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Libya: A Crisis Turned Inside Out – Report

By Matthijs Maas -

Since the 2011 uprising that, backed by NATO, swept Colonel Moammar al-Qadhafi from power, Libya has remained in the grip of unrest and violence. While two separate governments battle it out from Tobruk and Tripoli, terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, seek to get a foothold in the country. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees cross into the country on their way to Europe, willing to take extreme risks with human traffickers and on the Mediterranean−with tragic results. How did it come to this... and what will the future bring?

To answer these questions and more, JASON organized a lecture and debate night in The Hague on Monday the 11th of May, to listen to the insights of Clingendael experts Dr. Dick Leurdijk and Ms. Iba Abdo. After a short introduction by JASON, Ms. Abdo started of the night with a detailed 'internal perspective' on the situation in Libya. Based on a Clingendael Institute policy brief that she is developing, her lecture characterized the post-Qadhafi Libya as a divided society riven by cyclical struggles of inclusion and exclusion, in a 'zero-sum game for the domination of Libya'. Her argument covered four points: first she detailed the history of Libya since 2011, discussing the establishment of the National Transitional Council (NTC) of Libya in the wake of the overthrow of the Qadhafi regime, and how the subsequent parliamentary elections, which were won my centrists, and left the Islamist parties isolated on the periphery, set the stage for the current tensions. She suggested that one underlying cause of the current conflict is the huge prevalence of armed militias in Libya. These armed groups, which emerged during the revolution against the Qadhafi regime, refused to demobilize after the revolution was over. To keep these groups in check, the Libyan government accordingly pursued a politics of appeasement, by putting militias on their payroll. Unfortunately, this not only caused membership of these militias to burgeon (from 40.000 just after the revolution, to over 250.000), but also imposed a crippling burden on government finances.

Secondly, Ms. Abdo discussed the current political context that had arisen as a result of these factors, arguing that, since Qadhafi, there have been no shared norms, values or allegiances to underpin a unified Libyan state, and accordingly there has been continued contention and conflict over the foundational 'rules' of Libyan society, specifically where it comes to the position of former Qadhafi elites, the role of political Islam, and the legacy of tribal, economic, and historic divides. Exacerbating this is a pattern of exclusion and inclusion, played out through a series of mutual escalatory 'exclusive' actions and reactions between centrist, federalist parties, and between Islamist parties. These Islamist factions allege that these centrist parties are still dominated by the 'old elites' from the former Qadhafi regime, and when they lost the elections to these centrist parties, they reacted by besieging Tripoli and passing the 'Political Isolation Law' of May 2013, that barred Qadhafi-era officials from taking part in politics. Tensions between these factions came to a head one year later, when the 'centrist' government, which had relocated to Tobruk in the East of Libya, launched 'Operation Dignity' ('Karama'), under the command of Lt. General Khalifa Haftar, against Islamist armed groups in Benghazi and against the Islamists in Tripoli. In response, Islamists militias launched 'Operation Dawn' ('Fajr'). However, Ms. Abdo cautioned that these coalitions are marriages of convenience at best, as they include many militias and terror groups, and these could easily schism should one side or another gain the upper hand.

Thirdly, Ms. Abdo described the results of the power struggle, amongst them the proliferation of extremism, including the rise of Ansar Al-Sharia (the Libyan branch of Al Queada), and the abetment of human traffickers, who operate particularly from the port cities of Zuwarah and Sabratah, deep in Dawn-held territory. This is particularly hard to stop because both local tribes and the Dawn factions profit from the trafficking flows. Fourthly, and finally, she briefly discussed the UN-led initiatives to solve the crisis, concluding that despite an uneasy ceasefire reached in January, there is little promise that this is a sustainable dialogue, or that diplomatic initiatives by the UN could produce a National Unity Government and put a permanent end to the conflict. This is because the basic preconditions and demands of both sides are mutually exclusive, they do not recognize each other's legitimacy, and anyway, the strongest actors on both sides are not political, but rather military leaders. Finally, a resolution is difficult because the conflict is no longer internal, but increasingly part of a regional conflict, wherein Dignity is supported by Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, and Dawn is supported by Qatar and Turkey.

After the break, Dick Leurdijk provided an 'external' perspective on the situation in Libya, looking back on the original, hopeful reactions, in the West and by international institutions such as NATO and the UN, to the 'liberation' of Libya and the Arab Spring. He observed how thoroughly disappointed such hopes have been, with the Libyan revolution since devolving into chaos, with almost 1,700 militias running wild amongst over 400.000 internally displaced people. He argued that, not the Arab Spring itself, but instead the aftermath of the Arab Spring is the most important event of the early 21st Century, and that Libya is a model case of the regional turmoil. Backtracking to the early days of the revolution against Qadhafi, Dr. Leurdijk continued in discussing, in detail, the key Resolutions issued by the UN Security Council in 2011, particularly RES 1970 and RES 1973. He argued that while the sanctions imposed by these resolutions--no-fly-zones, arms embargoes--might have a lot of precedent, their phrasings, and the principles and actors they referenced to justify these sanctions, were rather unique, and marked remarkable shifts in international legal discourse. Specifically, this expressed itself in a greater focus on humanitarian considerations and the 'R2P' ('Responsibility to Protect') principle, a greater devolvement to the discretion of local or regional international organizations such as the League of Arab States, and an affirmation of the jurisdiction of the ICC. Finally, Dr. Leurdijk discussed shifts in the NATO response to the crisis, as well as the principles encapsulated in Libya's 2011 Constitution.

Q&A

The Q&A session at the end of the evening dealt with some of the details of the complex situation in Libya. It was discussed how there was a tension between the fact that the international community generally supports the Tobruk government in the East, but not always the 'Operation Dignity'. Other topics included the similarity of Lt. Gen. Haftar's Operation Dignity, to the anti-Islamist policies of President el-Sisi in Egypt, public support for the Dignity and Dawn operations, and Federica Mogherini's recent proposal for a EU military mission to Libyan shores. Finally, a key point remained the complexity and intractability of conflict: Ms. Abdo particularly emphasized that we should have patience, and that it takes time to build democratic principles and values; that the situation will stabilize eventually, but that in the short term, the reality on the ground is so complex that it is very hard, if not impossible, for the outside world to meaningfully come to the assistance of the Libyan people.

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