In Libya in 2011, an American-led coalition helped to topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship. Unfortunately, the coalition’s lack of engagement with the country’s transition allowed a political void to form that a number of groups have since then fought to fill.
The ensuing mess has made parts of Libya a hotbed for militants inspired by the Islamic State. This in turn has worsened the country’s security crisis, as opposing groups have claimed the right to govern under a banner of secularism.
The truth is that Libya’s struggle is not between Islamists and secularists. This tedious framework for interpreting Arab politics hides the complexity of Libya’s situation. Almost all of the major competing factions in Libya include some number of Islamists, liberals and militia supporters.
The real division in the country is between those who want Libya to move forward via the newly installed unity government, and those like the strongman Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who took control of a large part of the east after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi and is loath to give up his one-man rule of his fief, based in the coastal city of Tobruk.
The process toward a unity government has been slow and difficult. It wasn’t until December that a United Nations-backed effort finally came to fruition with the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement, the result of protracted negotiations between rival political camps based in the capital, Tripoli, Tobruk and elsewhere. The new government’s officials finally entered Tripoli only a few weeks ago.
Despite the full backing of the United Nations Security Council, this Government of National Accord still has enemies. Some opponents want to thwart the new administration’s aspirations for a democratic and prosperous post-revolutionary Libya by returning the country to Qaddafi-style rule. Others simply fear that a unity government will undermine their own standing and authority.
The holdouts include leaders like General Hifter, who wants control of the Ministry of Defense, and Nouri Abusahmain, the president of the General National Congress (an interim parliamentary body whose term came to a formal end in 2014 but which has lived on contending its legitimacy), who wants to undo and renegotiate the new political agreement. These opponents usually explain their stance as a response to what they see as unfair behavior by their political adversaries in the unity government.
Their goal, though, is not to promote any particular ideology, but to protect the power they grabbed in Libya’s post-revolutionary chaos. They’re mainly worried that the Government of National Accord, in which no faction holds a majority, can’t be controlled in a way that would advance their personal agendas.
While General Hifter’s camp justifies its military actions by warning of an Islamist takeover, Mr. Abusahmain’s loyalists have tried to portray the unity government as a Western plot that, if allowed to govern, will give up Libya’s sovereignty and forget about the revolution’s original aims. To move forward, Libyans must ignore these reactionary voices.
Members of these groups often represent themselves variously as either liberals, moderate Islamists or nationalist-inclined democrats. They speak of working for fair government, but many have accumulated considerable personal power and wealth by exploiting the recent turmoil. Some of the so-called liberals who like to sound the alarm about Islamist influence have aligned themselves with warlords like General Hifter. Apparently, they wouldn’t mind riding to political power on the back of a tank, crushing constitutional democracy along the way. A primary purpose of the unity government is to check these factionalists.
Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Aref Ali Nayed, who is affiliated with the House of Representatives in Tobruk, a body backed by General Hifter, has emerged as a leading voice of those who, making no distinction, portray all Islamists as “terrorists.” Lumping together organizations as far apart politically as the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist groups aligned with the Islamic State, he accuses them of tyrannizing the Libyan people under the guise of the United Nations-backed national unity administration.
He also says that these “belligerents” tried to legitimize themselves by resurrecting the General National Congress, after it was supposed to give way to an elected House of Representatives two years ago. What Mr. Nayed and others neglect to mention is that in 2014 Libya’s Supreme Court ruled that a constitutional amendment passed by the Congress before the election of the House of Representatives was invalid. This meant that the process by which the House of Representatives was formed was null and the new Parliament had to be dissolved.
Amid these disputes, Libya’s political sectarianism became ever more entrenched. Contrary to Mr. Nayed’s claim of “tyrannical Islamist rule,” many Libyan leaders, including the president of the Justice and Construction Party, a leading Islamist political party (of which I am a member), have worked hard to reduce tensions and make way for negotiations.
The formation of the unity government is a great accomplishment, but the road to democratic order is still uphill, particularly when it comes to ending factional violence. General Hifter, in particular, uses the army formed by the House of Representatives as a power base to compete with his political rivals in Tripoli. As Martin Kobler, who leads the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, has pointed out, that force does not represent all of Libya. To give the new government a monopoly on the use of force, all militias, regardless of ideological background, must lay down their arms; the army must be united under a single command structure.
The international community understands that Libya can’t be allowed to dissolve into a failed state, which is why the United Nations has thrown its weight behind the Government of National Accord’s presidential council. The real battle for Libya is between those who prefer to re-establish authoritarian rule and those who want to build a peaceful democracy.
Abdulrazag Elaradi, a Libyan businessman, was on the National Transitional Council from 2011 to 2012.