BY ANDY TOMUSIAK AND RAPHAEL MILLER
Muammar Gaddafi’s ousting in 2011 ushered in an era of partition and resulted in the creation of a power vacuum in Libya, with a myriad of domestic and foreign armed groups vying for control of Libya’s territory and resources. The resultant surge of internally displaced persons (IDPs), coupled with Libya’s central positioning along the busiest migrant route to Europe, have since created one of the world’s most dire refugee and humanitarian crises. However, despite ranking 7th most worsened over the past decade in the Fragile States Index (FSI), Libya stands out among the top five in one-year improvement in the 2022 FSI, with positive trends in indicators such as Demographic Pressures, Refugees and IDPs, and Human Flight and Brain Drain, and significant growth in Economy and State Legitimacy. While these augmentations are related in part to the internationally hailed October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s two rival governments – the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – critical momentum for reconciliation is building at the ground level. With a robust foundation of grassroots peacebuilding-oriented civil society organizations (CSOs) and new forums for political dialogue that promote inclusion and unity, Libya is experiencing a unique window of opportunity for democratic reform and national stability.
Libya’s recent successes in designing a post-ceasefire national political dialogue have their foundations in an exceptionally strong presence of CSOs, which act as agents of local stabilization. With their roots in the 2011 justice and accountability movement, one Brandeis University study estimated 2,000 CSOs were active in Libya as of 2014 – a rate six times that of Iraq and comparable to that of Egypt. After an uptick in violence in that year, CSOs reorganized to focus on peacebuilding, public services, and reconciliation. Despite the challenges posed by sporadic violence in the years since, CSOs have played a distinctive and critical role in promoting Libyan peace and political transition, from dispute resolution to constitution-writing to IDP resettlement. These gains in peace have expanded horizontally to influence other communities and organizations, as realized by a CSO-led cross-tribal market project in Ubari that revitalized a city fractured by Tebu-Tuareg violence and offers an inclusive space for normalization through trade. The new opportunities for interaction and commerce offered by Ubari’s marketplace to the local populace, particularly to many of the city’s women, demonstrate the peacebuilding gains that can be achieved at the local level even when national-level peace processes and economies are struggling. Notably, the Ubari model inspired the nearby city of Sebha to pursue a similar peacebuilding project and provided hope for conflicting Arab and Amazigh communities in the Nafusa Mountains. Through community-based projects and inter-group cooperation, CSOs have not only helped to mitigate local desperation and subsequent displacement, but also increased generalized societal trust among CSO members compared to unaffiliated Libyans.
CSO-led peacebuilding in Libya has also shown signs of vertical expansion by influencing national institutions and dialogues. In 2018, CSOs played a crucial role in launching the UN-backed Libyan National Conference Process (NCP), a broad-based consultation process which aimed to bring as many Libyan voices as possible into a dialogue about their collective future. The first bottom-up effort at a national dialogue, the NCP formally included 9,000 Libyans with engagement from over 1.8 million more online. Though the NCP was disrupted by the LNA’s April 2019 offensive, it created sufficient momentum to launch the U.N.-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in 2020, whose 74 members successfully elected Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh as prime minister and Mohammad Menfi as Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya to lead the provisional Government of National Unity (GNU) during a transitional period culminating in general elections.  Originally scheduled for December 2021, these were later postponed to 2022.
Progress towards institutional remodeling and political transition has translated into measurable improvements in Libya’s humanitarian situation – a key factor for its appearance on the 2022 FSI most improved list. With prospects of democratic legitimization, localized stabilization, and a durable cease-fire, The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) predicts that 36% fewer Libyans will need humanitarian assistance in 2022, down to 800,000 from 1.3 million in 2021. As CSOs work to restore communal cohesion and the state works to reconcile warring factions, IDPs have begun to safely return to their place of origin. UN OCHA records a drop in IDPs by nearly a quarter from 278,000 at the beginning of 2021 to 213,000 by the end. The 2022 FSI data corroborates this trend, showing a 0.3 improvement in the Refugees and IDPs indicator in comparison to the 2021 FSI. Improved humanitarian conditions and relatively low violence levels facilitated an 0.3 point improvement in the Human Flight and Brain Drain indicator, which measures the economic impact of human displacement, over the same time span. These improvements, while piecemeal, represent the lowest score since 2015 in the case of the Refugees and IDPs indicator, and the lowest since 2013 in the case of the Human Flight and Brain Drain, reflecting the cautious optimism that has led to the country’s inclusion on the United States’ Global Fragility Act, namely in light of the opportunity to consolidate meaningful progress.
Despite remarkable progress, the current insecurity surrounding the creation of a unified, legitimate government in Libya risks reversing the country’s most improved status in future years. The postponement of elections by the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) until 2022 threatens to embolden destabilizing actors and jeopardize the 2020 ceasefire, entrenching state fragility. While PM Dbeibeh reaffirmed his commitment to turn over power and announced a shaky plan to hold elections in June 2022 – later postponed to the end of the year –  elections may not be a silver bullet. According to former United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) political advisor Omar Hammady, rushing the election without substantial progress for ground-level capacity building, decentralization, and reconciliation will continue to undermine the legitimacy of Libya’s electoral process. In addition to electoral disputes, continued foreign military and mercenary activity, the brutal detainment of migrants by state authorities, and the largest surge in IS-Libya attacks in a year combine to ensure that Libya’s FSI Security Apparatus score remains dizzyingly high, at 9.3.
Libya’s CSOs will play an integral part as reservoirs of resilience in maintaining the state’s positive trend amidst upcoming uncertainty. CSOs may receive increased international support in the coming year, particularly from Libya’s designation as a focus country under the GFA, which specifically details strengthening CSOs as a strategic priority. Civic engagement, inclusive economic development, and design of long-awaited transitional justice initiatives to address harm inflicted over the last decade will also be crucial arenas where CSOs can help lead the way to a durable restoration of social and political cohesion in Libya.