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International failures in Libya and the unconventional approach that could bring stability

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Over the past seven years, Libya has become the stage for one of the most internationalized peacemaking efforts in the world. Since the civil war erupted in the wake of a failed democratic transition in 2014, international organizations and a multitude of state authorities from the West, the East and the Middle East have launched over a dozen initiatives to bring peace and stability to the country. The discord amongst foreign actors in promoting differing visions, along with different aspirants for power, and the fact that Libyan stakeholders themselves have not been able to agree to a common plan of action for the future, have frozen negotiations in a fragile deadlock which risks a reversal to conflict, writes Ashraf Boudouara.

As the recent failure of December 2021 to hold democratic elections so aptly demonstrated, international efforts have been following a somewhat counterintuitive approach. With no notable history of a Western-style democratic political culture, alongside a lack of cohesive national identity, Libya has struggled to meaningfully engage in as contentious a process as laying down the foundations of a new state via deliberative means.

Achieving a ceasefire, introducing elections and building a functional political structure in Libya have been on the international foreign policy agendas since 2015. The UN-sponsored Skhirat agreement (December 2015) aimed to unite office-holders of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the General National Congress of Tripoli to create a united state authority.

The Paris meeting, held in July 2017 at the behest of French President Emmanuel Macron, brought together major stakeholders in Libya as well as delegates from 20 countries to obtain a ceasefire, and agree to hold presidential and parliamentary elections. Italy launched its own initiative in November 2018 at the Palermo conference, aiming to attain similar goals. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi meeting of February 2019—like previous diplomatic efforts—brought no tangible results in paving the way towards lasting peace.

Turkey and Russia entered the picture in 2020 with President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Libyan leaders, which renewed the ceasefire between the country’s Eastern and Western powers. Germany and the UN followed up on the momentary state of calm inside Libya with the multiparty Berlin Conference, whose ceasefire agreement was expected broken by Eastern-based General Khalifa Haftar a mere day later. The UN-led 5+5 Military talks (February 2020) between five officers from the legitimate government of Libya and five of Haftar’s military men in Geneva met the same fate.

Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Williams brought what people hoped would be a breath of fresh air to foreign-led diplomatic efforts in February 2021. Introducing an ostensibly Libyan-owned and Libyan-led plan, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) managed to elect a prime minister and a presidency council. These were tasked with shepherding the country towards elections and establishing a new system of democratic governance. With plans for democratic elections on the horizon, the Second Berlin Conference (June 2021) and a new round of UN talks in Geneva (July 2021) unsuccessfully sought to bolster the LPDF by facilitating the removal of foreign fighters from Libya and the drafting of a constitutional framework to conduct elections and establish key political institutions. As was expected by many, to date, neither of these goals have been achieved and, as some feared, elections were not held last December as planned, with the situation on the ground, and the economy, only deteriorating.

As a transit country from the African continent to Europe that is rich in oil fields and an Arab-Muslim nation, Libya stands at the intersection of important geographical, economic and ideological interests. As such, foreign involvement is guaranteed to remain a feature of its current affairs so long as there is a chance for international actors to influence its future for their own benefit.

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The UN-sponsored and LPDF-led approach of addressing discord in Libya from within the nation represents a step in the right direction in terms of the way forward. It stands in contrast with failed foreign-promoted and ready-made plans of action, but still falls significantly short. Its goals and sequencing approach must be modified in order to respect current realities on the ground. Rather than leaving it to thus far alien means of democracy in Libya to lay down fundamental laws, enshrining a constitution should be the first order of business.

Agreed upon rules and key institutions would be instrumental in facilitating a sense of stability to conduct elections and engage in the highly contentious process of negotiating further elements of the legal-political framework of the country. In a recently published study, the Cambridge-based Middle East and North Africa Forum, looking outside the box for perhaps unconventional approaches, identified Libya’s 1951 constitution, and with it a democratically led constitutional monarchy, as an authentically Libyan framework which could serve as the basis of achieving a degree of stability and jumpstarting the country’s political development.

As the paper, which was presented only last week in the UK House of Lords to British and international politicians, academics and diplomats, highlights, pro-1951 forces come from various camps in Libya and include monarchists, federalists, and people who simply believe that amending an existing document would be easier than starting from scratch. The 1951 constitution, according to its supporters, represents intrinsic legitimacy and authority, and is a common uniting point between all Libyan factions. Importantly, it is a document which codified various political and social freedoms, including minorities too. This indeed, could serve as the basis of achieving the necessary degree of stability, jumpstarting the country’s political development and setting it on a path towards democratic stability and economic prosperity.

While a united approach on the part of foreign actors cannot be expected due to their divergence of interests, a Libyan-devised and Libyan-owned process is the best way of guaranteeing that its outcomes would be respected by all. Whether the 1951 independence constitution is the best option would certainly be a topic of heated debates amongst Libyans. Nevertheless, the idea of taking an existing constitutional framework to serve as a common denominator which further political processes can build upon is certainly a new approach that deserves attention—especially from members of the international community who have invested so much time and effort to effect meaningful change in Libya.

Ashraf Boudouara is a political analyst based in Libya. Having been involved in advocating for a constitutional democratic solution for Libya for many years, he currently serves as the chairman of the National Conference for the Return of the Constitutional Monarchy.

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