Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Libya: Deciphering a Paradoxical War

With Libya in the headlines, guest blogger Emadeddin A Badi tackles the subject of:

Libya: Deciphering a Paradoxical War
Prior to leaving Libya to come and study for my MSc in the UK, I attended one of the last of many meetings that were routinely held as part of my job in neighboring Tunisia due to security concerns. This one in particular involved looking into modifying the strategy for the delivery and implementation of a multi-million post-conflict stabilization project in the country I call home. I will spare you the details, but one person in particular mentioned something that resonated with me: “Sadly, the situation in Libya is a perpetual paradox… It’s becoming widely known as a country that is very rich with people becoming increasingly poor”.
Fast forward a few months later to my Violence, Conflict and Development (VCD) course at SOAS, and I feel that I have few answers yet more questions pertaining to how this paradox came to be, and how to reconcile it with reality.
A War of Semantics
Is the conflict in Libya a civil war? Does it matter if it is? And more importantly, how can it be ended? These are questions I have grappled with over the past few years and armed with my VCD reading list, am keen to answer.
Ironically, I recently had the chance to meet the scholar Jacob Mundy on another trip to Tunisia during reading week. After a quick conversation, he shared an amazing piece of research he has written on the conceptualizations of civil wars and “new wars” (a term coined by Mary Kaldor that I will elaborate on), taking the Algerian case as an example. I don’t want to reduce the paper’s findings to one, though a particular conclusion does resonate with me: civil/new wars must be viewed through the lens of politics and not through their coherence with historical conceptions of civil wars. That would allow the study of civil/new wars to be informed by the needs of the people rather than get lost in debates surrounding coherence with other occurrences of civil war in the past.

One particularly interesting phenomenon to note is that, while Libyans often draw parallels between 2011’s conflict and France’s 1792 revolution, there is a wide rejection amongst observers, journalists, analysts and some academics that the country is experiencing a civil war. This rejection may be associated with different conceptual frameworks of civil war, with some perceiving the violence as confined “geographically and temporally” as Wolfram notes here. However, I also believe that part of this intransigence is related to the politicization of the appellation of civil war. In a way, most Libyans are internalizing and shielding themselves from disillusionment that would follow recognizing that the country’s conflicts in 2011 and 2014 do possess features of a civil war, and that they are actors in it or victims of it. Those who directly or indirectly participated in the 2011 “revolution” would not be able to reconcile that the once idealistic statement and values shared at the dawn of conflict contrast sharply with the abuses seen perpetrated by those that were once considered “freedom fighters”.

This war of semantics and conceptualizations has therefore, in a way, becomes an attribute of the civil/new war itself.
A Persistent Libyan Conflict
Another attribute of the Libyan conflict is a consistent articulation of the need for peace, only for that to be followed by vigorous attempts to prolong war, which raises the puzzling question of whether it can be ended.

According to Kaldor’s theory regarding an “inconclusive war” parties are not seeking a victory, but rather the preservation of a lucrative status quo. This points to the fact that the Libyan conflict is not a contest of wills between antagonist parties, but rather a mutual enterprise fueling violence in an environment where lines between state and non-state actors are blurred, and where the international support exacerbates pre-existing rifts. The problem is that reality is often dissociated from the actual solutions proposed to “end the conflict”, which suggests it cannot be ended.
Having stumbled upon this video of professor Kaldor during further research, it was interesting to correlate the theoretical approaches of raising income through violence as part of the conceptualization of “new wars” with the practices seen in the contemporary Libyan war economy. Tying these observations to practical policy solutions is extremely challenging, especially since, as noted during lectures, peacebuilders often live in a world of their own, with idealistic values and perspectives. The continued reliance on those whose goal has clearly been identified as seeking to perpetuate the system of war in Libya to devise a solution to end it exemplifies this dichotomy.
My previous reasoning behind Libya’s conflict not being intractable was that parties would eventually reach a “mutually hurting stalemate” (MHS), and that, as explained by Zartman in his ripeness theory, if negotiations between parties are timed appropriately post-MHS, they would be successful. However, given the fact the system of war is so lucrative and that armed groups are increasingly prone to indiscriminately target civilians, it seems not only unrealistic to expect an MHS to be reached but also cruel to passively watch civilians die as collateral damage.

The MHS as explained by Zartmann
Whether Libya’s conflict was a civil war and whether the country’s current state can be improved are definitely questions that I will research further. However, I also believe that these questions are important for Libyans to ask and debate in order to reclaim ownership of the narrative surrounding their own conflict and their agency in crafting a solution. After all, some Libyans sympathize with armed groups’ grievances and views them as an extension of social structures that just reacted to the failure of the Libyan state by finding other means to extract “rent”. Others considers them illegitimate criminal networks motivated by greed that instrumentalize their ability to provide security to capture the state’s resources. The greed-versus-grievance debate surrounding conflict may be heated in academic circles, but it is definitely an important one to have as a stepping stone for peace.

State-sanctioned sexual violence against women in the Egyptian revolution

Following from last week's post, this is another video submitted as a piece of group work by some of last year's MSc VCD students....