Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman spoke on December 18 with Aya Burweila,
a senior advisor at the Research Institute for European and American Studies, about the civil war in Libya.
Burweila, who was born in Benghazi and raised abroad, described Libya under Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi as initially witnessing many positive societal changes, such as the advancement of education and women's rights. However, "as it is in most situations where power is concentrated in one individual, at some point it just got worse for everybody ... [and] more totalitarian," Burweila explained.
The 2011 NATO military intervention that precipitated the downfall of Gaddafi "never [had] a day-after plan," and the country descended into chaos, particularly after the 2012 murder of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and subsequent American disengagement. As the radicalization of youth recruited by violent Islamist groups proliferated, Libya "became [the] Woodstock of terrorists," a safe haven for the likes of Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda and ISIS.
Libya's UN-monitored June 2014 elections for the newly-formed House of Representatives (HoR) appeared to offer a ray of hope, with moderate and secular-leaning candidates winning the overwhelming majority of seats. Although the international community recognized the results, Islamists rejected the new parliament. Backed by Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist militias seized control of Tripoli and established their own government, forcing the HoR's relocation to Tobruk in the east. While militias fought each other, ISIS and other foreign jihadi groups established a strong presence. In 2015, the HoR appointed General Khalifa Haftar as head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) to fight and expel all non-state actors.
The UN "rushed the process and came up with ... an ill-conceived agreement."
In late 2015, the United Nations brokered the so-called Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), which provided for the establishment of a Government of National Accord (GNA) that would supposedly unify the disparate militias. "Instead of saying, 'We're going to support the elected government'," Burweila noted, the Western powers pushed for "a unity government where even losers are included." Feeling anxious about the rise of ISIS, they "rushed the process and came up with ... an ill-conceived agreement which actually set the scene [for] what is going on today."
Because its formation was "not transparent" and its leaders were "appointed, not elected," the GNA lacked the legitimacy to unite a country heavily divided across tribal and ideological lines. It never received the ratification of the HoR as required under the LPA and its mandate expired. The GNA today is "unratified, expired, and unelected," said Burweila. "You can imagine the crisis of legitimacy we have."
As the GNA has steadily lost ground to the Haftar's LNA in the past few years, it has weakened its legitimacy still further by strengthening ties both to local Islamist militias and to its Turkish and Qatari benefactors. Despite controlling only the capital and slivers of territory in the northwest, the GNA remains officially recognized by the UN Security Council as Libya's legitimate government.
The path to democracy must start with "a secure and safe Libya."
Burweila urged the international community "to help legitimate armed forces [Haftar's LNA] to disarm the militias, to help Libya with its borders, [and] to help with security building, institution building, anti-corruption efforts, with [the] judiciary and the fiscal system in Libya."
The path to democracy must start with "a secure and safe Libya where there's no weapons saturation, where militias aren't allowed to roam ... freely, persecuting citizens," she insisted. "Once the country is secure and people have the safety to vote, the next step is definitely elections. ... I cannot emphasize elections enough."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.