On Sunday, Islamist militants consolidated their hold on the capital city of Libya and its international airport after a week of intense fighting against rival militia groups. Clashes between the militants over control of Tripoli erupted in July and are the most serious episodes of violence in the city since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The clashes come in sharp contrast to the quick recovery of the country’s oil sector in the east, where on Wednesday last week, the state-owned oil company said that Libya’s largest terminal in Es Sider was resuming its exports. The announcement came after a year-long stoppage and stated that a tanker was ready to leave port with 600,000 barrels of oil on board.
Yet Libya’s oil wealth has created obstacles on the country’s road to democracy and statehood, said Dr. Younes Abouyoub, a Political Adviser to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
“Ironically, it’s a curse in a way, because Libya does not have an economy—it has wealth,” he said. “For 42 years under Gaddafi, it was used just to buy allegiance, not to build the state, the nation, the institutions, and the economy.”
“We realize now that the only thing that unified those who revolted against Gaddafi was the hatred of the regime. But there was no common goal for the future of Libya. So I would say that the main problem we have now is how to build the state,” he said.
“For a while after the revolution, the international community seemed confident that Libyans could manage the transitional phase by themselves, and that consultative assistance and provision of expertise would suffice,” he said. “But events have proven otherwise. It has become quite clear… that Libyans are not able to do it by themselves and more international help for statebuilding is needed.”
Dr. Abouyoub said there needs to be a stronger UN mandate within Libya. “So far, the UN mandate has been consultative and advisory. This could work if you have a state, if you have institutions. But the 42 years of Gaddafi left no institutions and no state in place.”
According to Dr. Abouyoub, Libya should focus first on political dialogue and get the political process back on track. Then, he said, there should be a process of national dialogue and reconciliation, a focus on statebuilding, and a “serious program of security sector reform—or rather building.”
And for statebuilding to work, Libyans need a citizen-based identity. “We cannot anchor our identities only in the past or in subnational or micro-identities,” he said. “The past is very important, because that’s our origin, something that helps us move forward. But we cannot be prisoners of that past. We have to build a common identity, which in my opinion should be future-bound.”
Dr. Abouyoub was interviewed by Maureen Quinn, Director of Programs at the International Peace Institute. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
How can Libya overcome the current crisis? And is there a role for the international community, particularly the United Nations?
The UN has been present in Libya for more than two years now. It has done a tremendous work. The international community was quite hopeful at the beginning, especially after the first elections, which were quite a successful electoral process. But unfortunately, there are deeper problems within Libya that need to be addressed so that we can get Libya out of this crisis. We owe it to the Libyans.
Elections are not a panacea; we cannot subsume democracy into a mere electoral process. Elections do not create elites, for example, which Libya is in dire need of. There are deep fault lines within Libyan society. We realize now that the only thing that unified those who revolted against Gaddafi was the hatred of the regime. But there was no common goal for the future of Libya. So I would say that the main problem we have now is how to build the state.
In Libya, there is confusion in people’s minds between power and the state. Power is something that you can compete for within something that is larger, bigger, inclusive, and is for every citizen, and that is the state. Priorities are quite confused now: people are competing for a state that does not exist. I believe Libyans should focus first on agreeing on priorities to build the state, then they can move to the state of competition for power through peaceful means—that’s what democracy is, after all, a peaceful way of managing conflict and competing interests in society.
For a while after the revolution, the international community seemed confident that Libyans could manage the transitional phase by themselves and that consultative assistance and provision of expertise would suffice. But events have proven otherwise. It has become quite clear—especially from the last three-to-four weeks, when violent conflict erupted—that Libyans are not able to do it by themselves. Therefore, Libya needs a stronger engagement of the international community now, and a stronger UN mandate within Libya. So far, the UN mandate has been consultative and advisory. This could work if you have a state, if you have institutions. But the 42 years of Gaddafi left no institutions and no state in place. You cannot advise something or someone who doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, because of the legacy of over four decades of despotic rule, Libyan partners were unable to benefit from the wide expertise and know-how provided by the UN.
I think we should focus first on having a political dialogue to put the political process back on track. Then in the second phase we should have the Libyans launch—because the principle of ownership is very important—a national dialogue and reconciliation process. This cannot be done with over 1.5 million Libyans living abroad. So the idea is for the international community to facilitate this national reconciliation—and the UN is the most appropriate partner thanks to the trust and legitimacy it enjoys within Libyan society—focus on statebuilding, and, most of all, implement a much-needed program of security sector reform—or rather building. These are the three main things that we should focus on.
Libya is a resource-rich country. What role do you see the oil wealth playing in the current crisis?
Ironically, it’s a curse in a way, because Libya does not have an economy—it has wealth. And wealth is a double-edged sword. For the last 42 years under Gaddafi, it was used just to buy allegiance, not to build the state, the nation, the institutions, and the economy. And now, the same mentality exists. People see the state as a bounty…and only want to take from the state. Nobody is thinking about what to give to the nation, what to give to the state, what to build together. There is no productive economy in Libya, only an extractive economy. There is no work ethic because people are not used to that mentality—they expect the government, the nanny state, to pay them with nothing in return. This fact partially explains the longevity of Gaddafi’s regime, as it justified the denial of citizens’ representation and political participation.
Having said that, this curse has helped Libya not to slide quickly into civil war because the post- Gaddafi governments have used this wealth to buy social peace by giving money and allowances to people to calm them down. But this only works for a short while, because quickly Libya is running into deficit. If nothing is done to stop this bleeding, by 2015, Libya will need to start borrowing money from abroad.
So, to answer your question: Yes, it has helped Libya for the time being, because it’s probably the only country I know that comes from a postconflict situation that does not require international funding—the word “donor” is not used in the Libyan context. But at the same time, we should not rely on this because it can only work for a limited time. If we don’t move towards building a productive economy, I think Libya will go into a serious economic crisis.
Political turmoil and violence are affecting many states today. The state can be seen sometimes as a positive force for peace, or as a negative force. What’s your view?
The problem that we have seen in most African countries, especially recently in North African countries, is the failure of the postcolonial state. It’s a reproduction of what the colonial powers have left: nobody has thought about deconstructing the state. So failing states are being reproduced time and again.
Furthermore, the idea of the state is closely tied to the idea of identity, as in other African countries. Do we have a citizen-based identity, or not? My answer is no, we don’t have one. This identity is yet to be built. We cannot anchor our identities only in the past or in subnational or micro-identities. The past is very important because that’s our origin, something that helps us move forward. But we cannot be prisoners of that past. We have to build a common identity, which in my opinion should be future-bound—that is, citizenship.
The state, again, can be a positive or negative concept depending on whose state it is. If we see the state as completely separate, alienated from society, the way we have seen it for the last 60 years in the African context, then it becomes a negative force because the state has not worked towards the benefit of society. There is a complete split and mistrust between the people who are supposed to be citizens—which they unfortunately are not—and the state that should represent them. To paraphrase Louis XIV, who said “L’état c’est moi” or “I am the state,” I say “We are the state—people are the state” and this widely accepted divide between civil society and the state should be revisited, questioned, and narrowed. Civil society should no longer be just a party that is consulted without really being heard or allowed to participate effectively. It should have a voice in building the future state and building this citizen-identity that we all strive for.