The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on January 19, 2015 regarding Libya’s political transition and future path amidst its violence and domestic security challenges. The panelists were Mohamad Eljarh, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; Guma El-Gamaty, the leader of the Taghyeer party and Osama Kubbar, a senior consultant at the Qatar Strategic Studies Center. Ibrahim Sharqieh, Deputy Director of the BDC, moderated the panel discussion, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Osama Kubbar started the discussion by acknowledging the rapid political developments in Libya since the 2011 revolution before turning to critique the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva aimed at ending the current crisis. He held that there are “international settlements being imposed on Libya.” Furthermore, he charged that Libyan “personalities” present for Geneva talks were chosen to present a Western, rather than a Libyan, perspective on events. Additionally, Kubbar contended that solutions proposed at the Geneva talks would only reflect the personal interests of the participants, rather than benefiting all Libyans. He went on to highlight the role of foreign interventions in exacerbating and prolonging the current conflict, particularly the role of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Finally, he concluded by noting that the current divisions in the revolutionary ranks were hindering the political process, and said, “I hope God opens up for us a means of communication.”
For his part, Mohamad Eljarh began by providing historical context for the past four years in Libya, while outlining potential outcomes for the country. He pointed to the many violent crimes that accompanied the revolution even away from the battlefield, such as the assassination of General Abdel Fattah Younis and the targeted killings of hundreds of prominent Libyans. He believes this security void and the lack of successful prosecutions for these crimes has led many Libyans to favor security, and even rule by military council, above any aspects of the democratic process, in order to limit the violence and create a stable state. Furthermore, he noted that these problems were exacerbated by the proliferation of armed fighters claiming the title of “revolutionaries” from around 30,000 during the initial uprising to more than 250,000. Consequently, Eljarh emphasized that General Khalifa Haftar “took advantage of these failures” and seized on this strong desire for security and stability to gain popular support via “Operation Dignity.”
In outlining possible paths forward from the current crisis, Eljarh warned of the dangers of a prolonged conflict, with most Libyan institutions severely damaged by the fighting. He said that only three institutions stand between Libya and absolute state failure: the Central Bank, the Ministry of Petroleum, and the Investment Authority. He also warned of the potential for international intervention, whether in the form of an Egyptian “buffer zone” along the border or French intervention via Chad. Ultimately, he argued that an agreement between most parties at Geneva should be pursued, even if not all would sign on, by isolating extremist voices and focusing on participants willing to engage in dialogue.
The final panelist, Guma El-Gamaty, further analyzed the situation of Libya with regards to its lack of institutions and state building. El-Gamaty noted that Libya became a rentier state, due to the presence of large oil and natural gas reserves, yet despite the provision of welfare services the country underwent little socio-economic development. He held that this inhibited the development of a culture of dialogue or coexistence in Libya. Additionally, he pointed out that the lack of institutions left Libyans with a complete void in management and authority following the revolution, which intensified the competition between the different groups as they strove to fill the power vacuum.
While El-Gamaty opposed clear examples of external intervention, as well as Haftar’s “Dignity” campaign, he asserted that the Geneva talks were not a “conspiracy plot” against Libya. Rather, he held that talks and negotiations were an essential part of moving beyond the present conflict and establishing necessary institutions in the country.
The panelists were then asked about the role of the revolutionaries in the political scene over the past few years. Kubbar held that the revolutionaries had been marginalized and denied the ability to be part of the political process. He added that the emergence of several “imaginary” revolutionary groups tarnished the real revolutionaries and hindered their ability to protect the revolution. Additionally, Kubbar claimed that after Mustafa Abdul Jalil began rewarding the revolutionaries financially, the number of “imaginary” revolutionaries increased. However, Eljarh noted that many revolutionaries claimed a revolutionary legitimacy above and beyond any democratic legitimacy, hindering the democratic process.
The panelists subsequently discussed the likelihood of a prolonged conflict in Libya. Sharqieh noted that since May 2014 events in Libya had worsened to the point of being “a real civil war.” Sharqieh highlighted that Libya’s geostrategic importance meant that interested external powers would not allow any one party to achieve a decisive victory, citing the example of Lebanon’s civil war.
El-Gamaty described the current situation as a proxy war, referring to the external military and financial involvement in Libya. El-Gamaty added that those intervening in the country sought to advance their own interests, not Libya’s. While noting the significant financial involvement of Turkey and Qatar in Libya following the revolution, he contended that this aid had been evenly distributed among all parties. “Whoever says that Qatar supports only Islamists is mistaken,” he said. El-Gamaty then noted that the involvement of countries during the first year of the revolution was beneficial to the Libyans; however, the recent involvement of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt aims to “abolish the notion of transforming Libya into a democratic state.”
An audience member asked the panelists whether they thought the “Tunisian model” was a successful one, and what can Libya learn from the Tunisian experience. Kubbar claimed that many Libyans do not believe that the Tunisian model is successful. He referred to the Tunisian elections as “a coup against democracy,” with the deep state continuing to exist. Additionally, Kubbar added that even the Tunisian constitution did not undergo major changes compared with the old one. On the other hand, Eljarh briefly asserted that the public should respect the votes and the choices that the Tunisians have made. El-Gamaty said that he believes the Tunisian model to be the most successful compared to the other Arab countries that have undergone revolutions. He added that the “new rules of the game” will prevent Tunisia’s recently elected President Essebsi from becoming a “new dictator” due to the current culture of democracy in Tunisia.
Correction: A previous version of this page misattributed remarks in the second to last paragraph to Mohamad Eljarh rather than Guma El-Gamaty.