Tarek Mitri is president of the Saint George University in Beirut. He was appointed several times a Lebanese minister, before being tasked by then United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon to serve as Special Representative for Libya in 2012–2014. In anticipation of the presidential elections in Libya on December 24, followed by a second round on January 24, 2022, Diwan interviewed Mitri in early December to get a broader perspective on developments in the country, and to ask him what the country needs in order to be stabilized.
Michael Young: Throughout the last decade Libya has been through a volatile transition away from the Qaddafi regime, one that appears to be far from over. As a former United Nations representative for Libya, what are your major takeaways from this decade?
Tarek Mitri: Throughout the region, and more particularly in Libya, the transition from authoritarian regimes to democracy has proven to be far more arduous than anticipated. The so-called post-conflict political process in Libya fell short of achieving pacification, reconciliation, or state-building, starting with security and judiciary institutions. Qaddafi’s fall revealed, and subsequently deepened, the risks of fragmentation. The international community—specifically those countries that intervened militarily in 2011 and the United Nations Security Council, which legitimized the intervention—was not able to prevent the dangers of de facto disintegration and did not offer significant assistance in restoring Libya’s unity and building its institutions once Qaddafi had been removed.
MY: Let me reverse the previous question. What did the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime say about Western intervention in the Middle East and North Africa to remove leaders?
TM: To be sure, the Western role in overthrowing authoritarian regimes in the Arab world is often exaggerated. Libya’s case was an exception. It was not, nor could it be, repeated. While the Western campaign invoked the responsibility of the international community to protect the civilian population, it had a variety of additional motivations. Regime change, as inevitable as it may have been, was not followed by stabilization. As soon as the regime fell and its military forces were crushed, the powers that had intervened in Libya hurried to withdraw, leaving behind desolation and chaos. Their unwillingness to assume full responsibility for their actions discredited not only the legitimacy of military intervention but also the principle of the “responsibility to protect.”
MY: What we’ve seen throughout the Arab world since 2011 is a series of setbacks, as authoritarian systems have reimposed themselves in countries that had removed dictators—Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan notably. In Libya we’ve seen a variation on that theme, with Seif al-Islam Qaddafi having been reinstated as a candidate for the country’s presidential elections. What does this tell you?
TM: It is true that democracy has not prevailed in Arab countries, even where change seemed to be, or was, irreversible. But it is equally true that a return to pre-uprising authoritarian rule, with the exception of Egypt some would affirm, is not possible. The transformative effects of the Arab uprising are unavoidable, albeit not deep enough to generate a successful process of democratization. In Libya, a return to the old regime, or to a “renovated” variation on the old regime one could say, seems quite unlikely. There are always people in Libya and elsewhere who are nostalgic for an era of stability, regardless of whether it was under the rule of a repressive regime. But their nostalgia does not necessarily express itself in political and electoral terms, and there are no clear indications that such individuals constitute a majority.
MY: Libya today has become a regional playing field—with Turkey and Qatar supporting the government in Tripoli, and Egypt, the UAE, and to an extent Russia and France supporting Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Now that Turkey appears to be normalizing its relations with the UAE and Egypt, albeit gingerly, what impact might this have on the situation in Libya?
TM: Soon after the military intervention of 2011, Libya became a battleground in which militias, many of them self-styled revolutionary brigades, fought their small wars, but also the proxy wars of regional, and in a few cases international, powers. Turkey and Russia are relatively new actors in Libya, though they have been involved militarily in an unprecedented manner—through mercenaries of the Wagner Group in Russia’s case and through armed groups sent by Ankara at the request of the government in Tripoli.
The international community has asked that all foreign fighters, including mercenaries recruited by Haftar from Sudan, Chad, and other African countries, withdraw from Libya. To this day, there is not much pressure to ensure that this happens. Many Libyans hope that the new political leadership that might emerge from the forthcoming elections may be in a better position to garner international support for the withdrawal of foreign troops. In this context, and in view of its recent overtures in the region, Turkey might decide to confine its influence in Libya to the political and economic domains.
MY: Are we likely to see a united Libya once again, and if so, what would be needed to bring it about?
TM: A majority of Libyans have repeatedly expressed their desire to see their country more united than what we are presently seeing. There are minority groups, more particularly in Barqa or Cyrenaica, who have opted for a federal Libya. However, centrifugal forces throughout the country, and not only in the east, are at work. Subnational identities are increasingly being asserted. They often affect political rivalries and may be exacerbated by the forthcoming electoral competition. We have many reasons to fear that elections—and we have the precedent of 2014—will deepen divisions. As long as Libya is deprived of a politically neutral security force and an independent judiciary, elections are not necessarily a step forward in the transition toward a democratic and united country.
In the absence of a democratic tradition and culture, a winner-takes-all contest could aggravate divisions and bring about more exclusion. Libya needs an inclusive political process to build a unified country and a functioning state. In themselves, elections are not a substitute for seeking a national consensus on the major issues of disagreement among Libyans since 2011, which have caused divisions in the country’s institutions.