The Friends of Libya Conference scheduled to be held in Rome on March 6 will be attended by more than 30 countries, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Everyone will be asking what this conference can offer Libya during this difficult time in its history.
The reasoning behind this question, which is tinged with great pessimism, may be that conferences of this type—the last of which being held in Paris in February 2013—have failed to offer anything tangible to alter the reality on the ground and promote stability and progress in Libya.
The reality is that all those who will be attending this conference are genuinely interested in ensuring it succeeds by bypassing the stage of rhetorical speeches—despite what they represent in terms of political support for Libya, something it desperately needs—and focusing on the fundamental issues. Libya today needs the support of the international community more than at any time before, for two main reasons.
First, the post-revolution governments in Libya did not inherit a state in the technical sense of the term, not only because of the absence of institutions but also because of the absence of even a culture of institutions among the Libyan people.
Second, Libyan society, like all Middle Eastern societies, is witnessing a state of division between two movements—a conservative movement, which usually has religious leanings, and a civil society movement, which could be described as “global” and is trying to replicate the Western political and economic experience.
These social divisions require an unbiased body that can help the various parties set the rules of the political game, so that no party moves towards extremism or violence. Therefore, the reality on the ground in Libya, imposed by the difficult democratic transition process, provides the conference with two main challenges: to find a formula based on respecting the democratic transition in Libya and to help the country overcome its many domestic problems, which are hampering the building of the state.
We must also be sure to take into account the sensitivity of people in general, and Arab people in particular, to “foreign intervention” and the belief of the international community—especially after certain failed experiments in other countries—that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside and that it requires a kind of social maturity that means that time is a major factor which cannot be ignored. In light of all this, we must be aware that the international presence in Libya has dwindled noticeably since the fall of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. This has sent the wrong signals to local and regional parties—namely that they can behave in Libya in a manner that suits their interests without worrying about the needs of the state-rebuilding process and the necessities of democratic transition.
The Rome Conference will be an opportunity for the international community to abandon the idea of keeping pace with the democratic transition in Arab Spring states in general, and in Libya in particular, and instead merely monitor them from afar. The international community can do this by stressing the importance of respecting the rules of democratic transition and avoiding resorting to violence to impose results that should be achieved by internationally acceptable democratic means.
The second challenge facing the conference will be to break the vicious cycle of talks between Tripoli and the international community, something they have been locked in since the revolution and which has been more akin to a dialogue of the deaf.
The international community expects Libya to identify its needs, and Libya expects the international community to identify what it can offer the country. Ultimately, Libya failed to identify what it required for this stage, because that needed a certain amount of experience not available to the administration, and because the political differences between the different parties prevented them from forming a united vision for Libya’s current and future needs.
In contrast, the international community is unable to identify what it can offer Libya because it is not present on the ground, and is dealing with Libya as though it were a stable country passing through normal circumstances.
However, despite all these difficulties, there is a very good chance that the Rome Conference will distinguish itself from previous conferences and achieve tangible results that meet the aspirations of the attendants because of the overlapping interests of all parties.
Everything that the international community wants from Libya can be summarized in four main themes: the continuation of the flow of oil, fighting illegal immigration, combatting terrorism, and building a stable democratic system.
These all serve the interests of Libya, but to achieve these mutual interests the international community must work hard to help the country overcome the difficulties it is facing, particularly with regard to rebuilding the country. The international community must therefore explicitly renounce any attempts to harm the legitimate institutions in Libya, represented by the General National Congress and the elected government.
Second, they must announce their rejection of the return of the old regime and any attempts to revive it.
Third, they must reject any attack on Libyan oil—the Libyan peoples’ main source of income—and they must agree that any attempt to sell or export it without Libyan government’s permission to be an act of piracy.
Fourth, they must swear off any violation of Libyan unity and stability, ensuring that all countries, particularly those at the Rome Conference, hand over all wanted persons to Libya when evidence is provided of their involvement in acts that may destabilize Libya.
Fifth, they must criminalize the use of arms against the Libyan government or people, especially heavy and medium weaponry.
Sixth, the UN Security Council should send a delegation tasked with collecting all weapons in Libya with the powers and capability to carry out this task.
Seventh, they must agree not to recognize any regions attempting to secede from Libya, regardless of the reason or motive.
Eighth, they must ban arms exports to non-governmental parties in Libya.
If the Rome Conference deals with these issues, it will send positive signals to the Libyan street that the international community still stands with them in terms of their aspirations for a better political, economic and cultural future. The geopolitics and the requirements of international peace make it imperative that the international community assumes responsibility for the success of the Libyan experiment because, quite simply, it cannot afford the consequences of failure.
Libya, for its part, must not hesitate to ask for international help. It would not have gained independence in 1951 without a UN decision, and it did not succeed in its revolution without international help.
Those who oppose any international presence in Libya are part of the elite who are either saturated in the culture of the former regime, which excelled at turning one section of society against the other, or are seeking to take advantage of the impasse and lack of progress in the building of modern democratic institutions.
The Libyan people, who wept with joy when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 in a historic moment that embodied a unity—probably the first of its kind between the Libyan people and an international organization—cannot turn down the chance to benefit from the experiences and resources of others. The Libyan people took to the streets to topple Gaddafi because they had been humiliated and deprived in the name of sovereignty and his justifications for preserving it.