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Libya: the struggle to overcome reality

By Philip Eliason - posted Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Libya remains in a deeply dangerous situation. Its only way forward is political dialogue aimed at a cessation of armed hostilities, reconciliation and a suspension of distrust to allow a nationally accepted form of governance to take steps to stabilise the country. Trust-building between Libyans can be facilitated but not steered by the international community. This will need to continue after the hoped for establishment of a government of national unity. Therefore, the role of international support will need to be re-established and rise.

Libya suffers from profound under-institutionalisation at all levels. Western governments have found it difficult to establish an interface with Libyans who hold legitimate and accepted representational roles within the rapidly changing structural and political situation. In late 2014, most aid donors paused support for their Libyan projects citing doubts about their partners and political concerns over which of Libya's two competing governments was the actual point of contact for projects.

Western views of Libya flipped from the optimism for reconciliation and growth of representative government in mid-2013 an increasingly securitised view of assistance to Libya. By late 2014, they had concluded that support of a UN-sponsored political dialogue was the essential track to find a basic consensus among notables in Libya and an end to fighting over national assets. Today, there are many and competing views of local sovereignty which overlay Libya with tribal checkpoints, militia deployments and activity by criminal gangs. The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative to Libya, Bernadino Leon, has a singular focus on political dialogue. The UN has realised that all parties to the Libyan conflict need to be involved in political dialogue, including armed groups, most members of which still receive stipends from the Tobruk-based government, the House of Representatives (HoR), which is in there avoid threats in Tripoli from armed groups.


Libya's neighbours have been affected by the pace and longevity of 2014-15 fighting. In recent days, Algeria and Morocco have hosted discussions between Libyan actors within the UN process, in addition to meetings in Geneva, Tunis - and, in early February, Libya's own and relatively accessible and safe historic city of Ghadames - a result of statements that Libya should host its own dialogue.

The growth and extent of violence in Libya has generated deep concern in the region. In a reversal of previous relations, the Sahelian states, such as Chad and Niger, see Libya as a problem they need to try to fix. Much has been written about Libya's 'ungoverned' spaces (that is by a central, accountable government), weapons smuggling, drug trafficking and safe haven for jihadists. The redeployment of French forces to Chad, US support to Niger, Algeria's higher level of military activity on its southern border with Libya and frequent closures by Tunisia of its borders with Libya and African Union steps are making a very clear pattern of response to contagion from Libya.

Libya's two governments the elected Tobruk HoR and its still extant elected predecessor, the Tripoli-based General National Conference (GNC), struggle to establish favourable conditions for themselves should the UN's political dialogue process develop further. Political manoeuvring is intensifying now that the GNC has agreed to join the talks. But active hostilities continue with airstrikes, militia movements and now the confounding and far more destructive involvement of ISIS oriented groups.

Meanwhile, some of what is being fought over, Libya's Central Bank foreign currency reserves, are running out. Revenue forecasts are less than half of the HoR government's assumed spending. Cutting major outlays such the stipends of 'revolutionaries' i.e. militiamen, is exceedingly delicate. As there is no clarity or prospect for alternative government sector work-based income. Subsidies on fuel, motor vehicle, domestic gas, electricity, water and housing subsidies continue from Gaddafi-period interventions based on the then dictator's measures to buy stability. These measures are not affordable in a low oil price/low production situation so Libya's USD110 billion reserves are bleeding away.

Libya matters. It is a lesson in the real life-cycle costs of facilitating a revolution. It shouts the need for deep analysis of a country's ability to absorb change before deciding post-revolutionary development interventions. It is on Europe's doorstep with an expectation that 500,000 people will take to the sea from Libya during the coming year. It is now a stepping stone for wider regional disruption.

Containing Libya is not possible. It is not a functioning, self-interested policy-driven state which has a decision-making structure eligible for traditional analysis and influence. Seeing into Libya is increasing difficult. So is acting on it.


The answer lies in broadening the number of influencers contributing to political dialogue. They should tend against polarisation and can make up, with help, an expanding politically 'moderate middle' so necessary to provide oxygen to a stabilising dialogue. Participants in the UN process must remain engaged and backed by more structured public support to avoid isolation. This needs facilitated programs as there is a low level of civil society networking in Libya at present and a negligible tradition of systematic general 'political' participation. Several INGOs are assisting remotely to raise a wider supporting consciousness of the UN dialogue process. More can be done, inexpensively. Australia, an early and large humanitarian contributor and a driver of international intervention through its focus on the doctrine of R2P in early 2011, might consider supporting the UN process by assisting this INGO work.

Dialogue participants need to recognise that reconciliation and stability allows their economy to grow and add to the sum of national welfare. The present situation remains largely simple competition for exclusive power and control over a contracting range of resources. "Expanding the circle" where, people value others' interests as well as their own, is an essential companion focus for development project activity relating to dialogue. In the Mediterranean, Malta has a trusted position and can do more to engage with and exhort Libya's business community to take long term views of Libya's future. Meanwhile, it is difficult to gauge the path, timeframe and Libya's ability to discuss its way out of its impasse.

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About the Author

Philip Eliason, Director of Philip Eliason and Associates, advises Libya on issues relating to bilateral political and commercial links. He prepared Austrade's case to Government to open an office in Tripoli and has worked on issues relating to Iraq's post-war reconstruction as well as assessments relating to Middle East countries readiness for Australian consulting services.

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