Libya is grasping for a helping hand
Somalia and Syria combined. That’s what Libya could easily be heading towards
Somalia and Syria combined. That’s what Libya could easily be heading towards if the region and the international community are not careful. But rather than focus on the very real threat of that reality, far too many are prioritising rogue generals. Quite. The reorientation of policy towards this exceedingly strategic North African country is not a luxury the international community should consider – but a necessity that it has no choice but to pursue.
One ought to be clear about what the crisis in Libya is not about. It is not, for example, about a “war on terror.” That sort of approach is not remotely helpful to pushing forward on the overcoming of terrorist groups like Ansar al-Sharia – the “war on terror” dynamic simply blurs the lines between disparate groups, and ensures that other types of dissent that do not pass into illegal activity are criminalised. The “you are with us or against us” rhetoric, worldwide, has been tried and it fails to bring about the expected results every time.
The people of Benghazi have been fighting a pitched battle for their city and for their countryH.A. Hellyer
But it is indeed about recognizing the threat of Libya becoming a hotbed for terrorism that could impact far beyond its borders for many years to come. Radical groups like Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, which has come under attack from opponents in Benghazi, assisted by army units that remain outside of the city, are not simply in one urban area. Indeed, while Benghazi may be first and foremost on the agenda at present, owing to the fighting that is currently raging in the city, the city of Derna ought not to be forgotten. There, militant groups have emerged that have claimed fealty to ISIS in the Levant – a group that even al-Qaeda itself has criticized for being too extreme. In other parts of Libya, the concern about radical groups of this nature is not to be underestimated.
Libyan quagmire: A fight between two sides?
Yet, despite these realities on the ground, the approach within much of the international press has been to present the Libyan quagmire as essentially a fight between two “sides.” The newly elected House of Representatives, currently stationed in Tobruk in the east, rather than in the capital in the west owing to security concerns, is not comparable to the remnants of the General National Congress that is trying to grab power in Tripoli. The former is the recognized seat of power in the country – recognized by Libya’s neighbors as well as the international community. It came to power through elections – elections that may have had a less than optimal turnout – but it did not grab power through illegitimate means. The latter, on the other hand, no longer has any political legitimacy. Its term expired – even before the elections – and there should be no false equivalence between a renegade power structure in the west, and an elected government in the east.
This is not to say the House of Representatives does not have issues. It does, of course. Transparency is lacking – tremendously – and communication of the decisions and functions of the House and its government is frustratingly difficult to come by, even for its supporters. While the house membership ought to constitute 200 individual seats, a minority of those members have boycotted the sessions of the House. Among those that have not boycotted the sessions, it’s perpetually unclear how many members exist during votes and so forth. Many of them do not attend for security reasons – but clear and obvious information on these points is simply not available for the Libyan citizenry, which is a failing that ought to be addressed.
But while these are all valid concerns, and criticisms that ought to be addressed, none of this violates the legitimacy of the House of Representatives. The legitimacy remains – and the international community must continue to be very clear on this point. To deny this legitimacy is to invite not the rule of law but the rule of the gun. Libya has had enough of that and the way out of this morass must be through the House - perhaps a reformed House; a readjusted House; a better House; a House that lives up to its potential for all Libyans.
Over the last few days, the people of Benghazi have been fighting a pitched battle for their city and for their country. Let there be no mistake, while there are legitimate and genuine criticisms to be made of Khalifa Haftar, the former general who is involved in the attack on Benghazi’s Ansar al-Sharia and their allies, the real fight remains within the city. There, it is the people of Benghazi that are taking the fight to those who would take Libya to the abyss. There must be a clear and unambiguous stance against revenge killings, which could easily transform into tribal internecine conflict – that much is clear. But in Benghazi, the side that has Ansar al-Sharia in its ranks cannot be allowed to emerge victorious. That is the priority and that must remain the focus.
Libya lost an opportunity three years ago. The international community left it after Qaddafi fell, thinking that the shell of a state that his regime had would be sufficient. Instead, that state utterly collapsed and in the void forces that would lead to the rise of ISIS-like elements fell into place. But the promise of the February 17 revolutionary uprising remains one to be fulfilled. Libya can regain that promise and the international community has to stand ready to help the country fulfill that promise of a free, united, pluralistic and just Libya. The disaster of the alternative should not be underestimated.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
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