Libya's game of thrones--its internal political struggle-- is undermining its ability to rebuild its economy and government. The key to its future success is contingent on two things--security and one government. Both will be difficult to achieve, but both are necessary if Libya is to turn the page on its present state of crisis.
The once promising effort to build a unified national government marked by the 2012 elections, and US and international support for institution building, fell apart. In 2014 the Libyan government split into two main political factions. The Islamist-led Libya Dawn coalition took over Tripoli, and the House of Representatives (HoR) backed by the forces of "Operation Dignity," the anti-Islamist campaign of General Khalifa Hiftar, moved to the East of Libya in Tobruk. A third Libyan government, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA)--a body that reflects an agreement made last December with the help of the United Nations--has begun to establish itself in Tripoli and seeks to build consensus among the opposing Libyan governments.
Trying, however, is not succeeding. The GNA has international support, but it lacks domestic backing, particularly from the HoR and General Hiftar. In an interview in early July of this year, said the UN "is trying to impose and unworkable agreement on the country's factions that is 'screwing up' the political process..."
The debate moves from the political to the economic when considering the fight over Libya's oil resources. The Libyan National Oil Company (NOC) called on rival Libyan factions--the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Hiftar and the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG)--to stop fighting in and around the Libyan oil terminal in the port of Zueitina. The PFG agreed to help the GNA reopen the port in order to assist the sagging Libyan oil industry. This did not sit well with the LNA, which believes it should control these facilities. The loser in this battle is the NOC and the Libyan economy.
The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that a tug of war continues over the fate of key Libyan institutions--the NOC, the Libyan Investment Authority and the Central Bank of Libya. There needs to be GNA support and oversight of all three. This should include backing of unified and competent management in these institutions, as well as consolidating leadership to make them more effective and efficient. These institutions can provide the foundation for the rebuilding of Libya.
The battle between the GNA and the HoR was also evident when the GNA asked the United States to assist in its effort to get ISIS out of the Libyan city of Sirte. The HoR is reported to have once again taken issue with the GNA making a request it considers to be within its purview. The US conducted airstrikes in support of the GNA and its allies' fight against ISIS. Getting rid of ISIS is a goal the HoR shares with the GNA, but even so it protested the request because it did not make it. While the battle against ISIS is progressing, it could unravel without a united Libyan front and help from the outside. If ISIS decides to move elsewhere in less populated areas of Libya, it will be harder to eliminate.
Critics of the UN deal that established the GNA said there needed to be consensus within Libya before a new government could be established. While that certainly makes sense, the reality is that was not going to happen unless the UN, backed by the US and the EU, pushed the deal forward. There has been an effort to pull together various Libyan factions for some time, and the UN December conference establishing the GNA was a do or die moment.
The Libyan economy is failing. Its GDP contracted by 6% in 2015 after a contraction of 23.5% in 2014. Inflation increased from 2.4% in 2014 to 8.6% in 2015, and is expected to increase to 9.6% in 2016. Oil production is down dramatically following a high in the immediate aftermath of the Gadhafi government. The economic future is grim if the fight over who's in charge of Libya continues to deteriorate.
ISIS is only part of the security problem. Ansar al-Sharia and other terrorist groups pose a threat to Libyan security. Criminal gangs, which operate across Libya, and smuggle everything from drugs, to guns, to people are another threat. In addition, Libya is awash in militias which have their own agendas not necessarily tied to backing a national government.
At best Libya has a steep climb ahead of it, even if it is able to pull together and back a single government. If it does not, the future is perilous. The international community needs to reengage with Libya at a higher level. Libya is not Syria, and could over time pull itself together, but it will take a sustained effort on the part of the Libyan people, as well as the international community, particularly the US, EU and UN.
The request by the GNA for US airstrikes and the involvement of US special operations forces with the Libyan effort to rid itself of ISIS, could be a positive step forward on two levels-- it helps with the battle against ISIS and it could enhance the GNA's standing, internationally as well as domestically. The GNA solution to Libya's governmental game of thrones battle may not be perfect, but it is the best one available at the moment.
The present involvement of the US military in the fight against ISIS in Libya could be a gateway to a larger opportunity for aiding Libya. Specifically, the US could make it clear that helping Libya is a priority, and that all necessary resources and attention will be focused on getting Libya on track. This would mean putting Libya on a par with Syria, and having the Secretary of State organize a follow up conference to the December UN conference, bringing the relevant parties together to deal with the impasse on support for the GNA.
In addition, AFRICOM should intensify its coordination of US, EU and regional efforts to fight ISIS in Libya. At the same time, AFRICOM should coordinate an international response on how to deal with Libyan security issues: the militias, the need for a unified Libyan national security structure and how to deal with Libya's criminal underground.
Finally, the US and EU, possibly through the G20, should call together international organizations, including the World Bank, IMF, regional development banks, the UN and the OECD to produce a plan to help Libya with its economy and governance issues as impetus for Libyans to get behind one government. Given the threat of ISIS, the dramatic decline of the Libyan economy since the collapse of the Gadhafi government, and heightened regional tension, support for a renewed effort to help Libya could work.
Ultimately, any hope for change is up to the Libyan people, but the US can and should take even more of a leading role in making this happen. It is in our interest both as part of the global fight against ISIS, as well as the effort to create a more secure environment in the Middle East and North Africa. President Obama has indicated that not following up sufficiently to help Libya after the fall of Gadhafi is one of his biggest national security regrets. Helping Libya now establish a new foundation for stability could be a moment of redemption.