Thinking Aloud: Wehrey on Libya

Nov. 30, 2014 by Darius 

Last week, at the Middle East Institute’s annual conference, there was a panel dedicated to transitional Arab states.  Today, I’ll share Dr. Frederic Wehrey’s discussions of Libya.

According to Wehrey, current discussions of Libya as a failing or failed state don’t capture the whole picture.  As he put it, Libya cannot be a failing state because there was never a Libyan state to fail.  Under Libya’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, Libya had no institutions, especially not formal security institutions.  Qaddafi’s thugs held the country together.  Now, without Qaddafi, Libya’s lack of institutions has been sorely exposed.

Wehrey said that the fundamental conflict in Libya is over how much of the old Qaddafi-era elite will be allowed to hold roles in the new country.  The revolutionary camp supports a complete break from the Qaddafi era, while the old guard seeks to preserve what power it can.

According to Wehrey, the point of no return came soon after Libya’s militias entered politics in early 2013 when Libya’s parliament passed a law banning officials from the Qaddafi regime from holding public office, forming political parties, and generally engaging in politics.

Wehrey also spoke of the impact the rise of Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has had on Libya.  Sisi’s offer of stability, even if under a dictator, has inspired many liberals in Libya to be open to the idea of a dictator for Libya, too.  Thanks to the “Sisi Effect,” when the renegade Libyan general Khalifa Hiftar came along, he was able to immediately attract significant support and is now officially allied with Libya’s parliament.

Today in Libya, there are two parliaments and governments competing for legitimacy, but the situation is far more complex than Islamists vs. non-Islamists, encompassing old tribal, regional, and other tensions.

Wehrey said that Libya today has a few bright spots.  The first is that the national oil company continues to function and oil continues to flow.  Likewise, the country’s supreme court has not yet been politicized.  Additionally, the constitutional drafting committee has been approved by the two main sides and is moving forward.

No matter what the national organs come up with, though, according to Wehrey, anything that happens at the national level in Libya will face many challenges at the local level.  This local backlash is a reaction to the hypercentralization of the Qaddafi era.

Finally, another factor complicating the Libyan situation is the emergence of a proxy war in Libya between Islamist allies in the region and anti-Islamists.  The main countries thought to be involved are Turkey and Qatar on the side of the Islamists and Egypt and the UAE on the side of the anti-Islamists.

Wehrey said that several current UN initiatives seem to offer the best promise of ending Libya’s civil war, but that everything remains up in the air.

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