Libya: the way forward

It is in everybody’s interest for the present climate of tension and instability to be resolved as quickly as possible

Four years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains a deeply fractured and divided country facing a very uncertain future.

Naturally it is in everybody’s interest for the present climate of tension and instability to be resolved as quickly as possible. Malta, however, can be said to have a more pressing interest than most other countries.

Libya is a neighbour, and the effects of instability in the country have long been felt on Malta’s shores. The mass influx of asylum seekers heading towards Europe originates in great part in Libya; and as law and order breaks down, it becomes increasingly difficult to counter human smuggling operations in the country. 

But Libya is close to us in more senses than mere geography. Our two countries have long enjoyed a mutually fruitful relationship, which has resulted in deep rooted interests vested by both in each other. For better or worse, Malta’s fate is up to a point intertwined with Libya’s. Any escalation in violence or unrest in that country will almost certainly have serious, direct ripple effects on Malta on a wide variety of fronts: national security, social, economic, political.

One is therefore inclined to agree with Foreign Minister George Vella, when he argues that Malta is the only country that can act as an interlocutor, both between the two rival governments themselves, and also between Libyan parties and the United Nations.

With hindsight, one must concede that Vella has been vindicated in his government’s controversial choice to host representatives of a government that was never recognised internationally. 

This stance was harshly criticised from both camps; but the outcome of the Malta meeting showed that both sides could, in fact, negotiate peacefully for the common interest. A consensus of sorts has undeniably emerged as a result of Malta’s delicate diplomatic manoeuvres. It may not be the consensus desired by the UN, but at least it’s a start. 

Sadly, however, the prospects of a lasting solution to the current political turmoil do not look reassuring. Last Thursday, a fragile peace deal was signed in Morocco by MPs from the rival parliaments in a bid to end the 18-month civil strife. But two days earlier, the presidents of both parliaments were in Malta declaring that they would forge ahead with their own unity government, after refusing the UN deal presented by special representatives Bernardino Leon and now Martin Kobler.

Given this impasse, the way forward will not be easy. All the same, Malta may well have a significant role to play in it. 

Seemingly, the UN deal has two main objectives: to stabilise the situation, and have one sole government which would approve and legitimise EU/NATO military action targeting ISIS and human traffickers, and possibly allow a UN peacekeeping force to enter Libya.

Some quarters view this as an attempt to impose a puppet government on what, at the end of the day, remains a sovereign state. Moreover the priorities are debatable: Libya is distraught by violence and tribal divisions, and the UN should surely give priority to disarming the estimated 1,500 armed militias and tribes. 

At the same time the UN and international community should give space to all Libyan factions, including the leaders of the House of Representatives and General National Congress who met in Malta last week to voice their opposition to the UN deal. 

The legitimacy and authority of both may be questionable, given the numerous legal challenges to their authority. But the new UN sponsored “Government of National Accord” has no form of popular support, as it was not churned out by an election but by negotiations involving political leaders who agreed with the UN plan… while others didn’t.

The UN-backed Government of National Accord has been promised a seat in Tripoli, but with leaders of both the Tripoli and Tobruk parliaments objecting to the legitimacy of what, in fact, is a third government, the chances of this happening are remote.

As Vella told MaltaToday, the international community should attempt to reach “wider consensus” to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued other splintered countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also of great concern is the fact that the West seems keen on propping up renegade general Khalifa Haftar’s army, which could lead to more violence if the strongman attempts to enter Tripoli by force.

This could ignite a civil war between different factions in the oil rich country. This is the very last thing Malta and the rest of the region needs.

If criticism of this plan is well-founded, and the ultimate intention is foreign military presence or an imposed government, then clearly we are on the wrong track. Such strategies have already proved disastrous elsewhere, as had (ironically) been predicted by Gaddafi himself.

Though well-intentioned, it is plain to see that the blueprint for Libya’s future, hammered out by the United Nations, is not a long-term solution… though it may prove useful in stabilising the region in the shorter term.

What Libya needs, however, is a truly national unity government. As proven by the protracted UN negotiations which led to the creation of the Government of National Accord, it is very difficult to reach a wide agreement. But if nothing else, Malta’s role in bringing the two sides together proves that it is not impossible.