Three issues essential to kick-starting Libya’s recovery

The new interim administration may need to focus first on political reconciliation, ending the foreign military presence and stabilization

A boy wearing a Libyan flag takes part in a celebration marking the sixth anniversary of the Libyan revolution, in Benghazi, Libya February 17, 2017.

A boy wearing a Libyan flag takes part in a celebration marking the sixth anniversary of the Libyan revolution, in Benghazi, Libya February 17, 2017.

Reuters/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies on Sunday organized a discussion on the challenges facing Libya’s national unity government. The virtual conference included former senior officials and experts from Libya and neighboring countries. While the discussion by design focused on the difficulties facing the new government, there was overall recognition that Libya is on the cusp of a new start, enjoying a national consensus not seen in a decade of fighting. There is also widespread regional and international goodwill toward the new government.

However, this rare national and international support could unravel if the new government fails to deliver on its promises and meet the high expectations it has set itself on the political, security and economic fronts.

There is no question that Libyans have surprised many by reaching a solid ceasefire, which started last September, followed by the formation of a national unity government in February. In addition, after the new government and presidential council were granted a vote of confidence by the parliament last month, they have made energetic efforts to address some urgent issues, including the constitutional drafting exercise, preparing for the upcoming elections — scheduled for Dec. 24 — and reunifying government agencies after years of working separately, divided according to the lines of control of competing authorities.

Some participants at Sunday’s meeting correctly pointed out that, difficult as they are, these three tasks are not the most daunting or even urgent. They argued that the December elections may not help restore normality to the country unless a number of prerequisites are addressed beforehand, such as the departure of foreign forces and freelancers and the sorting out of the fate of local militias. The same argument goes for the draft constitution, as it may be difficult to reach agreement on the terms of a permanent constitutional structure before creating the right conditions for it.

Intra-Libyan dialogue has so far succeeded in agreeing on a national unity government and presidential council. The parliament also exercised its authority with responsibility and approved the formation of both institutions. That dialogue should continue, with the help of UN envoys Jan Kubis and Stephanie Williams, to ensure the prerequisite conditions for achieving a stable governing structure, free and fair elections and, most difficult of all, a permanent constitutional document endorsed through a referendum.

Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has promised to speedily address the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and fix a health system that is not up to the task. He also listed other priorities, including improving the living conditions of Libyans facing serious economic hardships, providing basic government services, updating physical infrastructure, and fighting corruption.

Participants on Sunday agreed on the list of challenges facing the new government, but differed on priorities. Specifically, there were differences of opinion on whether to prioritize the formalities of elections and a new constitution or emphasize practical security and economic measures, which are seen as prerequisites and should be addressed first.

There are three main issues on which the new interim administration may need to focus first in order to pave the way toward normality: Political reconciliation, ending the foreign military presence, and stabilization.

First, at the political level, bolstering confidence among rival factions is essential to maintaining their engagement and support for the reconciliation process. From speaking with Libyans from different regions, you notice that the civil strife of the past decade has heightened regional competition and deepened the alienation and suspicions between them. Some militias and political groups owe their existence to those rivalries, which at times they have exaggerated and exploited. It is, therefore, essential to maintain the current dialogue, which has succeeded in producing a consensus government and presidential council, with a view to including more groups and widening the scope of the discussions.

Second, at the security level, it should be a priority to end the foreign military presence, whether regular or irregular. Reuniting Libya’s security and military forces is also a priority, followed by dealing with paramilitary and private security groups. There are some options that have been tried successfully in other parts of the world, including turning such groups into unarmed political organizations to participate in the upcoming elections, decommissioning their arms, and integrating some of their members into regular police and army units.

Third, the stabilization process should aim at gradually restoring the rule of law and reviving economic activity. Regular security forces should replace private groups in law enforcement and the protection of the civilian population. Deriving from cases of postwar recovery elsewhere, for stabilization to work and continue it needs to be combined with economic recovery. If economic activity is not re-energized and employment opportunities remain scarce, young people may be reluctant to leave their jobs with the militias.

These political, security and economic factors are intertwined and need to be tackled simultaneously. The departure of foreign military forces is needed to encourage local militias to disband or integrate into the regular security forces. Both steps are needed to restore investor confidence and revive the economy. Economic recovery, in turn, is needed to make stabilization work and infuse enough confidence so that businesses can reopen and provide jobs and services. Uniting government policy, including on oil production and government finances, is also essential to restore confidence locally and internationally.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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