As the Arab League holds its 29th summit today in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, few doubt that the 67-year-old organization is facing one of the most difficult periods in its history.
Most Arabs will argue that the League has not done a good job so far, but the challenges it faces are daunting by any measure. It is not just the organization that is weak and mostly ineffective; in many ways, every Arab political structure is crumbling.
The failures are existential, not just political; and it significantly affects the Arab world as well as global peace and security.
Arab leaders will meet to discuss five major priorities and hopefully reach a consensus.
The priorities are the ongoing Palestinian tragedy, which has seen more bloodshed in the last two weeks; the chemical attack in Syria, which is dominating the headlines, as are the diametrically opposed positions held by the US and Russia, which may very well result in direct confrontation; the recent rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels in Yemen; Libya’s continuing decent into chaos; and, finally, Arab economic integration, which has sadly never materialized despite decades of signed agreements.
Many people have written recently about Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. I have written recently about the importance of Arab economic integration, so I want to focus on Libya, which, in many ways, is a forgotten civil war.
Although the Libyan crisis is relatively insignificant to big power plays and geopolitics, it could have serious consequences if things get much worse, as many expect, mainly because the international community and Arab countries have been negligent in dealing with it, much like Afghanistan in the 1990s. Over the past eight years, ever since the NATO-supported revolt against the Qaddafi regime in 2011, Libya has been descending deeper into chaos, mainly due to lack of interest and attention.
While Libya may not represent a major strategic interest to most countries when things are relatively stable, it can wreak havoc on three strategic regions: North Africa, southern Europe, and the sub-Saharan belt (the African Sahel countries), all of which are suffering already from political and economic troubles. Due to its sheer size, location, and wealth, Libya can become a vortex dragging everything around it into chaos.
Ghassan Salama, who is attending the Arab Submit, is the last of a series of special UN envoys appointed to deal with the Libyan crisis. He took this thankless job in June 2017. Like his predecessors, he has been running round in circles for almost a year trying to reach an agreement and find a solution. Salama has outlined a number of milestones he wanted to achieve in his first few months, a moot point now since that time has passed.
First, he wanted to reach an agreement about reforming the previous agreement, known as the Sekherat Agreement of December 2015, which expired in December 2017. He wanted the factions to agree on a new smaller government of national accord. He also wants to find a solution to the avalanche of corruption and illegal money infecting the country.
Finally, he wanted to organize a countrywide majlis to reach a national consensus for moving forward, leading into a new presidential and legislative elections in hopes of uniting Libya’s many governments, armies, and even its central banks under one roof. This last step is the only one that seems to be still in play; the others have fallen by the wayside. With this last ditch effort, Salama seeks to salvage his plan.
He faces several problems, including the expiration of the Sekhrat Agreement, which was weak and meaningless from the start since it excluded as many parties as it included. It also means that Libya has had no real legitimate institutions since December 2017. Its parliament, state council, and government owe their existence to this agreement, and they have expired with it. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Eastern Parliament, which he controls, did not ratify the agreement to begin with because Haftar refuses to be under the authority of a civil government; he wants to remain independent of any oversight.
Moreover, the government in Tripoli, known as the Government of National Accord, was structured in a way that ensured its failure. It had nine members, six of whom have a veto power; and each member represents a group with a different ideological bent; these are the ones who went to Sekhrat, not the groups that actually needed to be there. Thus, it became a contentious ideological government rather than the technocratic one that Libya needs.
The last of these steps, the National Conference, is a nightmare, even in stable countries, let alone a failed state. In a place such as Libya, without a government or national army, and with hundreds of armed militias vying for control, this step is impossible to implement; it is basically meant to give the appearance that something is being done.
The Arab League summit can play a significant role in Libya today by encouraging Salama to recognize that the crisis is still essentially a civil war that needs real conciliation, not just a power-sharing agreement that should include Qaddafi supporters. It is also necessary to separate the reconciliation efforts, such as the National Conference, from the formation of a technocratic government that can address the daily miseries of the Libyan people.
Finally, there must be a clear separation between the legislative branch and the executive branch. Ultimately, all groups must be included, or those excluded will continue to undermine any and all efforts toward a solution.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a former adviser to the board of directors at the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell