Turkish-Russian shadows darken the sky over Libya

The creation of highly decentralized governmental structures in Libya will not be easy. Nevertheless, such decentralized administration is key to the future, and a challenge to all of us who want to see a peaceful and relatively just Libya.

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By Rene Wadlow

As if the Russian-Turkish cooperation-rivalry in Syria were not enough, we find the same combination of rivalry and some common interests between Russia and Turkey in Libya – with even more oil and pipeline issues thrown in. On the one hand, Russia is backing General Khalifa Haftar who had done part of his military studies in the USSR and has a relatively easy relation with Russians. Since April 2019, General Haftar and his “Libyan National Army” is bogged down in his quest to take over the capital, Tripoli, which would make him master of most of the socio-economic wealth of the country. Haftar is blocked by tribal militias loyal to what is considered the legitimate government led by Fayez al-Saraf.

A large number of people in the Tripoli area have been displaced, seeking relative safety in other areas. Migrants and refugees being held in detention centers are suffering. Food and medical supplies are lacking. While there is a ceasefire agreement, the agreement is often violated and migrant-holding camps are hit.

Both the Russians and the Turks have sent mercenaries to back their interests: the Russian, the “private”security firm Wagner, first founded to back Russian interests in Ukraine. The Turks have sent Syrian militias friendly to Turkey with promisses of money and Turkish citizenship.

libyan01_400The growing Turkish influence in Libya worries both Greek and Cypres who have Law of the Sea exclusive-economic-zone disputes with Turkey in areas that may have important oil and gas reserves.

There is general agreement among the U.N. negotiators as well as diplomats from interested States that the aim is to develop a single, unified, inclusive, and effective Libyan government that is transparent, accountable, fair with equitable distribution of public wealth and resources between different Libyan geographic areas, including through decentralization and support for municipalities, thereby removing a central grievance and cause of recrimination.

The creation of such State structures has been the chief issue since 1945 when the Allies – Britain, the USA and the USSR – agreed that the Italian colonies should not be returned to Italy, although Italian settlers were encouraged to stay. The Allies did not want to create the structures of the new State believing that this task should be done by the Libyans themselves. Also, the three Allies disagreed among themselves as to the nature of the future State.

By 1950-1951 with more crucial geopolitical issues elsewhere, the Allies were ready for the creation of a Libyan State. It seemed that a monarchy was the most appropriate form of government as there were no structured political parties that could have created a parliamentary government. Thus in 1951, Idris was made the King of the State. Idris was the head of the Senussi Sufi Order created by his father. The Senussi Sufi Order had branches in most parts of the country. Idriss ruled the country as if it were a Sufi order and did little to structure non-religious political structures. Idris ruled until September 1969 when he was overthrown by Muammar el- Qaddafi.

Qaddafi was also not interested in creating permanent political parties which, he feared, might be used against him. He called himself “the Guide of the Revolution” not “President” and Libya became the Libyan Jamaihirya, that is, the authority of the people. The closest model to Qaddafi’s vision is a Quaker Meeting, where decisions are taken by consensus and compromise at the local level. These decisions are then sent as recommendations to the next higher level where by consensus and compromise again a decision is taken. Ultimately, these decisions reach to the top of Libya, and the “Guide” sees how they can be carried out.

The problem with the governance of Libya was that not everyone was a member of a Sufi order where the search for enlightenment in a spirit of love was the way decisions were to be made. Moreover, there were hardly any Libyan Quakers, and compromise was not the chief model for the tribal and clanic networks which was how the country was structured under Qaddafi.

Since the overthrow and death of Qaddafi in 2011, there has been no agreement on how the country should be structured. The model which is most likely to be followed is that of General Khalifa Haftar, The model is a military-based dictatorship with a small number of civilians as “window dressing”. The model is well represented through the world although not always held up as a model form of government. Haftar holds a good bit of the Libyan territory, although his hope of a quick victory over the “national unity” government in the capitol Tripoli has not been successful for the moment.

The National Unity Government of Faiez Sarraj is a civilian-led government but heavily dependent for its survival on tribal militias. The model for the government is that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey with a certain ideological coloring from the Islamic Brotherhood, originally from Egypt but whose ideology has spread. What type of structures can be created between these two major models is not known. I would expect to see a Khalifa Haftar-led government with a few civilians brought in from the National Unity Government.

The only geographic area outside of the current Tripoli-centered conflict between Faiez Sarra and Khalifa Haftar is the area known as the Fezzan – the southwestern part of the country on the edge of the Sahara. The area was associated with the rest of the country during the period of King Idrass as there were a number of branches of his Sufi order in the oases where most of the 200,000 people in the area live, mostly date palm farmers. Gaddafi largely left the area alone as there was little possibility of developing organized opposition. However, today, the governmental neglect has opened the door to wide-spread smuggling of people, weapons and drugs. The Italian government in particular has drawn international attention to the lack of administration in the Fezzan as many of the African migrants who end up in Italy have passed through the Fezzan on their way to Europe.

The creation of highly decentralized governmental structures in Libya will not be easy. Nevertheless, such decentralized administration is key to the future, and a challenge to all of us who want to see a peaceful and relatively just Libya.

Rene Wadlow is president of the Association of World Citizens

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


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