x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Libya needs new leadership, not a renegade general

 This week’s elections could be the first step to a process that rescues the remnants of Libya’s 2011 revolution, says HA Hellyer

Libyans went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new House of Representatives, which will replace the present General National Congress (GNC).

The GNC has come under heavy criticism across Libya over recent months, with accusations of inefficiency and incompetence. This will be the third legislative election since the end of Muammar Qaddafi’s rule – and many Libyans openly wonder if this is Libya’s last chance to save itself from a prolonged period of total state collapse.

The two-pronged problem that Libya currently faces is rather clear.

The first is violence. The second relates to who benefits from the absence of strong united leadership. This election takes place at a time when the state institutions have almost completely failed and the country stands dangerously close to collapse.

In the midst of this chaos, the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, has emerged.

It is not surprising to see a significant number of Libyans express support for him – especially as he has declared to restore law and order and pursue radical militant elements within the country. Indeed, in a recent interview, Gen Haftar insisted he is not a renegade or a rebel, because there is “no state to rebel against”. It is a sentiment that many Libyans will sympathise with.

But the strategies of Gen Haftar are unlikely to result in a state being formed.

On the contrary, he may continue to disrupt the radical militant networks active in Libya, but at the expense of further weakening the formal state structure.

His recklessness has meant that Gen Haftar does not have the support of any government in the region.

There is another option, nonetheless, to oppose Gen Haftar’s rash approach – and the key to that lies with the new House of Representatives.

The idea has been mooted in Libya that to truly take the country out of its crisis, it will require a single leader – not a dictator or autocrat, but someone who will be directly elected by the Libyan people, and accountable directly to them.

In the days to come, even before the House deliberates on whether there should be presidential elections, different candidates are likely to make themselves known.

Announcing their candidacies may provide that extra bit of encouragement for the House to schedule presidential elections – and then things may get interesting.

Those candidates will need to deal first with the issue of violence and disarm the militias.

That is a challenge that has faced Libya since the downfall of Qaddafi, despite a clear demand by the majority of Libyans that they wish to live in a peaceful country. Any genuinely successful president is going to have to do that – and that will require a powerful mandate.

That president will need to build a new social contract for Libyans and that will require mediation via tribal affiliations rather than individual citizens, if only in the interim.

It is hard to identify a single person who can go beyond the polarisation that now exists in Libya. The non-Islamist-Islamist divide is difficult to surmount, but not impossible.

But someone does have to step up to the plate. Someone who can bring a critical mass of Libyans together, and build a broad alliance of different factions to take Libya out of its current impasse.

There really are few options left – Libya has already missed far too many chances. This week’s elections are far more important than might be imagined – they could be the first step to a process that rescues the remnants of Libya’s 2011 revolution.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer