Former UN envoy: Libya held its elections too soon

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Al-Hayat interviews Tarek Mitri, former UN envoy to Libya, about the Libyan situation and prospects.

PARIS — Dr. Tarek Mitri, former UN special envoy to Libya, expressed deep concern about Libya’s future and renewed his call for the disputing parties to dialogue and agree on the priority of rebuilding the state and its institutions. In an interview with Al-Hayat in Paris, Mitri said that stopping external interference and putting pressure on local parties could put Libya on the way to a solution. He described the status quo as civil war, where there is a legitimate parliament facing militias that control the ground, resulting in two governments, one having legitimacy and another having strength. The following is the text of the interview:

Al-Hayat: There is a prevailing impression in the international community that Libya is going toward more chaos. What is your outlook for this country’s future?

Mitri: Let me start with the international community. There is a mixture of attitudes. Some are truly interested in helping Libya, but do not know how to provide real support for this country. Others are hesitant, sometimes suggesting that Libya is important for them and other times not paying attention to it.

Overall, there is a feeling of helplessness caused by an unwillingness for military intervention in any way. The military intervention that took place in 2011 will of course not be repeated, in my opinion. In the absence of a clear political will, a desire to address Libya’s problems and the ability to address them, the only thing the international community believes will avoid a slide toward total chaos, or what might be called a civil war, is dialogue. Now everybody is saying, let the Libyans talk and agree and we will support them, and let the political process resume after agreeing on the priorities of national construction.

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Unfortunately, Libya has been a country of missed opportunities. Today they are talking about dialogue, and everyone sees no way out of the current impasse except through [dialogue]. Three months ago, in June, I almost saw with my own eyes that there will be a confrontation between the two major alliances in Libya: the alliance of Misrata and Islamists, and the other alliance, which includes various groups, so-called ‘nationalist non-Islamists’ or even anti-Islamist.

In June, I saw that things would soon deteriorate and that we were moving toward armed confrontation. I invited the parties to dialogue. My call was thwarted because some believed that Libya could be ruled with one side defeating the other, even if the winners were based on a majority vote.

It is true that the non-Islamist team won the election and received a much larger majority than some had predicted, but in a country with so much diversity, so many weapons and all these contradictions and external interventions, especially Arab — there are, of course international interventions but they are not significant or influential — dialogue was necessary. Some thought, however, that the electoral victory made [dialogue] unnecessary. Consequently, events ensued, and now everybody find themselves in need [of dialogue].

Al-Hayat: What do you mean by Arab interventions?

Mitri: I mean two types: the first is from the neighboring countries that are affected one way or another by what is going on, such as Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, especially that [Egypt’s] border with Libya is infiltrated. It is trying to ward off the danger of the violence moving into it. Violence moved from Libya to Tunisia, and Tunisia has suffered a lot from Libyan violence. Algeria and Egypt are trying to keep this danger away from them. They did not directly interfere. This is apparent and nobody is debating that. However, both parties in [Libya] fear the intervention of the two big countries. Sometimes the fear of intervention is a factor exacerbating the contradictions.

There is another intervention: financial and political support from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. One supports this group and the other supports the other one for reasons relating to their general Arab policies. UAE is waging a war against Islamists, while Qatar supports what it calls moderate Islamists and has relations with Misrata. The intervention is not military though, with the exception of the airstrikes conducted by the UAE. Libya has enough internal problems. It must not become an arena for conflict between states. This is what I always warn against. I call on Arab countries to help the Libyans reach an understanding rather than support one group against another, whatever the considerations may be.

Al-Hayat: Some say that Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter has failed and that some Arab countries supported him. What about that?

Mitri: Hifter is a controversial figure for the Libyans. Many Libyans do not trust him. Many Libyans who supported Operation Dignity — as an operation designed to hit the radical Islamists (Ansar al-Sharia), especially in Benghazi — supported the operation, but did not support Hifter himself. Some were enthusiastic about the operation because they thought that it might contribute to reviving the Libyan army, which used to be weak and marginalized during [leader Moammar al-] Gadhafi’s days; it became weaker during the revolution. Some hoped that Hifter would restore life to this army.

Al-Hayat: Does this mean that betting on Hifter was a mistake?

Mitri: I think that those who bet on him are reviewing their calculations. The other problem is that Hifter did not confront [only] Ansar al-Sharia, but expanded the circle of his opponents and confronted Islamists in general, as well as some rebel battalions allied with Islamists. That led to the army and the legitimate forces being pushed out of Benghazi, which is under the control of armed groups, except for the airport.

Al-Hayat: When you say armed groups, do you mean Islamists?

Mitri: They are a mixture, composed mainly of Islamists, but also rebel battalions who took part in the revolution and are allied with Islamists.

Al-Hayat: Some say that since [armed groups] got some locations, such as Benghazi, the fighting has stopped?

Mitri: The daily unrest has decreased. Normally, when one side controls a city, its situation somewhat improves, but everybody agrees that a fair share of Benghazi’s people are not happy seeing gunmen dominate life in the city. I think that Hifter’s movement exacerbated the problems. Did Khalifa Hifter receive support from Western or Arab countries? Nothing proves this. Some of my Libyan friends told me that they were waiting to see if Hifter was successful, [in which case] the Americans and others would support him, but if he failed then everyone would disown him. Perhaps this is true.

Al-Hayat: What about the government and the authorities?

Mitri: This is an extremely complicated situation. There is an elected parliament that did not find a safe place to meet except in Tobruk in the far east. This parliament is legitimate because it was elected by the people in free and fair elections. We, at the United Nations, are working closely with the Electoral Commission and we corroborate that. In Benghazi, a truce allowed the holding of the elections on June 25. Then the security situation exploded in Tripoli in mid-July. There is an elected parliament that only controls small parts of the country.

Al-Hayat: What about the Islamists in this parliament?

Mitri: They are a minority, and they are boycotting it anyway. They participated in the elections, but few of them won. They boycotted the parliament because, first, it is in Tobruk, an area controlled by Hifter; second, because the transfer of power from the General National Congress to parliament did not proceed according to the text of the Constitutional Declaration; and third and most important, because armed confrontations have led to Misrata and its allies, the Islamic battalions, controlling Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, Sirte and most coastal cities. This means that we now have a legitimate parliament, which endorsed a government, facing a large alliance controlling the greater part of the country. They have strength and they control the capital. This other force has formed a government and we now have two governments: one that enjoys legitimacy because an elected parliament appointed it and another that has strength and controls many Libyan cities.

Perhaps a dialogue between the two sides under UN auspices would help in the initial search for a way to an agreement. I tried several times. I have organized several dialogues between the political forces. The [dialogues] were held without difficulty. The goal was to reach some consensus. It was difficult, however. The failure happened in June, when I called for a dialogue because I knew what was about to happen, and it did happen. My invitation was misunderstood. In short, the nationalist non-Islamist forces considered themselves the winners and Islamists the losers. Why would the winner want to dialogue with the loser when dialogue would mean, from [the winners’] perspective, that they have to make concessions? I told them that the issue was not a matter of winner and loser, but it was about Libya’s national unity and peace, and that no party could eliminate the other. You could win an election, but not eliminate others. The two of you must meet to agree on the minimum in order to avoid the country’s collapse, which ended up happening.

Al-Hayat: Are any Gadhafi regime remnants working on the ground in Libya?

Mitri: Some supporters of the former regime are outside Libya: in Egypt, Tunisia, Malta and some European countries. They do not wish to return to Libya and fear retaliation and persecution. That is just one category of supporters of the former regime. There is another category from within the tribes whose interests during Gadhafi’s rule are said to have been better cared for than for other tribes. It is said that Gadhafi had used some tribes against other tribes and that there were groups of people, belonging to these tribes, seen by their opponents as affiliated with the old regime. Gadhafi’s supporters, however, are not a visible and armed phenomenon. In some military confrontations that took place in Sabha, in the west of Tripoli, and in Rishvana, the green flag was raised two or three times. That was taken as evidence that supporters of the old regime participated in the battles. I think that was an exaggeration.

Al-Hayat: Is it true that some want to release [Moammar Gadhafi son] Saif al-Islam Gadhafi from prison?

Mitri: I do not think this is serious. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi is detained in the city of Zintan and he has been visited by UN representatives (human rights section). He is being treated well, overall. He is still a detainee and I do not think that he will be released for one reason or another. The people of Zintan, particularly the revolutionary brigades in Zintan, which have become a military power to reckon with and which have fought the battle of the airport, know that Saif al-Islam Gadhafi is an important prisoner. They do not want to hand him over to Tripoli. They prefer to keep him.

Of course, Libya does not want to hand him over to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Libyans believe that they can try him in Libya because they have pledged to respect international judicial standards. They also believe that he committed crimes in Libya and wish to hold him accountable, and that he has information that they need. [The information] may not be important to the ICC. This is their solid stance and they have conducted trials for a number of former regime figures, with the exception of Abdullah al-Senussi, who will soon stand trial because the investigation is not finished with him. The former prime minister under Gadhafi, al-Baghdadi al-Mahmudi, and a number of Gadhafi government ministers are currently being tried in Libya.

Al-Hayat: In your opinion, what mistake caused this worsening of the situation in Libya?

Mitri: There are of course international and Libyan mistakes. The military aerial intervention and the urgency of the countries that participated in this intervention to withdraw from Libya has led to the overthrow of Gadhafi but has not created the conditions for the establishment of a new regime. They left Libya in a situation close to the chaos of arms.

Second, the Transitional National Council, which the world recognized and which led the revolution, was in a hurry to hand over power to an elected national conference. The elections were held, I believe, early and prematurely in the summer of 2012. The UN monitored them in cooperation with the National Elections Commission. The elections were good by all standards and participation was large and enthusiastic. However, how can elections be held in a jungle of arms and in the absence of institutions, a judiciary and a national consensus on the priorities of proper state-building? In other words, the election made the power struggle take precedence over the state-building process. Building the state should have preceded the struggle for power.

The other thing is that the international community established the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), but it was small and was given advisory and technical tasks. The Libyans needed much more than that. We quickly discovered that there was havoc and that having five or 10 experts was not enough to build the police force. It needed much more than that. International presence, through the UN, should have been much larger.

There is also something very important that perhaps I should have mentioned before talking about the UN: the revolution was also a kind of civil war, because some revolutionaries wanted to eliminate those suspected of collaborating with the former regime or to take revenge on them, even if they claimed to be seeking justice. For many, sometimes justice means taking revenge on the enemy.

For instance, the political isolation law — which is close to the de-Baathification law in Iraq, and is in fact more extensive than that — was made to remove all those who had dealt with Gadhafi or served in his state. Gadhafi ruled for 43 years. Those who worked [under him] as ambassadors, directors, and faculty deans are very numerous. Excluding them has weakened the chance to build the state and has created in the country an atmosphere similar to the continuation of the civil war.

When I first came to Libya, I thought that the first step must be national reconciliation, overcoming the previous contradictions and starting a new process in which everybody was equal. Of course, this does not preclude trying criminals — those who embezzled the Libyans’ money or those who committed crimes against them. This is normal in any society that has passed through authoritarian regimes like Gadhafi’s. Those who committed crimes should be tried. However, trying officials is one thing and excluding a large section of Libyans is something else. I discovered early on that reconciliation was not possible and that the split in Libyan society was sharp.

Al-Hayat: What do you think of the Libyan National Council and its performance?

Mitri: Of course, the political elites bear a great responsibility. These elites have no political experience. The 43 years of Gadhafi’s rule have led to the death of politics. There were small opposition groups living abroad, but for them to lead a revolution and to rule this country requires a degree of experience, skill, knowledge and political culture they do not have. A politician cannot become a statesman overnight. This is normal. The National Transitional Council was cohesive at a certain moment, thus allowing for international intervention. It was cohesive in addressing the world, and the conditions allowed the international community [to deal positively with it]. I have said "in the past" because if we go back to that day and raise the matter to the Security Council, the Russians would probably exercise their veto.

Al-Hayat: How do you perceive the next move, and have you lost hope about Libya’s future?

Mitri: No, I am not of that opinion. If we exclude international intervention, [prevent] other interventions in Libyan affairs and leave the Libyans to decide their own destiny, and if they are greatly pressured to agree on the primacy of state-building — first and foremost building the army and the police and solving the problem of weapons and gunmen — then we would have put Libya on the way to a solution.

The matter will drag on, and a long time is needed to rebuild the army, the police, the judiciary and finally the administration. This needs time. The most important thing is that these [steps] be preceded by an agreement among the Libyans, at least on the issue of not using arms to achieve political objectives.

Al-Hayat: How are state funds and revenues being dealt with, and what is happening in the oil sector?

Mitri: In principle, the government distributes oil revenues to the Libyans in the form of salaries, paid to 80% of the Libyan workforce. Oil revenues cover the state budget because oil is Libya’s only source of income. The problem is that, for nearly a year, oil exports have dropped and thus oil revenues have greatly decreased. Now exports have risen to between 700,000 and 900,000 barrels [a day]. This is still below what it used to be, i.e. 1.5 million barrels a day. Hence, the state is spending money from its reserves.

Al-Hayat: Did the state regain its reserves? Part of it was frozen and its place was unknown.

Mitri: There are reserves in the Central Bank of Libya which are at the disposal of Libyans. Parts of the assets were deposited in European and Western banks. The Libyan state has proven that these assets were owned by the Libyan state and they were returned. What Libyan assets remain frozen abroad are [in the name] of associations, organizations, institutions, and individuals. The Libyan state still needs to prove that it owns [those assets] in order to recover them. Until then, they remain frozen. No one knows the size of Libyan investments abroad, in Europe, Africa and the West.

Al-Hayat: Which Libyan political figures have impressed you and could play an important role in the future?

Mitri: That is a difficult question. Of course, every Libyan politician I have met has his capabilities and qualities, including some who are very educated and loyal to Libya. I have met Libyan figures who have lived abroad and then returned to Libya, including university professors. There are many competent people. However, their political experience is limited and no political movement has emerged that can benefit from their capabilities. Libyan political movements are poorly organized, except for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Justice and Construction Party, which [the Brotherhood] has established because the Brotherhood has a long experience is an international organization. All the remaining parties are not organized.

Al-Hayat: Who are the most prominent figures in the Muslim Brotherhood party?

Mitri: [Bashir] Al-Kabta and [Abdul Razak] al-Aradi. There are also prominent figures who have some experience, but this party’s influence is limited. In the elections, it did not achieve significant results in parliament nor in the drafting of the constitution. In 2012, it achieved better results, but it is still a minority party. What I hear a lot is that the Libyans are conservative Muslims (Maaliki Sunnis), with some leaning toward Sufism and some being Salafists. However, many [Libyans] are repulsed by parties that call themselves Islamist. They say that we are all Muslims and that they do not need Islamist parties.

You asked me about figures. I want to talk about a figure that impressed me for two reasons. Dr. Mohammad al-Megarif, who was the president of the General National Congress, is a historic leader of the Libyan opposition. He lived abroad as president of the Libyan National Front and was pursued by Gadhafi. He tried to play his role as president of the General National Conference and tried to rise above political conflicts. He did not succeed, though, because he was between the jaws of the pliers: Islamists on the one hand and nationalist non-Islamists on the other hand. His party in the General National Congress was small and he was not able to achieve what he had aspired to. I mention him mainly because I often met him and I always felt like I was with somebody who raised many questions, looked to the distant future and was not only preoccupied with immediate matters. He was Libya’s ambassador to India in 1978. He resigned in 1980 because of his disagreement with Gadhafi. He remained the leader of the opposition till 2011, or for 31 years. Despite that, the political isolation law was about to include him. Instead of waiting to be excluded by this law, he resigned and left Libya with dignity. That deserves respect.

Al-Hayat: Do you think that figures who were abroad during Gadhafi’s era could return to do any [political moves]?

Mitri: I think that is unlikely. Some who worked with Saif al-Islam Gadhafi in recent years now play a role in Libya’s political life.

Al-Hayat: Like who?

Mitri: Dr. Mahmoud Jibril has a big role in the political life. For a limited period, he cooperated with Saif al-Islam. However, the law of political isolation springs up again. Jibril is the leader of a major party. He is deprived of his political rights because of this law. Maybe the new parliament will amend or abolish this law. The biggest challenge in front of the current parliament is to overcome the boycott. A minority of its members are boycotting it.

Al-Hayat: Why has Lebanon been unable to find anything about the disappearance of Imam Moussa al-Sadr?

Mitri: Some who know more than I are constantly pursuing this issue. I have a personal interest in this matter, even if my responsibility was for the UN, not for Lebanon. This prompted me to always ask the Libyans and pursue this matter. I called on them to respond to the Imam’s family. The family’s basic demand was the truth. The family does not want financial compensation, but only to know if the imam is still alive, and if he is not alive, they want evidence or testimony from one of those responsible for his disappearance. Until now, they have not received any evidence. The Libyan authorities have commissioned a judge to pursue the case. The abilities of the Libyan judiciary are limited and the number of those who disappeared in mysterious circumstances and whose bodies are hidden and about whom there is no information is very high in Libya. The issue is not that easy.

Among the officials who played a role that day, there is only Abdullah al-Senussi. It seems that till now he has not provided one piece of information about the case of Imam Sadr. A Lebanese delegation met him for five hours when he was in Mauritania. He did not give serious information, not in Tripoli and not in Mauritania.

Al-Hayat: Are you pessimistic regarding Libya’s future?

Mitri: I am worried about Libya’s future. I am also afraid that the Libyans will waste an opportunity. In light of the continuation of the current situation and the lack of political consensus, I fear that Libya will devolve into areas of influence for the various armed groups, which will agree sometimes and disagree at other times. Economic life will get disrupted and embassies will leave, as is the case now. I am somewhat worried. The Libyans are very worried. Many have left Libya and are hesitating to return. Many are in Tunisia. Some give very high figures about the [number of Libyans] in Tunisia. When flying, I often meet Libyans who left their country and who seem to have lost hope to return to it. They talk about Libya in the past tense, with regret and sadness. This is very worrying.

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Found in: political islam, political conflict, libya’s general national congress, libyan revolution, libyan civil war, libya elections
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