Tarek Megerisi: Libya's Crises

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Jon Alterman: Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa team at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Tarek, welcome to Babel.

Tarek Megerisi: Thank you very much for having me.

Jon Alterman: Libya slid into civil war more than a decade ago, and it's had competing national authorities for all that time. Why has that continued for so long? Why has political leadership still not consolidated in the country?

Tarek Megerisi: I'll start with an anecdote. After the most recent war in Tripoli, I was speaking with a military man, and he was reflecting to me that Libya is the only conflict he's ever seen where none of the participants have national aspirations. All of the military officers are incredibly local in their perception of things. They want to be the ruler of their neighborhood or, at most, their city.

A lot of the political and elite class don't have much of a political ideology. They don't have a vision for what they would like Libya to look like or how they would like to lead or govern it.

This class really cares about access to Libya's oil wealth and the massive amounts of corruption. It's more of an administrative game of how they can access different avenues of the state and dominate and take control over different budgets of the state. The ultimate goal is to maximize, firstly their personal wealth and then secondly, the number of people that they can put on a payroll and who, therefore, will be loyal to them.

Despite all the civil wars, despite all the strife, despite a revolution in the country, there has yet to be a political vision or a political movement. It's all just different forms of corruption.

Jon Alterman: If you look at other oil states, a country like Iraq, for example, it is the centralization of the oil wealth that allows you to have political centralization. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was hyper centralized because somebody got control of the oil wealth.

It seems that in Libya, after more than decade, no one has complete control of the oil wealth. It's puzzling to me why this situation hasn't consolidated more. Does that tell you more about Libya? Or does it tell you more about the outside powers who themselves have interests in Libya?

Tarek Megerisi: I think it's a split story there. The common theme between them is a balance of power, where nobody is quite as good as they think they are. Libya under Gaddafi was to Iraq under Saddam. Everything was completely centralized in Tripoli. Gaddafi constructed a weird balance of power, but he sat at the top of the hierarchy.

Still to today, Gaddafi's administration survives in the sense of the political set-up which he had. All of Libya's oil wealth goes to one central point, and what everybody is fighting over is the Central Bank of Libya and Tripoli, to a lesser extent.

The difference is, firstly, in Libya no one really has a monopoly on violence because it's hard to rule through violence alone. No one is politically savvy.

The other side of this is that they all have powerful foreign backers. The most successful militarily of these have been the Turks, as decided in the last war but, the Russians, the French, the Italians, the Emiratis, the Qataris, and the Turks are all involved . . .

Jon Alterman: And the Egyptians.

Tarek Megerisi: And the Egyptians. They all tend to balance each other out to a certain extent, where nobody becomes quite capable of taking it all for themselves.

Jon Alterman: The principal split is between the east and west, a historic split in Libya. Do you think that there might be some wisdom in trying to stabilize that split? Is it important, in your mind, that Libya be unified again?

Tarek Megerisi: Yes, it is. I mean, this concept of formalizing the separation of the country pops up in policy circles every couple of years or so. But, to me, it doesn't actually solve any problems. Instead, you would simply move from a paradigm of a civil war to a paradigm of two nation states fighting with each other.

There weren’t many things that Gaddafi did right during his time in charge, but one thing he did is that he united the country through infrastructure: oil infrastructure, water infrastructure, electricity infrastructure. These span the three regions, the west, the east and the south.

Firstly if you were to formalize the division, it becomes difficult to draw the border because each side would want to take as much of the oil as possible for themselves. Secondly, it would be hard to separate that infrastructure. It would take a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of acrimony. And you wouldn't really achieve anything, so it seems like a red herring to me.

Jon Alterman: The United Nations (UN) has long focused on trying to get a national electoral process underway. To your mind, what will elections do? What will elections be unable to do?

Tarek Megerisi: People like to look at elections like a silver bullet, like you will just have a vote and then everything will be fine afterward.

I think that if we want to be more sanguine and apply the lessons of the last 12 years, elections are important for two things. Firstly, it allows Libya to move beyond the current political infrastructure that exists.

Libya's political system consists of two parliaments, like it's two governments. It's essentially a hodge-podge of agreements that have been formed and semi-constitutional documents that have been created over the past 10 years. This has created an environment of corruption and stagnation.

What Libyans are desperate to do, and what really needs to be done for any kind of political progress to happen, is to just do a clean sweep. To create a new political system, a more functional political system.

That brings us to the second point of what elections might hopefully achieve, which is to create a road map for the country. In former elections, it's been noticeable that no candidate really had a manifesto. There were no real policy plans. The last time there was any sense of political direction for the country was with the Constitutional Declaration of 2012.

A new election would offer the opportunity to create a mandate for a future government that is elected. This allows some clarity, in a sense of, "Okay, what would we like a government to achieve?" Given that Libya is still in transition, you have a few key jobs, like unifying the country, finalizing a constitution, holding a next round of elections.

From there, you can work backwards from there to create the political set-up you need.

Jon Alterman: Some people told me that Libya needs a whole new political class, but I'm not sure how we get to having a new political class. I'm not sure how we get to having politicians who are different from the existing politicians, might I say warlords, in Libya. Do you see any way toward changing the mix of people who are involved in politics? For example, taking power away from warlords and giving it to people who are interested in ideology, and platforms, and policy, and things like that?

Tarek Megerisi: I mean, it has to be a gradual process. All these guys are right, Libya desperately needs a new political class. The events of the past week have shown that more clearly than ever before, but it's a bit hopeful or naïve to believe that you can just get there in one hop.

Which is why I speak of the importance of a government mandate and some kind of sense of direction. Not only to guide Libya's political process, but to constrain whoever wins that election. It's highly likely that the MPs or whoever wins the next election will be somewhat worse than the MPs who won the previous election. They will be individuals who have become either more successful at corruption or more successful at violence. We see a lot of militiamen starting to prepare for a political campaign.

The only way we can really hope to keep improving and not slide backwards instead is to have a clear mandate for this government, a clear set of goals for them to create an atmosphere of public pressure and international support, which will ensure that those goals are being hit and being worked toward. Then gradually, you can have baby steps toward improvement.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask you about the international piece. The UN has been involved in Libya for many years, increasingly under criticism and considered ineffectual and ineffective. You've written before about the possibility that other parties might come in. Can you talk a little bit about the role of international institutions and international players coming into Libya. How acceptable are they to the different parties? What should they be doing? How can they move things in a positive direction?

Tarek Megerisi: Ironically, much like how the Libyan political system is messy, the international system that's meant to constrain, to control, to guide the Libyan system is equally messy. Nominally speaking, at least, everything is supposed to be channeled through the UN support mission in Libya and the UN special representative. In reality, the UN support mission has been tremendously hampered over the years by one of two problems that it seems to bounce between. Either you have a great SRSG (special representative of the secretary-general), who's got a vision, that wants to achieve something, but none of the countries that are supposed to be supporting the representative are doing so. Rather, they are only representative in word. Because of this, they are continuously undermined until their plan fails and they are driven out or, in the case of poor Dr. Ghassan Salame, his health deteriorated to such an extent that he needs to leave for his own sanity and livelihood. The other side is that one needs to have a modicum of international cohesion, a lack of fatigue with Libya's instability, and a willingness to change something. I think we saw that most recently in 2022.

Then you get an SRSG who is almost like the UN version of a company man. Abdoulaye Bathily, the guy who's there now, he's there to do a job, he's there to tick boxes. He talks about the need to talk, to convene, to have a dialogue, to have a political process, but you don't see much activity or action on the ground until the international community either gets bored and re-focuses on a different country, or they just try their own policies instead. We end up in a scenario whereby individual states drive the situation on the ground, usually toward their own ends. In the last ten years, at least, it's never been in a positive direction for Libya.

Jon Alterman: I want to ask two related questions. First, who do you think the principal international actors in Libya should be? And secondly, how should they be organized?

Tarek Megerisi: I mean, frankly speaking, in mid-2022, so this time last year or maybe just before this time last year, I was really happy because we didn't have a special representative in place. This means that for the first time in maybe 10 years, all of the main countries involved had to own up to their own Libya policy. They didn't have any UN to hide behind and to just come out and say, "Well, we support the UN process." It was a lot easier to work with them, and it was a lot easier to push toward some kind of a new coherent, cohesive policy. They had their own mechanism, and they called it the P3+2+2, which in typical diplomatic terms is not the catchiest name, but it essentially meant the three permanent members of the Security Council involved who are the United States, the UK and France, and then two additional European nations, the Italians and the Germans, who had hosted the Berlin process previously.

After that, two of the most prominent regional actors involved were Turkey and Egypt. This process actually made sense to a certain extent because if you could get an agreement between them, even a majority decision between them on a way forward, they had enough gravity and push in the country to actually implement that policy. When you either start to grow the group from there or shrink it into one or two countries, then interests start to get involved. Either the group becomes too unwieldy, like the UN support mission, or the group becomes driven by the national interests of only one capital, which is also problematic.

Jon Alterman: There are other actors. Russia is an important actor in Libya or has been. The UAE, as you mentioned, is an important actor. Can you help us understand what both Russian and Turkish national interests are to the extent to which they overlap in Libya, the extent to which they're different?

For example, the UAE's interest in Libya. I was in the UAE earlier this week and people said, "Well, it's just about supporting Egypt," but my understanding is that it's a little nuanced and it's not just about supporting Egypt in the minds of many. These are countries that I think a lot of people would say, "I don't understand why they care about Libya except they do care about Libya, and they are consequential in Libya."

Tarek Megerisi: All of these countries have a kind of layer to their policies and to their interests in the country. Abu Dhabi seems as good a place as any to start. The UAE were one of the initial interventionists in Libya. From as far back as 2011, the days of the revolution, NATO intervened from the skies and there were Emirate and Qatari special forces on the ground to help the revolutionary actors become coherent fighting units. The Emirates have a host of different ideological, economic, and regional political interests in Libya. I think if we start with the ideological, they have largely satisfied that at this point. They greatly feared the Arab Spring, and Libya was the worst representation of that because, from their point of view, you had a country with a huge oil wealth and a small population who suddenly pushed to become a democracy but also started asking questions of their rulers saying, "What right do our rulers have to decide on our behalf how our oil money is spent?"

Jon Alterman: And there's a strong strain of political Islam in Libya that has become quite sensitive for the Emirates.

Tarek Megerisi: Yes. I believe that the specter of political Islam and fighting Islam was always a useful dummy or bogeyman for the Emirates and the Egyptians to put out in front to distract from what essentially is a war on democracy in the region. The language of fighting Islamism is a lot more palatable to the Western world, and it's a lot smoother of an excuse to use as to why you would intervene, even intervene militarily in countries, and to say, "Well, I don't actually like the idea of democracy over there." Because in many of these countries, especially in Libya, the political Islamic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. They are not as coherent, as powerful, as big, and as organized of an organization.

But they were the only political opposition there. With enough time, they would have been voted out of office, or they would have been watered down, as we saw in Tunisia. I really think it was more about stopping that conceptualization of democracy.

I think for the Emirates, after the last 10 years in Libya, they've gotten a bit tired. I mean, the dream of democracy is clearly dead. Their initial sponsor of Khalifa Haftar is clearly not as competent as they would have liked him to have been or as effective either at governing or at being able to control the country as a whole.

With the last round of UN government picking, for want of a better term, with the process that they hosted in 2021 to organize a new unity government, I think they found in Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh, the prime minister who came out of it, somebody with whom they could work; somebody through which they could satisfy their economic interests in the country, whilst realizing that the political situation is beyond their control and probably beyond anybody else's control for now.

We’ve seen the Emirates be a lot more active in trying to make unity governments between Dbeibeh and the Haftar family or his children and investing in economic opportunities. Again, you see this interest from the Emirates in ports and in the logistical space that connects the UAE as a middle ground between China on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. You see that economic vision from them.

On the ground, the Emirates have had to surrender a lot of control of military activity to the Russians. That began during Haftar's war in Tripoli in 2019–2020. The Emirates threw everything in support of Haftar. There were tens of billions of dirhams of support, and he was incapable of making progress until the Wagner Group arrived on the front lines. I think that there was a realization by the Emirates that this is what the Wagner Group are good at doing, so they could pull back and save a lot of money and let the Russians lead on that front. The Russians took it and ran. I don't think they were loyal allies to Haftar, in that sense. Once the Turks intervened, I think they realized that game was up, and they moved to secure their own interest in the country, which is to maintain control over Libya's assets, in particular its oil assets. You could see in the weeks leading up to the end of the war, when Haftar's army was going to collapse, Wagner forces started to leave the front lines, and they moved toward Libya's oil fields and Libya's oil installations to be able to dig in and secure them.

The other side of this is to maintain Libya's division, to create a sense of chaos and also a lack of unity that allows for having two different sides, which allows Russia to play sides off of one another, maintaining an environment of a lack of control, which they happily exploit to facilitate a lot of their shadow economic activities, mainly smuggling and figuring out ways to support Bashar al-Assad, connecting those two shadow economies in eastern Libya and in Syria.

Jon Alterman: And the Turks?

Tarek Megerisi: There is this balance now between Turkey and Russia, and it's based on this economic geopolitical balance. When the Russians abandoned Haftar, they drew the new front lines or the new division of the country in the city of Sirte, which is in central Libya. As much as people say that there was a cease-fire negotiated between the Libyans, in reality, there was a cease-fire negotiated between presidents Putin and Erdogan. That is what made the peace in Sirte. It's certainly what has kept the peace in Libya since. Libya has become another kind of piece on the chessboard between them, especially if we include Syria, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and now Ukraine, as well.

The Turks, like the Russians, have their own economic interests in the country. I think they also have geopolitical interests, like the Russians and a few other states, actually. Libya, given its geographical position, is a useful launchpad for other African policies. We see the Russians use Libya as the African logistics hub of the Wagner Group. Initially, Turkey had similar plans to use Libya as a launchpad into the Sahel and also into East Africa.

The more unique driver for Turkey's intervention was the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. In terms of its own national security, Turkey has this vision of challenging Greece's claims to the waters around Greek islands and also, to the vast oil and gas fields that are underneath. Libya became a useful partner to kind of legally challenge that claim.

Turkey created their own maritime boundaries with Libya. They found an ally to back up its claim that there are different ways to draw these maritime boundaries. They found a new energy partner. I think the way the Turks envision their future partnership with Libya is that Libya will provide them the rights to start drilling for oil, and then they will start drilling for gas and try to help Turkish energy independence in that way.

As you can see, it's a huge overlapping of geopolitical, economic, and ideological interests from all involved, as well as just simply playing to the moment and being an opportunist.

Jon Alterman: And it feels a little bit like these countries, which are not part of the P5 (permanent members of the security council) in the UN, seem to have greater ambitions for Libya than larger countries in the world.

Tarek Megerisi: Yes, in terms of some of the members of the P5 who happily piggybacked on the activities of the Emirates or the Turks.

In the modern day where Western states don't like to get their hands dirty in public, I think the interventions of a lot of these other non-P5 states are useful partners for them. Those who are willing to get their hands dirty, to create facts on the ground that they once hoped that they could take advantage of. But I think now, if they look back on the last 10 years, all they will see is that it fomented more chaos and it took all of them further away from their interests.

Jon Alterman: Let me go from the international to the national. Libya had about $22 billion in oil revenues last year.

And while the revenues are handled by the government in the West, 75 percent of the oil is pumped from areas controlled by the government in the East. Do you think there are ways to handle oil revenues differently that will help Libya get to a political settlement?

Tarek Megerisi: Absolutely. We spoke earlier about how the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli is a prize for everybody to fight over. I think that's largely because of how the oil money is collected and then distributed. It makes that a prize for everybody to fight over. Libyans believe that they have a right to the oil wealth and that the oil wealth is their right, but how they conceptualize that right or access that right is through government jobs through being able to access government tenders. That creates a system of corruption and of power in the country, whereby he who can hand out government jobs becomes powerful. It structurally creates the dysfunctional state that we have today, and there have been teams of Libyans in more peaceful times who worked on new ways for Libyans to conceptualize their right to the oil wealth and their ability to access it. There's the idea of a sovereign wealth fund, much like in other oil rich states, or the idea of a universal basic income. If you can find a platform like that, which suddenly equalizes Libyans as citizens and gives them rights as citizens rather than by where they come from in the country, then I think you can undercut a lot of the insecurities that drive conflict and that allow greedy people sitting in the elite to keep fermenting conflict.

Jon Alterman: I want to turn to the most internal issue, which is the floods that have devastated Derna in the last week. Why have they been so destructive? When we were talking earlier, you said as much as half of the city may have been washed away.

Tarek Megerisi: Yes, this is the real legacy of decades of negligence toward maintaining infrastructure because those who are responsible for maintaining that infrastructure would rather simply make money through corrupt government tenders instead of performing the job. What happened in Derna, just to explain, firstly is that there were two dams higher up the mountain that kind of regulated water flow into the valley that led to the sea. Derna sits at the bottom of the valley.

Because of Hurricane Daniel, the dams filled up, causing the dams to break and a huge force of water just rushed down. I think some local scientists have calculated the force that it created as being greater than that of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki.

Jon Alterman: And they talked about a wall of water that was more than 20 feet high.

Tarek Megerisi: Absolutely. It washed entire districts of the city straight into the sea. There were warnings last year by a Libyan hydrologist that the dams required urgent maintenance or that in any case of flooding, there could be disastrous results. The warnings were ignored. In the build-up to the storm, the authorities knew it was coming but the gates of the dams weren't opened, and they knew that it could create problems. Civilians and senior civilians in the city were calling for an evacuation, but the military administration, because Derna has been under a military administration since 2019, refused them that right of evacuation because the military wanted to stay in control of the situation.

You can see these kinds of failures in decision making. I mean, even up to an hour before the dams burst, the local ministry of water resources was issuing statements on its Facebook page saying that the dams were fine and that anybody worrying about them was just spreading fake news, essentially. All these poor people were told to stay at home, to lock themselves in to what eventually became their graves, and it's a natural disaster, but it's a manmade catastrophe because there were real instances of political negligence, of corruption over doing their jobs, and of contempt for the people that created this scenario.

Jon Alterman: What kind of opportunities does this disaster create? And what kinds of enduring challenges does it create as we look toward Libya's future?

Tarek Megerisi: Libya has been a failing state for a long time in the sense that infrastructure is not maintained, government services are not provided, and things are steadily degrading. What's happened now in eastern Libya is that it's no longer a steady degradation, but that overnight or over two nights, the quality of the road network, the electricity network, the water network, has gone down significantly. There are extremely valid doubts and concerns that the current authorities will care, let alone do anything to bring that back up to scratch. This reduces the society of Libya, it reduces the functionality of Libya as a state, and I think that those challenges will endure.

The opportunity or the hope that I think comes from this for many people is that it might be the drive for political change. There is shock, there is grief, but also, there is real rage amongst Libyans from all over the country that this was allowed to happen. The clumsiness and the callousness of Libya's politicians and elite class is only stoking that rage higher. Libya's parliament, which in times of a crisis is supposed to remain in continuous session, did not even meet until yesterday. And when they met, the speaker of the parliament spent quite a while telling off the Libyan people, saying that they shouldn't be blaming them for what happened. They say that the people were being unfair to them, and that this was an act of God.

Their one move was not to create a crisis committee or show any kind of leadership or organization for the relief effort, their one decision was to create a new fund of 10 billion Dinars for Derna's reconstruction to be managed by the speaker of the parliament. People are furious, because they see the same callousness and the same corruption just being thrown back into their faces, whilst they are still burying their dead.

On a daily basis, people are still washing up on the shore, morgues are still overflowing, the relief work has barely started, let alone finished. And they are already planning their corruption. At the same time, the military of Haftar, which is to blame for so much of this is, is trying to dominate the scene. There are reports coming in that aid convoys from western Libya, from southern Libya, are being stopped, and that Haftar’s military are having the aid taken off them because the military has to be seen as the ones who are distributing the aid. There are people now who are still starving in Derna and in other cities, and the aid is being stolen.

There is a lot of anger, there is a lot of resentment and frustration, and the question is, whether this can generate enough of a popular outrage that these people feel like they have to resign. What is being called for is that everybody should resign, from the president down to the mayor. Whether the people will succeed in that or whether, these politicians do what they do best and they ride out the storm whilst the military in eastern Libya and the security services in western Libya start arresting the dissenters and rounding them up and preventing any protests from forming, and so on. Time will tell on that one. There is a real hope that this can finally create the push for change that Libyans have wanted for a long time.

Jon Alterman: Well, we will have to have you back to see how that all evolves. Tarek Megerisi, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Tarek Megerisi: Thank you for having me on the program.