On September 25, 2014 Asharq Al-Awsat published my article, “The Costly Neglect of Libya,” which dealt with the deteriorating situation in that country and the absence of coordinated and effective steps on the part of the Arab world and the international community to stop the fighting and help it recover from its ordeal. Today, more than three months later, nothing seems to have changed, apart from things going from bad to worse. Many believe that Libya has completely collapsed, and that, even if no “caliphate” similar to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) has been declared yet, there are several different groups in control of large swaths of the country and its basic facilities and sources of national wealth. These groups have taken advantage of the climate of chaos, Libya’s sheer size and harsh terrain, and the proliferation of large quantities of sophisticated weapons captured from the army’s arsenals and Muammar Gaddafi’s battalions in the wake of the fall of his regime.
Libya today is not a country contested between the elected parliament that has taken refuge in Tobruk on the one hand, and the General National Congress (GNC), backed by Islamist militias and its allies in Tripoli, on the other. It is a state over which battling different militias with different allegiances, parties with tribal and factional tendencies, as well as groups motivated by internal and external calculations, are fighting. The longer this drags on, the more complex the crisis will become and the more difficult it will be to solve, making Libya a failed state like Somalia, which has been disintegrating since the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991.
In the face of the deteriorating situation, attempts by fellow Arab states and the international community to deal with the crisis have been characterized by impotence. A few days ago, the UN mission to Libya postponed until further notice a round of talks between rivals which was scheduled to take place this week. The UN said the head of the mission will continue consultations to agree on the time and place of the meeting. Holding such a meeting will be a tough task given the multiple political parties in Libya and the wide gap between their positions. The UN knows it is in no position to put pressure on Libya’s factions, who are well aware that the international community has neither the desire nor the ability to intervene militarily to force a solution on them. Since NATO’s intervention in Libya to topple Gaddafi, the North African country was left to drown in chaos, joining the list of Arab countries destroyed by internal conflict.
In any case, an international intervention in Libya remains an undesirable option. First, it may add fuel to the raging fire and thus provide a fertile ground for jihadist organizations looking for an environment in which to grow. Secondly, previous cases of intervention in the region have mostly led to terrible disasters, complicating crises instead of solving them. There are several examples of this. With the postponement of the dialogue called for by the UN, the Arab League held an emergency meeting to discuss the deteriorating situation in Libya, but the meeting did not offer anything other than the usual statements expressing concern, denouncing violence and emphasizing solidarity with the people, without taking practical steps to help the country overcome its ordeal. Testifying to the state of Arab impotence, the Arab League Council contented itself with expressing its appreciation of the efforts of the neighboring countries and the UN envoy to Libya while announcing its support of the UN endeavors, instead of reaching a solution.
What remains puzzling, however, is that the Arab League, shackled by an ancient charter, repeats every time a crisis hits the region a statement which has become familiar, confirming the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the troubled countries, and rejecting interference in their internal affairs. At the same time, it supports the efforts of the UN to intervene, mediate and hold dialogues. How can one reject international interference aimed at rescuing an Arab country while supporting and backing the UN when it attempts to intervene?
The answer is well-known: inter-Arab differences are crippling the Arab League, making its meetings an arena for delivering speeches and bickering, and rendering its statements meaningless rhetoric. Unless the wider Arab situation changes, the Arab League itself cannot be blamed for this since it is nothing but a mirror of the Arab world’s status quo. Hence the emergency meeting’s failure to offer a roadmap to solve the deteriorating situation in Libya, or agree a common position on the demands of the Tobruk-based government for immediate intervention to protect state institutions and facilities from militias. Approval of such a demand means sending troops, which is almost impossible in the light of the current situation. Nevertheless, the Arab League’s charter in the past did not prohibit sending Arab peacekeepers to member states. Nor did it stand in the way of Arab intervention to compel parties to enter into dialogue. Today all that the Arab League has to offer is statements, while another Arab country is lost.