Libya: Hope Amidst Chaos - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Libya: Hope Amidst Chaos

Libya: Hope Amidst Chaos

By Emily Cadei



Libya is at risk of becoming a lawless terrorist haven on par with latter-day Somalia. That’s something no one — neither Africa nor the West — can afford.

By Emily Cadei

Here’s something surprising about Libya: Amidst all the chaos, political infighting, roaming militias and routine assassinations is one unlikely ray of hope — Libyans are determined to keep their fragile transition to democracy alive. 

Nearly three years after the tumultuous overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and almost two years after the murder of American Ambassador Chris Stevens made Benghazi a household names in the United States, the lawlessness in Libya has grown even worse.

But even the most dour pessimists believe Libya is not yet a lost cause. And that’s because most Libyans want to end the fighting that’s wracking the country, and a majority still believe in the power of democracy.

Joyce Kasee, an expert on North Africa with the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace, just returned from meetings in the region. “There’s still pride from the revolution,” she says, referring to Gadhafi’s overthrow in a popular uprising. They “still very much want to make this transition.”

Libya is an OPEC member with capacity to produce 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. But with militias battling for control, output has plunged to just 10 percent of that.

That’s a tall order. The Arab Spring has had disastrous outcomes almost everywhere but in Tunisia, and after decades of autocratic rule, this oil-rich North African nation doesn’t have the established institutions that neighbors like Tunisia or even Egypt boast, basic stuff like a military, judiciary, a private sector, unions. Yet it’s got a process in place, and — with alarm bells starting to sound in foreign capitals — the growing support of the international community. The last thing anyone needs is a failed state next door to fragile Tunisia and Egypt, and just a few hundred miles from Italy and Greece.

Trucks and trucks of people riding through the desert

Illegal migrants who were found in the desert on the Sudanese-Libyan border

“Libya has the largest coastline of any country on the Mediterranean, and transportation routes and access to nearly the entire Middle East,” said Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson in congressional testimony last month. The collapse of order there has sent weapons and extremists flowing into North and West Africa, fueling conflicts in Mali, Nigeria and Egypt.

Asylum seekers are flowing in record numbers through Libya and across the sea to Italy in what Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet said at the hearing has been “an unprecedented wave of migration.”

Libya is an OPEC member with capacity to produce 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. But with militias battling for control, output has plunged to just 10 percent of that.

And right now, a whole mishmash of rival factions and armed militias rule in different parts of the country — groups that hail from the east and west, Islamist and non-Islamist political parties, vestiges of the old, authoritarian regime and the early leaders of the 2011 revolution, not to mention extremist groups, like Ansar al-Shariah, suspected in the attack that killed Stevens and three other Americans.

And yet: “Nobody really wants to see the country descend into civil war again,” agrees Chris Chivvis, a political scientist with the think tank Rand Corp.

The best hope for avoiding that is through the unfolding political process.

June’s parliamentary elections in Libya replaced the paralyzed, Islamist-dominated General National Congress with a new Council of Representatives, even though its mandate and lifespan are limited.

2 men sitting speaking to each other.

Egyptian FM Nabil Fahmy, right, meets with ambassador David Satterfield, U.S envoy to Libya on Tuesday, June 10, 2014.

A constitutional assembly began work on April 20 and has until late August to come up with a draft. The constitution has to be approved in a public referendum, followed by another round of elections to select a permanent legislature.

The hope is that that process will help bestow legitimacy on the elected government, which right now has virtually none. Instead, armed militias and renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar are fighting to fill the vacuum. 

A parallel national dialogue process complements work on the constitutional.

Karim Mezran, a Libyan-Italian scholar at the Atlantic Council think tank, recently called it “probably the most important intiative underway” in the country at the moment, because of its inclusiveness and the credibility it’s building across a range of local actors.

The challenge will be making sure whatever comes out of the dialogue is binding and enforced by the elected politicians, not to mention the militias.

A coalition of countries, including the U.S., is ramping up a training program for the future national Libyan military.

Chivvis believes Libyans can’t do it alone. The international community needs to help convene “a high-level process that brings together five or six key groups,” he says, essentially peace talks among the most powerful militias leading to some sort of political detente that’s so far been elusive.

It will also require a stepped-up effort from America, Europe and regional allies, whose attentions have been diverted to more immediate crises in Ukraine, Syria and now Iraq. It’s starting to happen.

The United Nations has been working to convene peace talks but has hit some road blocks amid accusations of bias and a lack of openness.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also sent veteran Ambassador David Satterfield to the country in May to “help build political consensus,” U.S. officials said. And a coalition of countries, including the United States, is ramping up a training program for the future national Libyan military. That’s a long-term program, however, and won’t help the current crisis in Libya.

In the meantime, as Chivvis says, “We have an interest in not seeing Libya become Somalia.” 

The coming months should give some indication whether that can be prevented.

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