By Michael Shank and Najla Elmangoush
Editor’s note: Najla Elmangoush is the dean of Centre of Gender Studies at the Libya Institute for Advanced Studies in Tripoli. Michael Shank is the associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. The views expressed are their own.
With violence in Iraq dominating the news, there’s little attention paid to the similar implosion in Libya, aside from the usual periodic Benghazi rhetoric. Yet U.S. interventions in both countries have clearly backfired, leaving them all the messier because the U.S. didn’t carefully plan reconciliation processes in either country. And, without Washington’s willingness to engage in some self-reflection on what it did wrong with Libya, we risk seeing the same chaos that is unfolding in Iraq.
Sadly, the West’s neglect has allowed Libyan renegades like Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a former Gadhafi supporter who has recruited other ex-Gadhafi loyalists, to take charge. Haftar, whose is supposed to be fighting the extremists, has been behind the bombing of areas around Benghazi, and leads a powerful militia once part of the national army. He is also using the same language as the West regarding his refusal to “negotiate with terrorists.”
But none of this is helping Libya become more stable. Indeed, the security situation is deteriorating, and this summer witnessed the worst violence in Benghazi since 2011, when Gadhafi’s militia attacked the city. The latest example of violence – between Ansar al-sharia, the most dangerous armed Islamist militia group in Libya, and Haftar’s forces – claimed the lives of 19 civilians, with dozens more hurt.
A different approach is needed, one that brings the fractious groups together, reconciles differences exacerbated by Western munitions that have seeped into the country, and moves the country forward.
Libyans have grown frustrated with their government, and its inability to provide security, is understandable. Many residents live in fear, relocating to safe areas when fighting breaks out.
But a Western-sponsored disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process is not likely to be successful in such a volatile climate, when the perceived need for self-defense remains high. Instead, the answer lies with tribal leaders – the only ones who truly hold sway over much of the population.
After all, it was tribal leaders who brokered the deal that reopened the eastern oil ports taken over by armed rebel groups. They remain a formidable presence in traditional Libyan society, and should broker a process of restorative justice that can heal years of divisive and devastating fighting.
This is no small task – there are hundreds of militia groups, with different ideologies and political visions. But this should be priority number one for anyone who cares about Libya.
At present, the Libyan government is at the mercy of the militias, offering them money in the hope they will switch loyalties and build a national army. Yet money will only make the situation worse if the government fails to understand their underlying needs, which means not just assisting them in overcoming past violence, but also rethinking a system started by Gadhafi of favoring development and assistance in the West, especially Tripoli, over the east of the country.
The first step is to bring together the parties concerned in a dignified manner. Tarek Mitri, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General for Libya, announced this month the launch of a political dialogue initiative involving various influential Libyan actors. This is a good start. However, this initiative should be simply the beginning of a long-term process that goes beyond elite and political leaders. Representatives are needed from all levels of government, the National Congress, most militia groups, Haftar’s forces and civil society.
The second step, once everyone is at the table, is to address human rights violations. Violence is now embedded in Libyan society, thanks in part to the weapons flows from the West. But if Libyans are to have faith in the justice system, then a traditional approach – one that relies heavily on the participation of tribal leaders – is more likely to meet with success because it would be operating within familiar local linguistic and cultural contexts.
Throughout any of this, leaders from within civil society, traditional, and local nongovernmental organizations must have an opportunity use their power to prevent conflict and deescalate the violence. If the West wants to remedy the war-torn mess it left in Libya, this is the way to do it.