territorial grievances, stances toward the 2011 revolution and the regime of Muammar Qadhafi, and the acceptance of Islam within the construction of a new post-revolutionary society.
When the clashes exited the institutional venue and took to the street, it became clear that the course set in motion by the electoral exercise in 2012 had failed to produce the expected outcomes: the peaceful resolution of the 2011 civil conflict and the preliminary design of a democratic polity.
Accordingly, the expectations of the international community that the elections would mark the formation of a new government authority and the end of their engagement in the country were promptly dashed.
Throughout 2014, the uncompromising stance of the parties associated with Operation Karamah and Fajr Libya and their violent confrontation left no other option than referral to an internationally sponsored mediation process.
Eventually, the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) established a provisional government to accommodate the two parliamentary formations and their militias and allies.
The signing of the agreement — on December 17, 2015, in Skhirat, Morocco— was preceded by UN efforts to bring interlocutors to the negotiating table and mitigate the disruptive potential of multiple spoilers.
It was followed in the implementation phase by continuous efforts to make the internationally sponsored GNA a relevant and widely accepted entity in the country, capable of imposing a new political order before elections could be held.
Haftar’s recent attempt to expand his territorial control over Libya by military means seriously subverted such efforts. The ambiguous position of some international actors undermined the credibility of the mediation process.
The crisis triggered by Haftar’s ambitions opened a new stage in the Libyan quagmire, imposed new power dynamics nationally and internationally, and demonstrated the limits of previous approaches to the Libyan transition.
This article traces the developments in post-2011 Libya and shows how the internationally sponsored political solutions to each crisis reflected prevailing conflict-resolution paradigms but did not necessarily adapt to realities on the ground.
It argues that the electoral rounds of 2012 and 2014, as well as the UN-sponsored mediation efforts, were part of a liberal-peace legacy whose political relevance has been increasingly questioned.
The former was an inadequate solution to seal a victory obtained through an internationally sanctioned military mission (the NATO-led Operation Unified Protector).
The latter, drawing on previous cases of war termination, treated the conflict as bipolar though it was fundamentally centripetal, even within each camp.
The article argues to the contrary that Haftar’s offensive over Tripoli typifies the “illiberal turn” in conflict management recently postulated by some analysts.
Its partial endorsement at the international level mistakenly interpreted an authoritarian mode of conflict management as the condition for stability.
ELECTIONS AS CONFLICT TERMINATION
Assisted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), the first post-2011 general election was held on July 7, 2012.
According to the Libyan Transitional Declaration, citizens were called to elect the General National Congress (GNC), the first parliamentary body chosen through a “mixed” system.
To elect the 200 members of the GNC, the election law (Law No. 4 of 2012) established a parallel system in which 120 representatives would be elected by majority and 80 representatives proportionally through a closed party list.
Despite the complexity of the system and the virtual absence of parties during the Qadhafi regime, 2,501 individuals registered to run, while 125 political parties proposed 1,206 candidates — a testament to the enthusiasm generated by the political opening in the country.
No major violent episodes occurred amid a national turnout of 62 percent, with little variation across regions.
In addition to the 120 individual representatives, 21 political parties entered the GNC. Electoral victory went to the National Forces Alliances (NFA) with 39 seats.
A newly created coalition of small political parties and civil-society organizations, the NFA coalesced around the leadership of Mahmoud Jibril and an overall liberal framework maintaining the importance of Islam while calling for a market economy.
The NFA was followed by the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, which won only 17 seats.
Contrary to experiences in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, the party could not capitalize on an extensive mass organization due to its virtual absence from Libyan politics before 2011 and the harsh repression it had suffered.6 Jibril called on representatives to form a grand coalition to express national unity.
However, given the unclear and unstructured position of the 120 individual candidates, forming a majority in the legislative body and creating a government were hard, and governing the country even harder.
The international community encouraged and supported the electoral process as the best way to find a Libyan solution to a Libyan problem, thus strengthening the conviction that the country could manage its own transition without foreign interference.
Holding elections had been a common, internationally sponsored practice in countries transitioning from conflicts.
Beginning in the 1990s, with the introduction of liberal-peace theory and peace-building practices, elections became part and parcel of civil conflict’s termination.
Indeed, conflict resolution and democratization have become inherently tied to each other in all major international forums. According to such accounts, elections can legitimize a government and/or seal the aftermath of a negotiated peace agreement.
Moreover, elections are assumed to avert crises by leading previously warring parties to channel their conflicts through institutions, fostering cooperation and peaceful government-opposition dynamics.
Furthermore, they establish a rule-based system for managing attrition among social and political groups, thus behaving as a conflict-management mechanism.
Unfortunately, elections have not always served the twofold goal of war termination and democracy.
The literature on elections during war and at its end has demonstrated the conflict-inducing potential of voting processes.
Among many drawbacks, elections may incite political elites to adopt exclusionary behaviors or push for polarization.
Contenders may resort to violence to impede, postpone and disrupt the electoral exercise or influence the results section-related violence may then be influenced by weak or nonexistent institutional capabilities,the type of electoral system, pre-electoral violence patterns, and the existing or emerging party system.
Despite the potentially disruptive effects of elections, the international community has largely resorted to them, adjusting their timing, ordering (national, regional and local) and type. As noted by Benjamin Reilly, the following standard has been set among UN bodies and other international entities:
Once a minimum level of peace had been obtained (which did not necessarily mean a full cease-fire agreement), and a basic level of infrastructure was in place, the next step was usually to hold elections based on a proportional system — often within a year or two of the start of the mission — followed by a rapid handover to the newly elected local authorities, and an even more rapid departure of international troops and personnel.
In areas affected by conflict, elections remain a key instrument to legitimize a new authority.
When they are sufficiently free and fair, they put complex political transitions into people’s hands and acquire their undiscussed legitimizing role.
The corollary is that in such contexts, elections can provide an exit strategy to those international actors engaged in finding a political solution.
In conflict-affected countries, the international community, which almost by definition lacks legitimacy in the internal affairs of another state, needs a domestic interlocutor to deal with.
Elections can thus serve the double objective of legitimizing an interlocutor and justifying the international community’s departure.
With Qadhafi’s ouster, Libya needed a governing authority with the full support of the people,something the National Transitional Council could not guarantee.
Similarly, the international community, especially the promoters of the NATO-led intervention –– France, the United Kingdom and the United States –– wanted to avoid a long-lasting presence in the country, while needing an agent to settle the many claims that regime change brought about.
Largely following this standard, elections in Libya represented a critical step in the country’s trajectory.
Indeed, the 2012 exercise produced formal institutional entities (a parliament and a government) and allowed international actors to proclaim the success of their intervention.
Soon it became clear, however, that in an overall weak institutional and party structure, elections incited exclusionary behaviors.
In an environment increasingly marred by political tensions, a new round of elections was held on June 25, 2014.
However, electing a new parliament was not enough to settle existing disputes within the formal arena of institutional politics.
As the representation of Islamists dropped in the newly elected House of Representatives (HoR), members of the old GNC contested the legitimacy of the new body, refused to hand over their power and reclaimed the legitimacy of the GNC.
Although international calls for holding new elections in Libya have multiplied over the years, itis not clear how elections can ease the process of forming a government coalition broad enough to be inclusive and cohesive enough to be effective.
Weak political parties cannot act as the necessary mediators between society and politics elections allowed atomistic societal interests into national politics, with uncompromising results.
NEGOTIATED CONFLICT TERMINATION
As the dispute over the 2014 election results triggered the clash between Operation Dignity and Fajr Libya, a new political solution was needed to address the relapse into violence and establish a legitimate governing authority.
This second stage of crisis management saw the international community commit to an internationally sponsored, negotiated settlement to end the conflict and resurrect the democratic exercise from stalemate.
The effort led eventually to the signing of the LPA in December 2015. However, the mediation efforts did not successfully establish a government legitimized by the population, which the country (and the international community) desperately needed — foremost, to face the threat of an expanding Islamic State
After an initial round of negotiations in Ghadames in January 2015, the UN envoy, Bernardino León, convened peace talks in Geneva to mend fences between the two competing legislative entities in the country, the HoR in Tobruk and the GNC in Tripoli and their respective governments.
This was part of the review by UNSMIL of its mandate, which now included “reaching a political agreement on the way forward for the transition, thereby bringing an end to the semblance of parallel state institutions, and reaching an agreement on basic security arrangements in the major towns and cities, including a ceasefire.”
The process that began in Geneva ended hastily in Tunis.
There, Libyan representatives signed onto the formation of a new political structure consisting of a Presidential Council, the HOR as a legislative body, and a State Council as an advisory body to the GNA.
In theory, the LPA established a compromise between the existing institutions.
In practice, the most controversial issues of the Libyan transition, including security arrangements, were excluded from the compromise.
The UN mediation process in Libya followed another tenet of liberal-peace theory: the belief that civil wars are best terminated through a negotiated settlement entailing power-sharing mechanisms between the warring parties, usually sanctioned by elections.
Since the end of the Cold War, mediation has become the main means of conflict resolution.
From the 1990s onward, there were more mediation attempts than in the preceding period (1945-89), and negotiated settlements were more common than military victories.
This trend reflected, on the one hand, the generally bipolar nature of civil wars after the Cold War, and, on the other hand, the prevailing thinking about civil conflicts and how to solve them.
Yet, in a context such as Libya, where no easy dividing lines could be traced, such belief masked a reality on the ground that could hardly be settled by a negotiated power-sharing agreement.
The UN mediation process in Libya suffered from two main shortcomings.
First, it rested on an understanding of the Libyan crisis as binary: power-sharing mechanisms were designed to accommodate the legitimacy claims made by the HoR and the GNC. Other elements, such as resource control and sharing, as well as security, were sidelined.
But the HoR and GNC contained multiple interests and were only two of the many protagonists in the Libyan conflict,perhaps not even the most important, considering their military capacities.
Indeed, as Wolfram Lacher emphasizes, “The defining feature of the Libyan conflict landscape is its fragmentation. There are few clear fault lines or constant actors, and few coherent political-military forces.”
Even if other entities were involved in parallel negotiations, they had little power to influence the process, while those with (military) power, failed to be brought into the negotiation.
In a rather confused environment, spoilers of a political and criminal nature abounded.
Second, the UN mediation process occurred in an international environment characterized by a dispersion of power, where unity among Western countries was not assured, as the rivalry between France and Italy demonstrates.
Although most of the countries formally and informally involved in Libya, including members of the Security Council, supported the United Nations as a third-party mediator and backed the LPA, such support was waved away during the implementation phase.
On the one hand, countries such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates continued to politically and militarily support Haftar even when he rejected the UN deal.
On the other hand, as the situation worsened, a number of countries (including Egypt, Italy and France) and the African Union hosted parallel mediation initiatives, in theory aimed at supporting the peace process but in practice undermining it.
Despite these multiple initiatives, none of the above states or any others were prepared to use their power and prestige to back and support the mediation efforts –– a way, Timothy Sisk argues, to make mediation more effective.
As a consequence, the United Nations has unintentionally entered the conflict, losing its role as a neutral mediator.
Indeed, even before the signing of the LPA, opposition to the agreement emerged.
It prevailed in the Haftar camp but also divided the constituency of some of the signatories.
The result was a new fault line between the supporters and opponents of the agreement, with the United Nations necessarily becoming a partial supporter of the political structures it created, at times with the tacit acceptance of controversial actors on the ground.
This added up to a reputational crisis sparked by Bernardino León’s controversial behavior in the run-up to the conclusion of the negotiation.
(León negotiated the;conditions for his next post, director of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, while he was leading the UN mediation efforts in Libya,where the UAE was a staunch supporter of Haftar.)In all this, the GNA did not have the clout(or the capacity) to substitute existing power holders in the country and remained the victim of multiple spoilers.
Not even an internationally sponsored agreement could provide the world community with a legitimate and capable entity to manage the growing necessities of a country in disarray.
Aware of the limits of his predecessors, Ghassan Salamé, the new UN envoy to Libya, initiated his mandate with the difficult task of reviving the peace talks, this time including the breadth of Libyan society in the process.
As part of his 2017 Libya Action Plan, a National Conference was planned in Ghadames from April 14 to 16, 2019, to break the stalemate after months of nationwide consultations.
A few days ahead of that meeting, Haftar announced his military campaign against Tripoli, marking its failure and, as it is argued here, sanctioning the prospect for an authoritarian solution to the Libyan crisis.
A VICTOR’S PEACE?
After his participation among the ranks of the revolutionaries against Qadhafi, Haftar’s political ascendancy in the Libyan theater dates to February 2014, when, following the GNC’s decision to unilaterally extend its mandate, the field marshal called for its dissolution.
Since that televised announcement, Haftar’s maneuvering in the country has been dependent on the command of the LNA, a mixture of military units and tribal or locally based armed groups with support from regional and international actors, among which Egypt and the UAE stand out.
With the LNA expanding its control over the eastern part of the country, elected municipal councils were replaced by military appointments, with little or no resistance from the local population.
Haftar’s takeover of the southern part of the country followed a similar logic: military advance, alliances with local armed groups and a general acquiescence among a population ready to compromise its recently earned civil liberties in exchange for a minimum of stability.
Strong in his military control over the majority of Libyan territory and resources, namely oil, Haftar’s move toward Tripoli in April 2019 was the culmination of his plan to re-establish a unitary authority over the country eight years after Qadhafi’s fall.
The field marshal’s initiative was openly at odds with the logic of elections and a negotiated settlement.
People’s voting was replaced by military appointments and military rule, away from civilian oversight, and internationally negotiated power-sharing mechanisms were replaced by personalized power — reminiscent of the past.
These trends were reinforced by Haftar’s strategy of presenting himself as the only standing column against the advancement of Islamist terrorism, which was responsible, according to the field marshal’s narrative, for Libya’s derailing transition.
The field marshal’s irreconcilable stance against any role of Islam in politics, as well as his capacity to exercise control over his zone of influence, also made his profile appealing overseas.
For instance, in April 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump endorsed Haftar’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,”in effect endorsing the field marshal’s unilateral action against Tripoli and the GNA.
The intractability of the multiple conflicts afflicting some countries in the MENA region, including but not limited to Libya, has created the false dichotomy between a disorderly partition and the restoration of a strongman’s rule.
The latter draws on the mythical image of the Arab leader capable of keeping at bay societal divisions, terrorism and fragmentation –– an image that Haftar has masterly fed in his attempt to gain and stick to power.
Juxtaposed with the situation in the country since 2014, it is easy to regret the stability of the autocratic past.
Yet, the frustration of the Libyan population finds its origin precisely in the incapacity and unwillingness of the former regime to open up to political reforms and opponents, and to ensure economic development and civil rights.
From this perspective, the crumbling of the state structure started not in 2011 but well before, when the Qadhafi regime deformed the state to serve the parochial interests of a small circle of power holders.
It is, therefore, questionable how the most recent interpretation of such autocratic rule, as embodied in Haftar and his plan, could bring an end to the conflict in Libya.
Defying UN mediation efforts, the model advanced by Haftar furthered a trend unfolding in the late 2000s in which elections (democracy) and negotiated settlements (mediation) have been replaced by military victories or state repressions –– a trend referred to in the literature as “illiberal-peace” or “authoritarian conflict management.”
In reaction to the failure of years of liberal-peace interventions, the affirmation of this trend occurred in an environment where norms and practices associated with building peace became increasingly contested.
Indeed, internationally negotiated settlements began to decline in the 2000s, with some analysts seeing a reversal toward military victories as the main basis for conflict resolution.
Cases as diverse as Sri Lanka, Chechnya and, more recently, Syria belong to this category.
If authoritarian conflict management emerged as a potential means to end conflict and guide post-conflict transitions domestically, it also caused a mixed reaction internationally, signaling an increasing tendency among the international community toward accepting or at least not condemning it.
Illustrative of this development, in addition to the open support of Egypt and the UAE, Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli and the internationally recognized GNA was not condemned by those who, only a few years before, had endorsed and encouraged the “responsibility to protect” with all its liberal corollaries.
Due to the opposition of the United States, Russia and France, the UN Security Council failed to call for a ceasefire, condemn the field marshal’s offensive and react to the continuous violation of the UN arms embargo.
While the EU condemned the military offensive and did call for a ceasefire, it did not threaten coercive instruments, thus limiting its effect.
Against such hesitancy stood the voice of UN mediator Salamé, who warned member states that Haftar “is no Abraham Lincoln, he is no big democrat.… Seeing him act, we can be worried about his methods because where he is governing, he doesn’t govern softly, but with an iron fist.”
Among Western countries, the ambiguous position of the United States and France does not necessarily mark a full-fledged abandonment of liberal norms, but rather points to the forming conviction that in the trade-off of stability and governability versus inclusion and representation, the former is the international priority — best served by a strongman such as Haftar.
What prevails then is a degree of international indulgence accompanied by the acceptance that international security is better served by containing a crisis than radically transforming the conditions that triggered it.
In all, what prevails is the principle that the end justifies the means.
In the context of Libya, a victor’s peace, no matter how it is accomplished, is no longer ruled out as an option in an already shaky international normative environment.
At the time of this writing, Haftar’s offensive is still far from having achieved its objective of conquering Tripoli and subjugating the whole country under a military authority.
As the strike has led to a new standstill, it may be that Haftar is not the strongman he and his supporters had envisioned. Yet his move and the international reactions it caused make finding a solution to the Libyan crisis even more difficult.
Domestically and internationally, it undermined the confidence that a mediated agreement is the outcome to be pursued by all actors involved in the conflict, compromising even further the prospect for a peaceful solution and the role of the United Nations.
Additionally, it deepened the divide among the parts, while creating new conditions for a further disintegration of the Libyan political and military scene.
As argued above, recent events in Libya fit into the “illiberal” turn in conflict management: the set of discourses and practices that are — intentionally or not — moving conflict resolution away from the framework that characterized the turn of the new millennium, the apex of the liberal-peace consensus.
Notions of internationally sponsored peace negotiations have given way to military victory or conditions of frozen conflict.
A focus on human rights, inclusion and participation has been replaced by calls for security and stability, and democratic practices have been undermined by acquiescence toward authoritarian modes of governing in transitional contexts — this while international interventions no longer propose a transformational template, but are inclined to minimize outside actors’ involvement.
This paper does not question the normative ground upon which an “illiberal” turn can provide a solution to the Libyan crisis.
Instead, it questions its eventual effectiveness, showing how the resort to the electoral exercise and mediation in Libya have been affected by a liberal-peace residue that could hardly fit the reality on the ground.
Similarly, it argues that Haftar’s offensive over Tripoli mistakenly interpreted a victor’s peace and an authoritarian mode of conflict management as the conditions for stability in Libya. As the country’s history demonstrates, the space for dissent grows precisely in the interstices of a fierce, though certainly not a strong, state.
Even if hopes for negotiations eventually restart in Libya, Haftar’s move and, above all, thereactions it caused internationally set a perilous precedent in international conflict management.