If a strong initiative is not undertaken rapidly by the Libyan government and its Western allies, the state of Libya risks implosion or a return to authoritarianism. The confluence of internal fragmentation, continued attacks against the central authorities in Tripoli, and ongoing human rights violations throughout the country is putting the very existence of the state at serious risk.
Although the United States and the international community came together under the umbrella of the Right to Protect doctrine to intervene and defend Libyans against the brutality of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, this consensus for and impetus toward action have since faded away.
To avert collapse, Libya needs a strong process of national unification with support from the international community. This should be built upon a national dialogue to bring together major stakeholders from Libyan social and economic forces to devise a political vision for the future of the country. The process should be predicated on a viable and legitimate national reconciliation program between the forces behind the revolution and the supporters of the former regime, most of whom live in exile in neighboring countries.
To date, the Libyan government has undermined any future national reconciliation by demanding the arrest and extradition of many sympathizers of the former regime living abroad. There are an estimated 800,000 Libyans living in Egypt alone, many of whom have strong familial ties to Libyan tribes. Some of these individuals, like Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam (a cousin of Gaddafi and one of his main collaborators), have shown a serious willingness to negotiate with the Libyan government, and have demonstrated flexibility in seeking to resolve some of the political and legal issues involved. Over the course of the last year Gadhaf al-Dam met in Cairo with Ali Sallabi, a Libyan government envoy, to discuss the possible reintegration of exiles in Libya. The Libyan government should encourage and fully pursue such initiatives.
“[R]econciliation is Libya’s best hope for developing in a democratic, pluralistic sense, where human rights are meaningfully upheld.” – Karim Mezran, Atlantic Council Hariri Center
Libyan authorities have assured the Egyptian government that they will protect the extradited individuals, guarantee a fair trial, and provide all protections sanctioned under international law, yet it is questionable whether they can actually deliver on this promise given that government officials themselves face significant security threats (including the prime minister’s chief of staff who was recently kidnapped).
Moreover, the Libyan judicial system has been unable to claim jurisdiction over Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, who remains in custody of the militias of Zintan, and not the central government or any official authority. Furthermore, the Libyan government has yet to provide a fair and speedy trial for any former regime officials already in its custody; most are languishing in jails without a trial, limited access to a lawyer, and in unknown physical condition.
In addition, the Libyan government has failed to stop the systematic collective punishment of residents in towns suspected of supporting Gadhafi. This attempt to seek revenge rather than a policy of national reconciliation is fostering divisions and fragmentation in Libya, and may prove fatal for the Libyan government, especially at a time of extreme instability.
For the international community there are two compelling reasons it must intervene and pressure the Libyan government to revisit its approach. First, most Libyan exiles have strong ties with tribes across North Africa and the Sahel, which can potentially be exploited to further destabilize the region. For example, Gadhaf al-Dam belongs to the cluster of tribes that span from Sirte in north-central Libya to the Fezzan region in the south, to Chad and Niger, but he also belongs to the Awlad Ali tribe, which dominates the region between Egypt and Libya in the west. Deep tribal connections such as these could potentially cause further problems for Libyan stability and threaten to destabilize a highly volatile region. There is a clear interest for the United States and the international community to prevent this escalation, particularly because this region borders areas exploited by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Furthermore, Libya is sometimes viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a possible predictor for what the future holds in Syria. Until now, Libyan authorities have pursued an irrational and unreasonable policy of condemning former political opponents through international mechanisms such as Interpol’s Red Notice, which sends a signal to those who continue to support the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the situation they may find themselves in in the near future. With the Libya experience as a guide, abandoning Assad will look increasingly unattractive to his supporters.
The United States, instead of merely demanding adherence to democratic procedures and pushing the Libyan government to disarm former revolutionaries, must collaborate with European states and other allies to pressure the Libyan government to halt its needless, counterproductive policy of revenge. Instead, Libyans should launch a process of national reconciliation within the framework of a national dialogue, which includes an internationally-sanctioned transitional justice process. Only by pushing the Libyan government toward reconciliation is there an opportunity for Libyan institutions to overcome the difficulties inherent in its reconstruction. In fact, reconciliation is Libya’s best hope for developing in a democratic, pluralistic sense, where human rights are meaningfully upheld. This is the best way for the United States and President Barack Obama to claim Libya as part of its legacy, or otherwise risk the Libyan transition becoming a major foreign policy failure.
This post was first published by the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East.
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Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.