Can Libya Put Itself Back Together Again?

There’s a glimmer of hope.

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  • March 8, 2021
Can Libya Put Itself Back Together Again? 1
Credit…The New York Times

Few countries exemplify the tragedy of the Arab Spring like Libya. The fall of the 42-year dictatorship of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi brought a decade of anarchy as competing governments, militias and foreign powers struggled to seize control of the oil-rich country. The United States and NATO allies that had backed the anti-Qaddafi uprising with a bombing campaign largely turned their backs after he fell, and past United Nations efforts to forge a government foundered in the chaos.

Today, however, against all odds, Libyans have a chance to clamber out of the mess. A cease-fire of sorts has been holding since October, and a broad-based political forum convened by the United Nations in November managed to appoint a prime minister and a three-member presidential council charged with leading the country to elections this coming December.

The process is fragile, to say the least. The interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, a billionaire who was a close associate of Colonel el-Qaddafi, stands accused of buying the votes that gave him the job. The interim team and the cabinet it proposes need to survive a vote of confidence in a House of Representatives that is also split in two, one side based in Tobruk and the other in Tripoli. The vote is expected to be held on Tuesday, at the earliest.

But if there’s to be any chance for peace, the foreign powers that have flooded Libya with weapons, drones and mercenaries — primarily Russia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — must be persuaded to let the political process play out. In theory, a U.N. arms embargo is in force, but according to a still secret U.N. report that has been viewed by The New York Times and other news outlets, weapons are nonetheless arriving by the planeload.

The United States has not been directly involved in the illicit arms race. But it bears responsibility for the mess by bailing out of the conflict soon after Colonel el-Qaddafi was overthrown and killed. More recently, the confidential U.N. report says that when one of the two main rivals for power in Libya launched a massive offensive against the other in 2019, it was offered the help of a mercenary force equipped with attack helicopters and gunboats by Erik Prince, the notorious American security contractor and ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump.

The side Mr. Prince approached, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces of Khalifa Hifter, a onetime C.I.A. asset who styles himself “field marshal,” is based in eastern Libya and backed by Russia and the U.A.E. The United States at the time officially recognized the other side, the Government of National Accord based in Tripoli in western Libya. But shortly after former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo restated that position and condemned the offensive, Mr. Trump called Mr. Hifter and publicly endorsed his campaign, abruptly reversing U.S. policy.

In any event, a major infusion of military support for the Government of National Accord by Turkey blunted Mr. Hifter’s offensive, leading to a cease-fire in October, the convening of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in November and the appointment of an interim administration.

This peace process is the best chance to date to put Libya together again. Libyans are thoroughly sick of the fighting, banditry and destruction that have plagued their country for a decade, and tired of the foreign powers and mercenaries who have spread death across the land, much of it through armed drones. The U.N. estimates there are now at least 20,000 mercenaries in Libya.

The interests of the foreign powers range from avarice to influence, and given the vast resources they have invested in Libya, they no doubt stand ready to resume their meddling if the peace process collapses. But they also appear to appreciate that they and their clients have fought to a stalemate, and that reverting to their zero-sum game might be futile.

The interim administration represents a cross-section of interest groups across Libya, and Mr. Dbeibah, however unsavory and corrupted, is a businessman without an obvious loyalty to any of the current rivals. His task is only to prepare for elections in December, in which he and other members of the interim team cannot run.

Peace in Libya matters for reasons beyond its own sake. The country has huge reserves of oil, and the anarchy of the past decade has made it a prime jumping-off point for refugees seeking to flee to Europe across the Mediterranean. Shortly after leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama declared in an interview that the failure to plan for the aftermath of Colonel el-Qaddafi’s exit was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.

President Biden is now in a position to right that wrong by giving his administration’s full and active support to the United Nations, especially as the special U.N. envoy credited with engineering the peace process is a veteran American diplomat, Stephanie Turco Williams.

A statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month praised Ms. Williams for her “creativity and tenacity” in facilitating the process, and declared that the United States “supports the Libyan vision of a peaceful, prosperous and unified Libya with an inclusive government that can both secure the country and meet the economic and humanitarian needs of its people.” That support needs to become loud and clear, and immediate.

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