Wednesday, 23 January 2019
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After months of vicious internecine fighting of a tortured complexity, a ceasefire has been called in Libya. The fighting between the two main protagonists - the Libyan National Army allied to the international recognised government in Tobruk, and the Islamist leaning Libya Dawn coalition, dominated by militias from Misratah and under the leadership of a "National Salvation Government" in Tripoli - has crippled Libya, earning it the unenviable sobriquet of 'Somalia of the Mediterreanean', writes Charlie Pratt.

If that remains far from the truth at present, it may not be so forever. The recent round of fighting has been the most brutal seen in Libya since the revolution. This time there is no hated dictator to get rid of, instead each side seems to be fighting against each other for little more than a dwindling slice of the revolution's poisoned inheritance. This fight is about power, and I fear that until one side wins, there will be no reconciliation, and no future in the historic gem on the Mediterranean coast.

As the fighting and politicking has raged, oil revenues have fallen, GDP has shrunk, government has ground to a halt and salaries go promised but unpaid. After four years of fighting, nothing is working and nothing is being achieved in this country of two governments and a thousand militias. Even the ceasefire itself is just one step away from a sham. Both sides are looking cautiously over the barrels of guns at the other, while ceaseless fighting occurs in the streets of Libya's second city, Benghazi, between the LNA and radical Islamists under the banner of the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council. Peace and stability, much hoped for in Libya in the aftermath of the revolution, seems a distant dream. And Libya may well get worse before it gets better; the militias believe they can still gain power by fighting, and the politicians are too weak to stop them.

That the ceasefire has been reached at all is testament to the good offices of the UN and the numerous Western Special Envoys to Libya. They have ploughed a lonely furrow for months, attempting to understand the situation and broker talks between the various warring sides. They have succeeded to an extent, with the UNs special representative, Bernandino Leon, bringing representatives of the Tobruk and Tripoli governments together in Geneva to call for peace and reconciliation. Amidst the opulence of their surroundings, they have summoned the beginnings of a collective spirit, but should it endure they have a huge issue to solve; how the future of a country made up of militias, ex-Gaddafi fighters and exiled returnees, riven by new and old division, should look, and how they should reach it. For now, they have decided, wisely, to concentrate on smaller issues such as the return of displaced persns and, but we should be under no illusions each links directly to the political future of the country, each is political explosive.

But even the discussions around these small issues seem far in the future. For now, the situation is still staggeringly complex and dynamic. The parties involved in Geneva each have battles to fight at home on their own sides between hard liners and moderates before they can come to any form of agreement. The splits in the Misratan dominated Libya Dawn are particularly prominent, and taxing to the process of reconciliation. Here, in the city that viewed itself as the crucible of the revolution against Gaddafi, the hardline militias of leaders such as Salah al-Badi have little truck with negotiations or reneging on their current ascendancy in Tripoli. These men led the more aggressive Misratan militias into Tripoli in the middle of last year to fight militias from the town of Zintan allied to al-Thinni, spurring the current crisis and beginning a process of deep blood debts between the two sides that mars the reconciliation process and threaten to re-explode at any times. The more moderate leaders such as Fathi Ba-Shagah struggle with these leaders as they discuss matters in Geneva; able to agree broad positions, but always finding it hard to bring the renegade elements with them.

The same is true of Al-Thinni's government. While Al-Thinni has more of a handle over his politicans in Tobruk, and has certainly shown himself to be a canny political operator, there are constant concerns about his level of influence over the LNAs renegade leader, General Khalifah Haftar. A military man of some standing in the country, but with a poisoned history of Leadership under Gaddafi, exile in the US, and military failings in the revolution, Haftar has led the LNA from the edge of success to the brink of failure and back again in his operations against radical Islamists in the East of the country. This campaign, designed to bring him political success as much as destroy Ansar al-Sha'ria, recently widened to the bases of Libya Dawn militias in Misratah and Tripoli as Haftar used his one real advantage, air power, to pile the pressure on them. His actions precipitated the current ceasefire. But even this ceasefire leaves out his action in Benghazi, the carefully worded statement released from his camp ensuring that LNA actions against 'terrorists' can continue. Al-Thinni has found himself in a devil's bargain. Haftar is unpalatable to the Dawn side, but increasing immovable for Al-Thinni; should he force his way into Al-Thinni's government the hopes of reconciliation are dead, but should he be forced outside, the ceasefire will die too, as Haftar stakes his popularity and political future on destroying Islamists in the East. It is an unenviable position not just for al-Thinni, but for the country as a whole.

Libya desperately needs the ceasefire. It needs the time to get working again, to heal its divisions, to find a common future, and, most importantly, to come to terms with it's past. The country has been on a downward spiral from the end of the revolution. Misratah may shout loudest about how it has suffered the poisoned inheritance of the revolution, a city disempowered by mainstream government and disinherited of what it viewed as it's own following the city's sacrifice during the revolution, but each city and region has it's own complaints, and it's own scars. The truth is that the revolution has been hijacked by those who fought for, and won it - the young 'thuwwar' of the militias. Over the last three years they have proved time and again that they could stop the central government working, and that in the area outside of Tripoli, they were the government. This distorted position played out to its logical conclusion as militias from Misratah, Zintan and Tripoli crazily fought for power across the suburbs of Tripoli, fighting over citizens who did not care about them, nor for them. While they are the real power in this country these men have shown, time and again, that they cannot win the fight for the future of the country; that is a job for politicans and citizens, not men still looking to win a battle that is long past.

The politicians have been as much to blame for the failure of the revolution as the Thuwwar. Their fault stems from a lack of political will, rather than the voracious appetite of the Militias. Unable to build consensus, despite the results of two elections of overwhelming turnouts, the state has retreated, as the country has increasingly been forced to resemble a dysfunctional network of Greek city-states. Though faced with a Herculean task in animating the ruins of a state that Gaddafi left, they have quailed in the face of it, retreating to narrow tribal and community interests rather than building a nation. The joint impact of out of control militias and politicans who are barely in control has decimated Libya, leading to the unchecked rise of radical Islamism in the East of the country around Dernah and in areas of Benghazi, large tracts of under governed space in the South and a hollow shell of a state elsewhere. While these twin influences rappel against each other, the hope for Libya is fragile.

But hope there is, not because of the politicians and militias, but despite of them. Libya remains an educated country, with high rates of literacy and an overwhelmingly urban population, easy to reach and willing to be reached, and there is little religious strife here. The country is predominantly Sunni, and before the rise of Ansar al-Sha'ria in the East and now ISIL linked militias, the country has accepted Sufis, Shi'as and Copts. In the aftermath of the revolution, the impossible seemed possible.

61% of the population turned out in the 2012 elections, voting peacefully and fairly for the chance at a new future. Moderates won, with Islamists sidelined. Even the 2014 election elicited a 42% turnout in the shadow of war and ruin. The turnouts and outcomes of the two elections are the starkest reminder of what is still to be won here. Libya still has a chance to follow Tunisia, but with even greater results. While the elections were stolen from them by inept politicians and vicious militias, the Libyan people clearly still believe in the future of the country, and the politics that may come to shape it. Far more than the politicans squabbling in Geneva, or the militias itching to trade bullets once more, the future of Libya lies in this quiet majority. Once again, the future of Libya lies in its streets.

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