For years, a string of UN Special Envoys to Libya have tried to broker a national unity government that combines the two opposing administrations and incorporates the various political networks, tribes, and militias that divide the country. The theory has consistently been that only an elusive “political solution” to the country’s various conflicts that culminates in a top-down, centralised arrangement can offer a stable way forward. However, the strategy plays to Libya’s weaknesses rather than its strengths—and has repeatedly failed. While establishing some sort of national governing body is important, a top-down approach is unlikely to produce an authority strong enough to arbitrate between factions or effectively combat the ongoing divisions, security challenges, and criminality.
Similarly, attempts to consolidate power by force are likely to fail. There are simply too many factions and militias and weapons to overcome. Even if a relatively strong actor could bring together enough forces and gain enough international backing to capture key institutions and locations, it is likely to continue to face opposition from different armed groups long afterwards and fragment as soon as it tries to implement any plan that emphasizes top-down governance of the country.
Libya’s limited and widely distributed population, large size, location at the crossroads of many regions, and history means that local as well as regional and national identities retain great importance. Libyans mix various cultures in different combinations, have multiple, shifting identities, and a sense of openness to the world. These social characteristics mean that it is very difficult to achieve unity based on either violence or a comprehensive agreement that leaves power and control over resources in the centre. In the first case, a strong feeling of injustice rallies local and regional groups against the faction attempting dominance. In the second case, the country’s diversity makes it impossible to forge a consensus across all groups.
Despite acknowledging the need for a bottom-up approach to end the country’s conflict, no one has developed a comprehensive vision and plan of how to use decentralisation to reduce conflict or enable local authorities to play a major role moving the country forward. There ought to be ample scope: Individual local units of governance have performed relatively well. Local mediation, conflict management, and governance mechanisms have all achieved more than national mechanisms. There are many pockets of stability across the country that could be linked up and enhanced through cooperation.
Against this backdrop, the Libyan Expertise Forum for Peace and Development (LEFPD) has brought together leading Libyans to formulate such a vision and plan—a homegrown solution for the country. The idea is to develop a framework that can build on the country’s strengths—something past efforts to stabilise the country have not attempted. It will ensure that Libyans play a central role in any debate about the country’s future domestically and internationally. It is guided by the following ideas:
Libyans must play the paramount role in formulating any arrangement to settle the existing disputes in the country; the will of Libyan political leaders is crucial.
Compromise, reconciliation, and treating each other with respect are the pillars and essence of patriotism and nationalism in their modern form and the basis of forging a peaceful society that respects diversity and provides equal justice and equal opportunity for everyone.
The collective memory of how the country’s founding fathers compromised and merged their interests on behalf of the collective and what symbols they used to build unity, integrate various groups, and create a sense of openness to the world as well as a recognition that most Libyans share a broad consensus can help the country find its way forward now.
Libya needs a hybrid administrative system that combines decentralisation and “multi-polar” centralisation. A more bottom-up and horizontal structure than currently exists is essential to achieving this goal.
Mechanisms to fairly arbitrate disagreements and strengthen the rule of law are essential to managing conflict and ensuring peaceful and equitable coexistence.
Libya needs both a social covenant and social contract. The first can unite its various groups behind a common understanding of who they are and how they want to live together while the second can provide for equal citizenship, a clear understanding of duties, and government accountability.
Hybrid legal mechanisms that combine Western and Libyan practice to settle disputes are essential to maintain harmony and leverage the best available institutions available to the country.
Developing a new socioeconomic model that empowers private social forces— most notably families, communities, and companies—and transfers power and financial resources away from the state is essential to reforming Libya’s political economy.
A strong emphasis on catalysing economic growth and prosperity through an open and diverse economy and the ending of the rentier system is the best way to ensure peace and wellbeing in the country. There is ample scope to raise living standards given the country’s human, geographical, and social assets.