UK envoy: if Libya fails it could be Somalia on the Mediterranean

International efforts to resolve the crisis in
Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi
must forge agreement between the warring
parties to forestall the emergence of a
failed state that could become a “Somalia-
on-the-Mediterranean,” the UK
government’s special envoy has urged.
Jonathan Powell, a veteran of the Northern
Ireland peace process, warned in an
interview that violent chaos in Libya will
spread to its neighbours and to Europe and
Britain if left unchecked.
Powell was speaking before news emerged
on Sunday of the beheadings of 21
Egyptian Christians by Islamic State (Isis)
fighters near Sirte and Monday’s
retaliatory bombing raids by the Egyptian
air force on Isis training locations and
weapons stockpiles in Libya.
The brutal killings and the continuing
flight of migrants via the Mediterranean
coast are bleak reminders of the
repercussions of the country’s breakdown.
François Hollande, the French president,
and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, his Egyptian
counterpart, called on Monday for the UN
security council to meet over Libya and to
take new measures.
“Libya is in a downward spiral that we
need to reverse and turn into an upward
one,” Tony Blair’s former chief of staff told
the Guardian. “There is a good deal of
immediacy about this. But these things
don’t happen overnight. You’ve got to
rebuild trust that has been badly broken.”Powell, appointed by David Cameron last
spring, is talking to the armed groups that
have pushed the oil-rich north African
country to the brink since its 2011
revolution, Nato and Arab military
intervention and bloody regime change.
Libya, he argues, has the advantage of not
being plagued by religious sectarianism as
most of its 6 million people are Sunni
Muslims. “If you look down a telescope
from Washington or London or Brussels it
is easy to make all these places look the
same,” he said. “But this is a struggle for
power and for money to a certain extent. It
ought to be possible to reach agreement
more easily than it is in Iraq or Syria.”
Powell is working with the UN envoy, the
Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon, on
finding a way out of the current dangerous
impasse. Less than half the protagonists
showed up for two rounds of negotiations
in Geneva. The turnout was better at a
meeting last week in Ghadames in Libya—
but they were still only “talks about talks.”
The situation is complicated by the fact
that the two main camps – Libya Dawn in
Tripoli and the west, and Karama (Dignity)
in the east – are in turn sub-divided into
rival leaders, governments and militias,
some of them Islamist. Others, like
businessmen from the coastal city of
Misrata, are keen to promote local agendas.
Now there is a new sense of urgency, said
Powell, because of growing alarm about
the rise of extremist and jihadi groups. Isis​
was blamed for the recent suicide bombing
attack on Tripoli’s most exclusive hotel. On
Sunday it released a horrific propaganda
video showing the beheading of the
Egyptian Copts dressed in orange
jumpsuits and described as “Crusader
infidels” by their captors.
“Obviously it’s difficult to tackle the
terrorist threat unless you have a
relatively strong government that everyone
supports,” the envoy said. “If you can get to
a national unity government you can build
other things on it. But to get a political
settlement you also need some kind of
pause in the fighting. So the objective is to
get the armed groups to agree to that.
“Libya could, if it goes down this spiral,
end up as a failed state. It could end up
like a Somalia by the Med which would
have very serious consequences for
Tunisia, the one shining star that is left
from the Arab spring, for Egypt, obviously,
but also for southern Europe and
eventually for us.
“The more there is an ungoverned space
and a vacuum the greater chance there is
of terrorists congregating there and
mounting attacks. So far it’s been attacks
inside Libya... but if it does descend into a
civil war the consequences for us will be
very serious – not just in terrorism but in
terms of people-smuggling, drugs and
arms and everything else too. Libya is far
too big to contain.”
Powell’s thinking reflects long experience
with the Provisional IRA and deep
knowledge of other terrorist groups, but he
has learned a lot on this job too. “I made a
mistake when I first went to Libya more
than a year ago,” he admitted. “I thought
there was a mutually hurting stalemate
which is the sine qua non for a settlement
in most cases. I was wrong. There was a
stalemate but not a mutually hurting one.​
People could make advances at the margin
and it wasn’t really hurting. It suited them
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But since then the situation has
deteriorated. Both sides are in a difficult
financial position. Fighting in Benghazi is
causing real suffering and in Tripoli,
where the international airport sits in
ruins, the situation has worsened since last
summer. The need to integrate the militias
into a national army has never looked
more necessary. “It’s hard to tell someone
whose been a garage mechanic and then
commands an armed force to go back to
being a garage mechanic,” Powell said. “On
the one hand a lot of people who have
been under arms for a long time and seen
their friends shot would quite like to go
home, get married, start a life. I detect a
certain amount of tiredness amongst some
of these fighters. There is no military
solution, either external or internal. But
keeping on fighting isn’t going to make the
situation any better. We have to find a
solution by talking. The only plan B I can
see is plan A all over again.”
Compared to Northern Ireland, Powell
finds Libya a curiously intimate conflict,
where there is little “blood-hatred” and
enemies are often related or know each
other fairly well. At one early session of
talks the participants mingled freely and
prepared to release doves – he thought at
first they were meant for lunch – but the
birds refused to leave their cages, clunkily
symbolising the difficulty of getting the
peace negotiations off the ground. “It
hasn’t got a lot better since I started so I’m
glad I’m not being paid by results,” Powell
said. “The only thing I know from working
round the world is that it always takes
longer than you think. In Libya it’s in
everyone’s interest to move fast.”