In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat against the backdrop of the 5+5 Mediterranean Dialogue in Barcelona, Libyan foreign minister Mohamed Abdulaziz spoke about the security situation in the country, Tripoli’s attempts to restore control of its borders, and Libya’s relations with France.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Libya is set to take part in the Rabat meeting on border security next month. How is the government dealing with this issue? What is the plan for restoring security and control along the borders?
Mohamed Abdulaziz: In any revolution in the world, there is no magic wand that you can wave to organize things within a specific time frame. The difference between the revolution in Libya and the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions is that the institutions in those two countries are still active—that is to say, the police and military institutions, as well as the civil administrations, still exist. As for Libya, the former regime was a “regime of non-order,” because it did not build institutions. Therefore, we had to start from scratch. In light of this, how can we talk about protecting borders or preserving security in the country? How can we talk about security in general or domestic stability, given the absence of an effective police and justice system?
Today, we are in the process of establishing institutions. The General National Congress (GNC) has adopted the Transitional Justice Law, which will serve as the basis for national dialogue and national reconciliation. We also have a special law relating to the election of a 60-member committee for drafting the constitution. We hope that this committee will be formed by the end of the year. Once we have elected the 60-member committee, drafted a constitution and held parliamentary elections, we will have come a long way on the right path. It is true that we, as Libyans, have to determine our fate by ourselves, but we need the support our international brothers and partners can offer, whether on a bilateral, regional or international level.
Q: What about the issue of border weakness and effective security monitoring of these borders?
Libya has no less than 4,000 kilometers [2,500 miles] of land borders and 2,000 kilometers [1,250 miles] of maritime borders. Therefore, due to the sheer length of our borders, we need two main things: First, specialist training for Libyan personnel, whether from the Ministry of Defense or our security and police forces. Second, we need high-tech equipment, because the required training cannot be effective without this technology.
Q: But this was precisely what was said last February, when a major international conference was held in Paris to help Libya control its borders and preserve internal security. Has there been no progress made on this issue over the past year? Have the countries that pledged support in this regard made good on their promises?
In the meantime—and within the framework of the G8, which are countries concerned about this issue—we have a clear vision of the commitments of each international side regarding this training, which is vital, whether we receive it from the US, Italy or France. As for the issue of defense, we are working with four to five different countries to secure as many trainers as possible. On the other hand, we are also undertaking an important project with the European Union on specialist training, particularly on issues of monitoring and preserving border security. Moreover, there are other activities we are undertaking on the national level in these same fields. However, I’d like to make clear that it is impossible within this short period of time—no more than six months—for both the ministries of defense and the interior to address this issue completely.
Q: How will you deal with the militias, which are viewed as damaging the very fabric of the country? Will the current situation continue as is, with militias imposing their will on the country, especially following the abduction of the prime minister?
That these groups have weapons causes problems. However, there is a positive side—namely, those in charge of security in Libya today are not just the police or the military, but they are also accompanied by these groups that fought for freedom. At this point, I’d like to correct the picture being presented about the security situation in Libya. In Tripoli, for example, there are 90 embassies and life is normal. Unfortunately, there are some security problems as a result of some people and groups being armed. We have to remember that no less than 16,000 criminals left prison last year. Many of these criminals are masquerading as rebels. Besides, we cannot abandon these groups until we have built a strong army, police force and security apparatus to contain all of these rebels.
I’d like to say that there are two main tendencies in Libya. One insists that these freedom fighters or rebels must be integrated into the police or military apparatus. Those of the other tendency callsfor the establishment of a thorough development framework—in other words, providing specialist training for the rebels and giving them the chance to continue their studies, in Libya or abroad, as part of a development plan to contain and integrate them into the ranks of the military or the police.
Q: How close is your ministry to securing the restoration of internationally-held Libyan assets that were frozen during the Gaddafi era?
We have a special committee for restoring the assets. I do not just mean restoring the frozen assets we have information about from the countries where they are frozen, but also the assets that we have no information about because former regime officials deposited large amounts of money under false names. Therefore, the committee has hired some specialist companies that have broad experience in this field. For our part, we have started bilateral communications on the political level, and I can confirm that sisterly and friendly countries have shown complete readiness to cooperate and provide us with information about funds that rightfully belong to Libya.
Q: What is going to happen at the Rabat meeting in relation to controlling and supervising Libya’s borders?
This will be the second conference of its kind over the border issue. Libya launched an initiative in April of last year where we held a regional conference in Tripoli regarding border security, which nine neighboring Arab and African countries attended, sending representatives from the ministries of defense, justice, foreign affairs, the interior and intelligence services.
In our view, the security process is not limited to the police force alone or the Ministry of Defense and Intelligence Services alone. These three agencies must be represented in terms of implementing an integrated security strategy. The Tripoli meeting resulted in the adoption of the Tripoli Action Plan regarding operational cooperation. At the time, the Kingdom of Morocco proposed to host the second conference in Rabat, and we welcomed this because this initiative came from a sisterly state, and because Morocco was giving the security dimensions special consideration. We expect this meeting to take place on time, on November 14, and it will be attended by ministers of defense and the interior and the heads of security apparatuses of the countries that participated in the Tripoli meeting. However, the Moroccan government has proposed opening the door to additional participants from Western states. We have no objection to this, particularly as some of Libya’s international partners, such as the US, Britain and France, are working with us and are concerned about the security issue. In any case, we view our own security as being part of regional and international security, and so we do not see anything wrong with this proposal.
Q: You are visiting Barcelona to take part in the 5+5 Mediterranean Dialogue. Do you intend to fully join the Union for the Mediterranean, or will Libya continue on as an observer nation?
We are open [to joining]. We have become a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and we are seeking to become active within the Union for the Mediterranean. The objections we once had to joining have ended. We do not believe in the policy of the empty chair, but rather attendance and participation.
Q: How do you assess French–Libyan relations?
French–Libyan relations are excellent. We enjoy close and significant relations with France in the economic sector. The same applies to the defense sector, and France has expressed willingness to train part of our armed forces and police. France was one of the first to offer special training to the Libyans, and this is particularly important as we are in the process of establishing our defense and interior ministries. As for security, it is true that there is significant cooperation between Libya and France, particularly as France was one of the first to help the Libyan revolution. Therefore, based on all this, we hope that our bilateral relations with Paris continue to grow stronger, particularly in terms of the exchange of information and intelligence regarding security issues. This is especially important following the recent events in Mali and the international intervention there.