Some problems cannot be postponed indefinitely, and Libya is one of them. U.N. mediators, fronting for a hesitant and oft-divided international community, are running out of gimmicks for further talks among the feuding parties in Libya’s dysfunctional political process. Moving swiftly after his arrival in Tripoli last Wednesday, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj reached out to the Libyan public, key central government institutions, and regional and municipal authorities.
For Libyans, existential threats demand urgent and courageous decisions. Parochial interests will not go away, and struggles over longer term issues of Libyan identity, political structure, control of resources and the balance of power will, inevitably and naturally, reassert themselves.
For now, however, there is a common interest in survival. A humanitarian disaster looms as the country faces a terrorist presence hostile to all of the major Libyan factions, dwindling financial reserves, meager oil and gas exports, stubbornly low prices for those exports, and breakdowns in already inadequate public services.
Libya’s Presidential Council, which resulted from a several months’ long process of consultations under a U.N. umbrella with the backing of key foreign governments, is not perfect. Perfection, at this point, is the enemy of practical progress toward a better future.
Prime Minister Sarraj may only be first among equals, but he faces the accusation of being an illegitimate and handpicked choice of the international community. The House of Representatives in Tobruk still has not endorsed him, and eastern military strongman Khalifa Hifter is sitting on the fence. It is true that the laborious process of consultations of the Libyan national dialogue leading to the Presidential Council took place outside Libya’s borders, but Libya more than ever needs the support of its neighbors and trading partners.
Indeed, it was the breakdown of the Libyan political process underway since 2011 that led to an increasing numbers of Libyans pressing their factional leaders toward compromise on a unity government. At this point, the claims of elected institutions in Tobruk and Tripoli to represent Libya on a national basis are in tatters. The Presidential Council is the only structure offering hope that Libya can emerge from its nightmarish lack of broadly accepted governance. The U.N. Security Council and key Western governments have made it clear they will deal with the Presidential Council as the new legitimate government and have urged private international companies and other governments not to deal with the “parallel institutions” in Tobruk, Baida and Tripoli.
The unity government faces huge challenges. Legitimacy in states like Libya that are emerging from a long period of authoritarian rule cannot be a simple matter of holding an election for new leaders. Unless those leaders demonstrate that they can govern effectively, satisfying basic human needs for security in the streets, adequate food, clean water, affordable fuel and urgently needed healthcare, the people will view that government as illegitimate. This would be true even if the Presidential Council had resulted from model elections judged free and fair by international observers and ratified by the feuding parliaments in Tobruk and Tripoli.
Security in Tripoli itself is the most urgent priority for the unity government. Arrangements with some of the militias that have power on the streets have been necessary to get started. Eventually, the unity government will face the difficult choices of paying salaries to cooperative militia members willing to accept positions in national security services, while cutting off salaries to other militia personnel that remain outside the new system.
The continued integrity of Libya’s sovereign institutions—particularly the Central Bank, Libyan National Oil Company and Libyan Investment Agency—is essential to using Libyan economic resources as a means to finance loyal national security services and municipal and provincial government agencies that will provide services to the wider public. Early signs are good, as the unity government has reached out to mayors and other local officials in need of help. This process, however, will not be easy. There will be tough judgment calls on a daily basis during this transitional period.
Planning to support a Libyan unity government has been underway for months among the governments that form the coalition of Libya’s neighbors, key European states and the United States. Provided the unity government holds together and requests practical assistance, decisive responses must be forthcoming.
For Libya’s neighbors in Europe, Africa and the Arab world, the potential threats to their own national security of a failure of the unity government are huge. The threat of the so-called Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS, is growing in Libya as it faces greater challenges in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS recruits include many Tunisians and other North Africans who have accumulated deadly skills in the Middle East and want to take aim at the governments of their homelands. Fragile governments in sub-Saharan Africa also are threatened by the vast ungoverned spaces in Libya for terrorist training and movement of arms and personnel. Opportunities for ISIS to train and equip terrorists targeted at European cities and even the United States are obvious. A resumption of migrant waves across the Mediterranean must also be anticipated.
A reversal of Libya’s slide into state failure is the best defense against such threats. Otherwise, the opportunity to stabilize North Africa and the southern Mediterranean will vanish. The alternative, a version of Somalia on the Mediterranean, would be dire for Libyans and almost certainly much more costly for Europe than measures they can take to buttress a Libyan unity government.
Decision time is coming rapidly. Serious Libyan leaders are biting the bullet of compromise and acknowledging that a single government for the country is more important for their interests than their own control of fragments of such a government. As they gain confidence, they will be seeking concrete assistance. Italy and other E.U. member states have made it clear they will respond with urgent humanitarian supplies. The E.U. is also sanctioning three obdurate leaders, two in Tripoli and one in Tobruk, who have obstructed formation of a unity government.
Military assistance requests are also expected. This is likely to take the form of air and naval support from NATO forces for the Libyan armed services. The Libyan navy already played key roles in bringing the unity government to Tripoli and providing it an interim headquarters. Requests for training and equipment are probable. Requests for air strikes against ISIS are rumored to be coming. Libyans continue to resist any suggestion that they need foreign land combat units, but they will require help to meet a wide variety of logistical and intelligence needs.
U.S. officials have already said that our government would provide humanitarian, economic and security support to help Libya get beyond this critical point in restoring national unity. Read more dramatic roles for U.S. military support are less certain at this point. If, however, the new Libyan government requests foreign air strikes on ISIS positions, our European allies would almost certainly seek backing from Washington. This would be especially true in coordinating air operations and providing some of the unique U.S. military capabilities that were involved in the defense of Benghazi in 2011.
This comes at a difficult time for Washington decision makers. Libya is already a significant foreign policy issue in the presidential campaigns of both parties. In his The Atlantic interview, President Barack Obama reportedly expressed great unhappiness with the degree to which the United States got pulled into operations beyond the humanitarian defense of Benghazi and what he viewed as the failure of our European allies to provide Libya with subsequent assistance. Nonetheless, a sober assessment of what Libya means for the security of key neighbors like Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the security of Europe itself, suggests that the stakes are high for the United States too.
Short of a military role, the United States needs to use assertive diplomacy at the United Nations and in bilateral s with key allies. The Libyan unity government needs access to at least some of the frozen assets of the Libyan Investment Agency. This will be essential to showing that it can govern effectively by providing services, jump starting its stalled economy by renewing development contracts and forming alliances with cash starved provincial and municipal governments. It requires action by the U.N Security Council.
The United States may also need to move Libya higher on its agenda with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey. All governments that we count as friends need to understand that supporting the new national unity government is more important than forming open or covert partnerships with Libyan factions.
Longer term, Libyan economic resources and its central location can make important contributions to a secure Europe and a stronger North Africa. Right now, it is decision time.