How can Libya be stabilised?

Efforts to stabilise the situation in Libya should start with curbing foreign interference in the country.

Libya clashes Reuters
Smoke rises during heavy clashes between rival factions in Tripoli, Libya, August 28, 2018 [Hani Amara/Reuters]

Over the past week, fighting in the streets of the Libyan capital Tripoli killed 26, including 15 civilians. Clashes erupted between the Seventh Brigade from the town of Tarhouna and two Tripoli-based militias, the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigades and the Nawasi over the distribution of resources.

Although the situation in the capital had been somewhat stable over the past year, various militias are still vying for power.

The causes of Libya’s persistent insecurity and highly turbulent transition period since the revolution of February 2011 are many. Some are internal and caused by the weak institutions Muammar Gaddhafi‘s regime left behind, which has made it difficult for a fragmented society to reach reconciliation.

More importantly, however, instability has also been fuelled by external interference from regional and international players which have been supporting opposing sides in the Libyan conflict both politically and militarily.

Turmoil in Libya has not only affected Libyans, but has also had a negative impact on neighbouring countries and the whole region, as well as Europe and the US. The ongoing conflict has resulted in a steady flow of migrants and refugees to Europe and the proliferation of terrorist groups using Libya as a base.

These external players now hold the responsibility to stabilise Libya and it is in their best interests to do so. In this regard, there are a number of issues that need to be urgently addressed.

Curbing foreign interference

A good start for stabilisation efforts on Libya would be to curtail the destructive external interference fuelling the conflict. Countries like the UAE and Egypt have been openly flouting international sanctions on arms, as confirmed by detailed reports from the United Nations Sanctions Committee’s (UNSC) panel of experts on Libya.

Both countries have been supplying heavy arms to Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar, who has taken over eastern Libya with his army. Cairo and Abu Dhabi have also provided him with military personnel and other military support including military air raids.

Qatar and Turkey have been accused of providing political support for Haftar‘s opponents in western Libya.

European countries have been also involved in the conflict, particularly Italy and France, which have been clashing over who should dictate political developments in Libya. While the two, together, led the campaign against Gaddhafi in 2011, today they are playing a dangerous tug-of-war in Libya, which is further destabilising the country.

Just a few months ago, France – supported by the UAE and Egypt – hosted a summit on Libya attempting to impose its own vision of how the conflict should be resolved. Paris is pushing for elections to be held before the end of this year.

Italy has opposed the French plan and has recently aligned with the US behind a proposal to host another international conference on Libya in Rome, possibly in November.

The rivalry between France and Italy is a good example of how a lack of international consensus is prolonging instability in Libya. It is essential that all the key players involved in Libya show commitment to a stabilisation plan, led and implemented by the UN.

Passing a constitution

Another major step towards stabilising Libya would be the promulgation of a new constitution, something the country has lacked since Gaddhafi came to power in 1969.

Opposing the French idea that new elections should be held quickly this year, many Libyans are demanding that a new constitution should be voted on first. A 60-member body elected in 2014 has already drafted one and it needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority of votes in a nationwide referendum.

It is the duty of the Libyan parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR) based in Tobruk, to pass a referendum law to guide the process. However, certain members of the HOR, already opposed to the draft constitution, have been obstructing the procedure. They keep pushing for the vote on a referendum law to be postponed, in the hope that it will eventually be dropped.

Libyan political actors and external players, such as France, need to understand that a new constitution will unite the overwhelming majority of Libyans and it will produce one source of political legitimacy, superseding and transcending all others.

Agreeing first on a new constitution for Libya will provide a strong foundation for holding presidential and parliamentarian elections.

Pursuing national reconciliation

Apart from a constitution, Libya also urgently needs an effective and functioning national reconciliation process which includes all political, military, regional and tribal players involved in the conflict.

The UN mission in Libya has already declared plans for a major national reconciliation conference; however, such a process needs to be forged locally and regionally first with a bottom-up approach, culminating possibly in a final national declaration event.

Divisions across political and economic institutions in Libya over the last four years – including the two parallel governments in Tripoli and the east competing for power – have been a major cause of instability and suffering for the general population.

Libya currently has a divided central bank which means there have been no centralised monetary and fiscal policies. This has caused high levels of inflation and a sharp decline in the value of the Libyan currency. The situation has been compounded by a lack of liquidity in the banks for the general public.

Having one national authoritative government and uniting the army, security agencies and all the sovereign economic institutions is crucial for stabilising the country, and preparing it for a democratic electoral process.

Dissolving militias

Another major obstacle to stability and institution-building in Libya is the growing number and power of militias.

After the collapse of the Gaddhafi regime, the feeble structures of the national army and police force did not hold and militias quickly proliferated and consolidated their power. They seized control of crucial state institutions and assets, such as ministry buildings, airports, oil facilities, border posts, ports and military barracks.

Militiamen have been subjecting these institutions to extortion, demanding monetary payments and appointments in highly paid jobs. Their main concern has been personal enrichment rather than political power.

Any plan to disarm and dissolve militias, therefore, must include a detailed plan of providing militiamen with alternative jobs and careers or conscripting them into official security organisations such as the police and the army.

Their leaders, however, should be held accountable for the crimes they have committed throughout Libya through a transparent judicial process.

Recently, the UN issued a statement which was a step in the right direction. It warned that it will be “bringing sanctions against those interfering with or threatening the operations of any sovereign institution which works for the good of Libya and the Libyan people”.

An effective stabilisation plan incorporating the above steps and others, should be developed by Libyans and supported by all international actors involved.

It is in the interest of all stakeholders in Libya for the country to be stabilised as soon as possible, and its unity and sovereignty preserved.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.