Libya’s last chance

The collapse of UN peace talks last month has seen Libya’s civil war escalate. In the west, a helicopter carrying senior commanders from extremist militia group Libya Dawn crashed in the sea, triggering new fighting. In the east, jets of the elected government buzzed three Italian warships accused of straying into Libyan territorial waters.

On every front, battles are raging and conspiracies are rife, while thousands of migrants continue to be sent north to Europe and IS expands into the central Sirte Basin oil fields.

The UN, despite seeing its final October 20 deadline pass for the country’s rivals to accept its peace plan collapse, continues to call for a power sharing government. UN envoy Bernardino Leon insists a Tripoli politician, Faiez Al Serraj, must be the prime minister, saying there can be no change to a UN peace plan naming Serraj to the top job.

This is folly of the highest order. Al Serraj is a freindly but low-profile politician, his backing by Leon based on the fact that nobody actively dislikes him.

But in today’s Libya, people need more. They need a prime minister who speaks for them, not one plucked by the UN. Leon, in fact, is guilty of the mistake many people – Libyans as much as outsiders – make, which is pinning their hopes that some White Knight can come riding over the hills to save the nation.

Some are even calling for a return for the monarchy, abolished when Muammar Gaddafi seized power four decades ago. But the truth is – it isn’t going to happen.

​Libyans are fighting precisely because there is no single leader all can agree on.

Last week, testifying to the British parliament’s inquiry into why Libya went so badly wrong, former ambassador Sir Dominic Asquith put his finger on it, saying: “There remains a very strong desire from the Libyan people for a political agreement. They want a government. They want a political settlement. There is huge frustration at their own political leadership, but also at the UN.”

A senior Libyan official put it more bluntly, telling me last week: “Everyone is focussed on the ‘who’, but the solution is the ‘what’.”

The “what” he, and I believe Asquith, have in mind is a government the people support because the people chose it and concur with its manifesto. Such a government was elected in June of last year, in elections the UN itself supervised. But when the extremists took steep losses, they rebelled, their Libya Dawn militias seized Tripoli, and the country remains at war.

Since then, the UN has focussed not on elected politicians, but on pushing those politicians to cut a deal with Libya Dawn and its militia warlords. The government, which fled to the eastern city of Tobruk, understandably says no.

Sharing power with the militias is not what it was elected to do. Especially because in recent months the key power brokers in Tripoli have become the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, a former guerrilla Al Qaeda affiliated organisation, some of them once having been interned in Guantanamo Bay. They rule the capital through the point of a gun.

The one sliver of hope is Libya’s constitutional commission, which is nearly ready to announce a proposed constitution. That constitution should be grabbed with both hands. It offers Libyans the chance to reconnect with representative government, otherwise the only alternative is perpetual militia rule.

The model for that government has yet to be unveiled. It might mean a single government, or maybe it will give strong powers to federal administrations, a constant demand from the under-populated but oil rich Cyrenaica province in the east, and by the southern province of Fezzan, both of which have a history of being ignored by regimes of all kinds in Tripoli.

Switzerland has just such a federal system, and federalism has made it one of the most successful nations on the planet.

Whatever that constitution stipulates, the UN should get behind it. Leon, exhausted and discredited after more than a year of failed peace plans and missed deadlines, is leaving. His replacement, German diplomat Martin Kobler, should scrap his search for a White Knight, and put an end to the UN’s fraternising with the warlords.

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