Episode 2 - Understanding the Present and Future of Libya
In this episode, we continue the conversation with Dr. Virginie Collombier and Dr. Wolfram Lacher, who are the editors of the recent book, ‘Violence and Social Transformation in Libya’, published by Hurst in 2023. In the first episode, we focused on how the book came to be and some of its core arguments and contributions. In this second part of our conversation, we discuss what the book might help us understand about the present and future of Libya.
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Interview with Dr. Virginie Collombier and Dr. Wolfram Lacher – Part 2
[00:00:04] Dr Miranda Melcher: Hello, and welcome to Just Access. In this podcast series, we speak to some fascinating people, legal experts, academics, and human rights advocates, to explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice and peace for all. I’m Dr. Miranda Melcher, a Senior Legal Fellow at Just Access, and this is the second of two episodes where I speak to Dr. Virginie Collombier and Dr. Wolfram Lacher, who are the editors of the recent book, ‘Violence and Social Transformation in Libya’, published by Hurst in 2023. In the first episode, we focused on how the book came to be and some of its core arguments and contributions. In this second part of our conversation, we’ll discuss what the book might help us understand about the present and future of Libya.
[00:00:47] Interview – Part 2
[00:00:47] Dr Miranda Melcher: Thinking about your expertise on Libya both within the book and obviously also beyond the book, your [00:01:00] massive expertise on the subject, the chapters within the book often portray either implicitly or explicitly a state in Libya where it might technically be called a state but doesn’t necessarily have a lot of the hallmarks of statehood that outsiders might expect or that other countries might have.
[00:01:19] How do you think we can understand the concept of ‘the state’ given current realities on the ground in Libya today?
[00:01:27] Dr Wolfram Lacher: Yeah, so I think that for most of the period that the book covers, it is actually from 2011 onwards, it is actually difficult to speak of a state because first of all, there was nothing in the way of central authority, and there still is no central authority in Libya until today.
[00:01:45] There are at least two different centers of power one of which is very weak in Tripoli, in the capital, but also because… there was nothing resembling a political settlement, which in the Libyan [00:02:00] case would essentially mean an arrangement on how oil revenues are distributed. And in fact, for most of the past decade, there weren’t really any clearly identifiable elites that could have entered into a political settlement.
[00:02:15] And hence also why my chapter on the public sector is called public sector without state. And it looks at this apparently paradoxical situation, where the public sector and the bureaucracy not only continued to operate, but actually massively expanded, despite the absence of central authority and despite ongoing violent conflict.
[00:02:41] But in the past two years, in this only began becoming visible while we were researching and writing the book. In the past few years, we see consolidation of power by the warlords who have emerged from the [00:03:00] past decade. We see these warlords increasingly striking arrangements among themselves, particularly over the distribution of oil revenue. And we see their forces increasingly take on a state-like character in that they are increasingly professional and increasingly monopolized, controlling their respective areas.
[00:03:24] There still is nothing that you could describe as a central authority and in fact, all of this is happening while the country is split into spheres of influence of competing foreign powers, but it now increasingly looks, in my view, as if this could actually be the shape of a new Libyan state for some time to come.
[00:03:50] Dr Virginie Collombier: Yeah. Maybe we’d add just one or two points here that this all, it makes all the more important a better understanding and analysis of this power networks that [00:04:00] have recomposed and rearranged throughout the past decade. And it’s interesting to see how. this competition for controlling not so much the state, but some institutions, some key institutions, and in particular the economic and financial institutions, have been central to the conflict and how it’s been central also to what the state means in Libya.
[00:04:24] I think it’s the case both for the elites, I would say, and the parties to the conflict, but also for society. Again, because of the rentier nature of the state since the 60s, and the fact that for Libyans the state means the revenues essentially from oil and how they are channeled into society various components of society and distributed and managed.
[00:04:51] So I think this is this idea of focusing on maybe power networks and network analysis is very important but also and [00:05:00] maybe it’s important to focus maybe more on this economic and financial institutions that we address in the book. Wolfram’s chapter, but also Tim Eaton’s chapter, who focuses on the central bank, but also other financial institutions and see how they’ve become like central to the competition between these rival networks.
[00:05:22] And I think in the process of consolidation that Wolfram is mentioning these institutions have become all the more key. And maybe they were described and perceived by analysts and observers as the only ones who had remained non political, not really part to the conflict, and I think increasingly we see that even though it has taken different form, this is not the case, that they have been on the contrary central to the conflict, and they have become they have a kind of special status maybe in the conflict, but a very central importance.[00:06:00]
[00:06:00] Dr Miranda Melcher: Thinking about what you’ve just said and adding on to it, given the importance of oil, given the importance of the public sector, even as you’ve said, without the state, what then are some of the biggest problems in the way of peace in the situation in Libya?
[00:06:18] Dr Virginie Collombier: Violence, as we try to explain throughout the book has been central to the transformation of Libya and the Libyan society since 2011, but I would say so have been oil revenues and the competition for control over these revenues in Libya’s trajectory over the past years. Here again, the rentier character of the Libyan state, the way it has shaped the relationship between the people and between the state, the regime, the powers in place is a central element to look at.
[00:06:48] And I think maybe one of the key issues to look at, and maybe one of the key not obstacles to peace, but to obstacle to peace, but maybe determining element is how the economy [00:07:00] is going to be managed and how the economy can also be replaced to the central position it has had in in Libya over the past decades.
[00:07:10] This means also maybe paying more attention to the need for new economic models for Libya in the future. This is also made particularly urgent by, I would say beyond Libya, the ongoing energy transition, the need to prepare for the after all era because everything we’ve described so far, the form of the state and their internator and the importance of oil revenues and economic financial resources, all of this.
[00:07:37] is the consequence of what the discovery of oil has had on the structure of the state and society. So now that the world seems to be moving towards maybe different priorities or different features, I think so far we don’t see that. this is very much understood or acknowledged by [00:08:00] Libyan elites in particular.
[00:08:01] And I think here we can expect something that can provide, can become a key driver of change either positively or negatively, depending on how it’s going to be addressed. So far, it’s not addressed at all. At least to my knowledge.
[00:08:14] Dr Wolfram Lacher: Yeah, I would highlight two other points to Virgini’s, which are absolutely crucial. The first point is that the security landscape that is now emerging in Libya is one of multiple centers of power, multiple competing forces that are striking arrangements with each other but that are also engaging in conflict with each other.
[00:08:39] And it’s very hard to see anything resembling central authority emerging out of this. And that means that there can’t really be no peace, there can only be temporary calm, superficial calm that can explode at any moment. And [00:09:00] the second point is that there is no way to deal in any meaningful fashion with the crimes and the abuses committed during the conflicts of the past decade because the perpetrators are in power.
[00:09:16] So there is no way to obtain justice. The truth of what happened is increasingly obfuscated. So the only thing that remains is resentment and a yearning for revenge for the victims of these crimes. And that’s clearly not a recipe for peace.
[00:09:33] Dr Virginie Collombier: I’d like to add something, maybe, which is indirectly, related to what Wolfram just said. I think another key element or obstacle to peace is also I would say the complete lack of accountability of political leaders, political representatives. And this is clearly a result also of how political processes have been designed since 2015, unfortunately.
[00:09:57] So adding to the landscape that Wolfram just [00:10:00] described, I think that in the design of the political processes, of the mediation efforts, etc., the fact that who controls the situation on the ground, who has the power to disrupt because he holds military might or armed growth that can act on the ground has become like the key criteria for thinking and designing political processes.
[00:10:24] But the link, the kind of vertical link between the rulers, those people who are part to the agreement to the political agreements and the broader society has been to a large extent ignored. There has been lots of discussions about, okay, elections. This is the only way. I think we’ve seen in the past that probably this is something that would be important, but cannot be enough.
[00:10:49] There’s something that needs to be taken into account, which is how these Political representatives of those people to hold power [00:11:00] can be held to account in front of society so that you don’t have this increasingly divergent or increasing growing gap between the rulers, though they have force and authority and the resources and the others, because I see, and this is clearly a trend that has been becoming more visible since 2012.
[00:11:22] This is clearly one of the determining feature of how the political and societal spaces have evolved over the past years, in my view.
[00:11:33] Dr Miranda Melcher: No, that, that makes a ton of sense and in fact brings me nicely to my penultimate question. Often, and we ask most of our guests this, often the problems that we’re discussing are incredibly complex and incredibly important and don’t have easy solutions, right? That’s why we’re still talking about them.
[00:11:52] But sometimes there are pieces of them that kind of there is a solution that’s known for at least a piece, but there isn’t the political [00:12:00] will, or there isn’t the kind of enough visibility, or something like that kind of gets in the way of what that might be. There might sometimes be literally just not enough money to implement it.
[00:12:09] Are there any sort of low hanging solutions, if you could wave a magic wand, if you had an unlimited budget, that might do something to help here? Or is there nothing like that in this context?
[00:12:21] Dr Virginie Collombier: I would say certainly, there are no easy solutions to begin with. I don’t think it would be fair or realistic to say that there’s something that can be done and like a magic stick would solve the situation. It would maybe highlight the fact that solutions in Libya and elsewhere, they require sustained engagement and efforts, but also political will and courage from both international actors and Libyans.
[00:12:48] And in the Libyan case, I would say that, and even elsewhere, it seems to have become increasingly difficult over the past years. Policymakers and diplomats having a very hard time [00:13:00] addressing the many crises that have been erupting in the region. And the past weeks have provided even more examples of this.
[00:13:09] But also Libyan elites have found it difficult and in the recent period, increasingly challenging to come together and stand up to the rulers. So the idea is there’s an issue of political will, engagement, efforts, imagination from the diplomats, but also the capacity and the willingness of the Libyans to try and come together and do something.
[00:13:32] So there’s an issue of agency here. And obviously it’s a lot to ask from Libyans given what the political landscape and the political structures, et cetera, have been for the past decades, not only over the re the most recent one. But I think this is something that needs to be acknowledged that any solution will require efforts, but also maybe a bit more [00:14:00] sequencing.
[00:14:00] Not everything will come as a quick fix. And my feeling is that at least from the Diplomats view in the recent period they find it increasingly difficult to think beyond a certain very limited timeframe. You cannot build peace in six months. You cannot have one foundational event that just put everything on track and then things will be smooth and easy.
[00:14:25] Building this needs time and it needs effort and engagement sustained and probably a bit more I would say , working on different layers at the same time. Because, I think it’s one of maybe the messages we would like to try and convey with the book is that working or trying to build to find a political solution or a peaceful solution to the Libyan conflict can probably not be done by just trying to solidify the kind [00:15:00] of current power arrangements or the current balance of forces between the elites or the warlords.
[00:15:06] As we’ve tried to show in the book during the past decade, Libyan society has also changed and transformed and evolved, so one of the challenges is how do you try and Take stock of this and use this to feed the process, which would be more meaningful and maybe to this and more inclusive.
[00:15:27] And I think this is one of the key questions that everybody interested in peace building mediation in Libya needs to ask itself himself. How do you move beyond these elite deals arrangements between those who currently hold power? And how do you find a way to create a space for others? Because so far it has been considered too difficult and it has been neglected which means that the the consolidation of the current [00:16:00] arrangements and the current yeah, deals between the the power holders at some point will be challenged.
[00:16:06] It will be challenged and maybe violently because it has been imposed, it will have been imposed on a society which has transformed, but whose transformations have never been really taken into account.
[00:16:21] Dr Miranda Melcher: No, that’s absolutely a key point, and I think, again, goes back to the contribution of the book, going, hang on, the conversation has only been about these three things. There’s a lot more going on here, so thank you for walking us through that.
[00:16:37] As my final question, and also I think a little bit related to what we’ve just been discussing, a lot of the people who listen to this are students or sort of newcomers to the field of human rights, of access to justice, helping with peace.
[00:16:52] Is there anything you’d recommend for those sort of listeners, how they might get involved, how they might be able to help on any of these topics?[00:17:00]
[00:17:00] Dr Wolfram Lacher: When it comes to Libya in particular, I think there is still a huge dearth of research particularly a dearth of qualitative field based research, primarily because it’s been very difficult to do field research in Libya for most of the past decade and of course, also previously in the Gaddafi era. And added to that difficulty today is the fact that there is not really much international interest in Libya anymore. So fewer people see themselves prompted to do research on Libya and in Libya, most importantly. So what I think newcomers can do to help is to undertake the very difficult and slow work of safely doing social science field research in Libya.
[00:17:59] Dr Virginie Collombier: [00:18:00] I’d like to add something on this. Of course, there are so many aspects of Libyan society, of Libyan institutions that remain unexplored. Certainly, there is space for new contributions. They are really highly needed. Of Course, researching some of these topics do require access to the country, time to become familiar with the context, and this remains pretty challenging, which is also why we believe it’s very important to encourage the creation of a generation of researchers, analysts in Libya.
[00:18:33] However, this will take time. So another entry point is research, I would say, on issues that are also easier to explore from the outside. And there are quite a few. I would just maybe try to suggest a few things. I work on the Libyan diaspora, for instance, its development, the transformation it has been undergoing also the difficult relationship with the Libyans from inside [00:19:00] is one topic that I see very important and could be also constructive if we think about the future and how peace building in Libya could take place. I think the role of the Libyan diaspora is something that should be looked into.
[00:19:16] One topic we tried to explore and couldn’t really finalize is the development, the transformation of East Nolinguistic communities inside Libya, but also outside Libya. Because even here, the transnational dimension of these communities, how they’ve been developing, how they are acting politically is also something important.
[00:19:39] And maybe last, but certainly not the least, I think It’s very sensitive for other reasons, but the trade and financial networks that connect Libyan actors to the rest of the world because this is something which is absolutely crucial to understand not only how Libya or [00:20:00] the Libyan so called state works today, but also how the status quo is maybe consolidated and encouraged in this direction by not only Libyans, but also outsiders that have very clear interests in the perpetuation of the status quo. So this trade financial networks, I think, are very important, and it doesn’t necessarily require you to be in Libya, to go to Libya, to try and make sense of it.
[00:20:31] So this is just to name a few topics that can help better understand what Libya and the Libyan society is, but I think they can also help even policymakers. Probably to come up with more efficient, more relevant, and durable solutions to the current conflict. And in particular, this last point, I think, the trade and financial networks.
[00:20:55] This is key. As we say in French l’argent est le nerf de la guerre – [00:21:00] money is the, how do you translate this… nerve of war, but I think it could also become maybe or play a more important role in also a peace building if this was better understood and maybe if there were a bit more focus on this.
[00:21:15] Dr Miranda Melcher: Some brilliant ideas! Thank you so much for sharing them!
[00:21:18] Dr Miranda Melcher: Thank you so much Virginie and Wolfram for speaking with us. Stay tuned for future Just Access interviews and do get in touch with us if you have any suggestions for people or topics we should cover.