Cautious Optimism a Decade after Libya’s Revolution

The Arab Spring protests that started 10 years ago in Libya and the ensuing collapse of the Muammar Qadhafi regime set in motion a decade of instability that continues to threaten the people there and in neighboring countries. Today, Libya is attempting to start a new phase in its post-2011 history after the signing of a United Nations-sponsored agreement in Geneva between the different factions that, previously, had wasted no opportunity to enlist the assistance of myriad outside actors to advance their goals. While it is only an interim agreement that ended a rigorous Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), its details promise hope for the exhausted country and could finally provide the necessary mechanism for a stable future in Libya—if the new power structure is able to surmount some serious impediments.

The Geneva Agreement

If the UN-sponsored compromise of December 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco, codified the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), the Geneva accord of February 5th represents the best possible and widely supported pact to implement it. Skhirat had created a nine-member Presidential Council, a State Council as an advisory body, and a unity government––called the Government of National Accord (GNA)––to be approved by the House of Representatives (HoR). But following the takeover of the capital, Tripoli, by disaffected Islamist militias, the HoR, headed by Aqilah Saleh, moved to the eastern city of Tobruk where it gradually became the focus of institutional opposition to the GNA with the help of a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, and his so-called Libyan National Army (LNA).

The new agreement in Geneva came as a culmination of the LPDF, which set up a deliberative and elective body representing different areas of the country. That body was composed of 13 members each from the eastern HoR and the western State Council and representatives from other regions, groups, tribes, and political formations. They first met in Tunisia in November 2020 and then later decided, in online sessions, on face-to-face meetings in Geneva to implement what had been agreed to, specifically the holding of elections for a transitional government that would arrange for permanent parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2021. The Geneva meetings elected Mohammed al-Menfi as head of a three-person Presidential Council––with Musa al-Koni and Abdullah al-Lafi as deputies––and Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah as prime minister. The four represent Libya’s east (Menfi), west (Dbeibah and Lafi), and south (Koni). Dbeibah had 21 days to form a national unity government. The agreement also reserved a 30-percent quota of high-level positions in the state for women.

The election of the Presidential Council came as a surprise that capped what appeared to be a well-organized UN plan supervised by veteran diplomat Stephanie Williams.

Menfi and his cohorts are relatively unknown compared to the members of the final list they faced in the last voting round, headed by none other than Aqilah Saleh, the HoR speaker. In fact, the election of the Presidential Council came as a surprise that capped what appeared to be a well-organized UN plan supervised by veteran diplomat Stephanie Williams. The Libyans’ reception––expressed during celebrations on the 10th anniversary of the Libyan revolution that ended Qadhafi’s rule––has been warm and hopeful, considering the myriad crises and calamities that beset the country. After serious challenges to authority in the country, this could make governing slightly easier, especially if the incoming government is allowed to address the pressing issues it faces and to prepare for good presidential and parliamentary elections in the fall.

But the transitional period until December could succeed only if the Geneva Agreement were able to surmount some serious obstacles. The prime minister-designate, Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, has not yet named his cabinet, which he was first expected to do by February 26. On February 27, HoR speaker Saleh announced that a special session of parliament to discuss the new cabinet will be held on March 8 in the central coastal city of Sirte, if the security situation permits. Ultimately, Dbeibah has until March 19 for his government to be seated. Another impediment has emerged about the integrity of the Geneva election process to choose the new Libyan governing body. A United Nations expert report, intended for the UN Security Council, contained information about bribes of $150,000 to $200,000 paid to three participants in the preliminary Tunisia meetings to cast their votes for Dbeibah’s list. On March 2, Dbeibah disparaged the information, calling it fake news, and demanded that the UN report be made public. Whatever its veracity, this information shows that the road ahead may not be as easy as it was first hoped after the Geneva Agreement was signed.

Patching the State Together

Once formed and if given confidence by the House of Representatives, Dbeibah’s nascent government must put together the mechanisms to guarantee security in the country, devise an electoral law for the December elections, and conduct the elections freely and fairly. The prime minister and the other officers chosen in Geneva are not allowed to stand for those elections, a positive incentive for not mixing politics with setting up the new system. Other political leaders, including those defeated in the ballot in Geneva and the LNA’s Haftar, have pledged to help Dbeibah in his mission, which is a big step in the right direction. What is additionally promising is that the foreign actors––Egypt, European countries and the United States, Russia and Turkey, and others––have also accepted the Geneva outcome.

The Libyan state must be reconstituted as a collection of institutions with a working constitutional charter, personnel, laws, and other aspects of modern statehood.

The success of the Geneva Agreement has impact beyond the next 10 months, when a more formal political structure is established following elections in December. The Libyan state must be reconstituted as a collection of institutions with a working constitutional charter, personnel, laws, and other aspects of modern statehood. Complicating this task is the utter absence of said edifice under Muammar Qadhafi, who preferred free-wheeling so-called “popular committees” to regular institutional organs. Essentially, the winners in the Geneva Agreement must make sure to tackle the current state of division in the country and address militias and illegal armies while, at the same time, setting up the mechanisms for future state-building. Their task is not easy by any stretch of the imagination.

Important functional organizations must also be unified after they operated almost unhindered for years. Libya’s central bank has a major role to play in stabilizing the exchange rate and the overall economy. It also must reunify with the Benghazi-based branch that was used by eastern authorities and General Haftar for their own purposes, including the latter’s financing of his war effort against the Tripoli-based GNA. Libya’s authorities have to safeguard the National Oil Corporation’s return to exporting oil, the country’s foreign reserve earner, as Haftar continues to illegally siphon off oil revenues. A unified national army must be established to assure the state’s monopoly on the use of force by curbing, disarming, or liquidating militias, incorporating Haftar’s LNA, assuring the withdrawal of some 20,000 foreign troops, and controlling long borders to stop arms smuggling and terrorist infiltration.

Control of the state’s functions will help the country deal with its out-of-control illegal migration problem. With no central authority, during the last few years Libya became a crossing point for illegal migrants from many nations who want to enter southern Europe. Dbeibah recently announced that “Libya is not capable of handling the migration crisis by itself” and called on the international community to help. The United Nations estimates that Libya hosts some 570,000 migrants, many of whom try to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. Since 2014, 20,000 of them have died trying to make the trip. Since 2017, the Libyan Coast Guard has returned 37,000 to Libya after they dared the crossing. What is exacerbating the situation is the mushrooming of trafficking in persons; in February, authorities freed about 150 migrants from captivity in an apartment-turned-prison in the south of the country.

Libya and the Neighborhood

Reconstituting Libya’s stability and government cannot be separated from the security concerns of many regional actors that have also used the country to send messages and to sabotage competitors.

Reconstituting Libya’s stability and government cannot be separated from the security concerns of many regional actors that have also used the country to send messages and to sabotage competitors. From the apparent responses to the election of the quartet in Geneva, however, the new arrangement will succeed in garnering much needed support. After staking his hopes on General Haftar for years, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi seems satisfied with Dbeibah and has offered him assistance and support. As political analyst Khalil al-Anani argues, there have been signs that Sisi is seeing a different set of conditions that could serve Egypt’s interests—after the Egyptian president had bet and lost on Haftar, following the latter’s failure to capture Tripoli in 2019.

Tunisia was instrumental to Libyan negotiations before parties moved to Geneva for the final agreement, one that Tunis pledged to support. In Algeria’s case, the Geneva Agreement could not be seen but positively; Algiers has been apprehensive of the security vacuum in Libya and approved a constitutional amendment that, for the first time in its history as an independent state, allowed its armed forces to intervene outside the country. The host of the 2015 LPA, Morocco, was also involved in the series of steps that got Libyan parties to Geneva, when representatives from the GNA’s Supreme Council and the HoR met in October 2020, in the city of Bouznika, and hammered out an accord on the division of high offices in the new Libya.

Sudan may soon join other Arab countries of East and North Africa in working for a peaceful Libya after experts accused the Sudanese government of allowing the United Arab Emirates to fund armed groups from Darfur to join forces with Haftar before he agreed on a cease-fire with the GNA. With the end of the 2017 Gulf crisis and the improvements of relations between Qatar and the UAE and between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, a larger obstacle to intra-Libyan cooperation is lifted. Indeed, the immediate and regional environments see an opportunity in the Geneva Agreement to address the threat of instability and chaos that Libya has represented for the past decade.

Cautious Optimism

Libya’s disparate political actors have realized that continued disagreement about the way forward is only leading to further volatility and conflict. Their commitment to undertake the UN-sponsored path to update the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and follow through on steps to create a transitional structure is promising. The Geneva Agreement appears to contain the balanced approach to establish the foundations for a more stable political structure following elections in December. The support that the agreement received domestically and regionally also indicates that sources of division and discord have less currency and support.

But this should not blind Libyans—or the regional and international entities—to the power of unaddressed grievances to disrupt what has so far been a relatively smooth process. While his wings seem to have been clipped by the agreement, Haftar may still harbor political ambitions, given his command of thousands of soldiers. Militia leaders who held sway for years in different parts of the country may want to assert their interests vis-à-vis a reconstituted state. Regional actors who banked on local allies––for instance, Egypt, the UAE, and Russia on Haftar and Turkey and Qatar on the GNA––should consider seriously the deleterious effects of their interference in Libya. To be sure, the Geneva Agreement is primarily a roadmap that calls for much caution as the future of Libya continues to unfold after 10 years of the start of its Arab Spring.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here