Eliminating the Islamic State’s (IS) presence in Libya is just one of many goals that Libyans share with the international community and which could be the building block for a long and productive relationship, says analyst Tarek Megerisi. Europe, still recovering from the shock of Paris and Brussels, fears a potential extremist enclave a few hundred kilometers away, he writes for Carnegie’s Sada Journal;
For Libyans, IS presents a grave danger to national sovereignty and security, a danger accentuated by its expansionary regional ambitions. As such, anxiety over the estimated 5000 IS fighters in Libya, its base in Sirte, and its potential to expand in number and territory is dictating the international community’s Libya policy. However, this represents a shift in policy priorities toward Libya that makes the earlier priority of national political stability a secondary concern. It puts the project of Libyan national unity at risk and is likely to foment discord between Libya and its foreign partners—two outcomes that would actually hinder a comprehensive anti-IS strategy.
Insecurity remained prevalent in Libya following the 2011 conflict and deepened in 2014, driven by overlapping ideological, personal, financial, and transnational rivalries. Resulting conflicts involving Libyans in different parts of the country drove the political transition off course, according to Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy, a recent analysis from the Congressional Research Service:
Gradually, an unspoken code under which Libyans sought to refrain from shedding other Libyans’ blood in the wake of Qadhafi’s ouster deteriorated under pressure from a series of violent confrontations between civilians and militias, clashes between rival ethnic groups, and the blatant targeting of security officers by an unidentified, but ruthless network in Benghazi. That code was rooted in shared respect for the sacrifices of anti-Qadhafi revolutionaries and in shared fears that the 2011 predictions of Muammar al Qadhafi and his supporters would come true: that Qadhafi’s downfall would be followed by uncontainable civil strife and chaos.
The report quotes Sayf al Islam al Qadhafi, who remains in detention in Libya and is sought for arrest by the International Criminal Court, who said in a February 2011 television statement: “Libya, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, is about tribes, clans, and alliances. Libya does not have a civil society or political parties. Libya is made up of tribes that know their areas, allies, and people. …If secession or a civil war or a sedition occurs …do you think the Libyans will be able to reach an agreement on how to share oil within a week, a month, or even two or three years?”
But unlike relatively impoverished Egypt, “Libya has considerable financial and human assets, including the benefits of globalization, increased wealth, and a more educated elite,” according to a report from the National Endowment for Democracy published at the start of the transition. “Young Libyans in particular are demanding not just rights, but responsibilities, while an incipient national civic identity is becoming more powerful,” it added.
Ultimately, Libya’s viability as a unified and peaceful nation-state has been tethered to domestic politics and an international policy founded on frenzied speculation about security threats, Megerisi adds:
Ignorance of the Libyan context was what undermined the military intervention in 2011. The lack of political and humanitarian assistance to complement NATO’s efforts allowed Libya to fail as a state. Empowering politicians who had little actual influence but grand personal ambitions, rather than engaging stakeholders directly, allowed Libya’s post-revolutionary failures to compound. Five years on, the international community can learn from the mistake of engaging unilaterally without due respect to the context or risk repeating this factionalizing approach in an arena where the stakes have grown considerably higher.