The Challenges and Opportunities in Libya Today

After the uprising against former strongman Muammar Qadhafi in 2011, Libya’s road to stability and order—let alone to full democratic governance—has not been smooth or easy. Nor does the coming period until December, when the country holds parliamentary and presidential elections, promise to be successful, given the myriad issues at play. Authorities must reunite and strengthen existing institutions, establish fair rules for exercising politics, deal with non-state actors, and assure international support. If Libya hopes to reach the safety that is only guaranteed with national unity, elite compromise, and socioeconomic development, its current Government of National Unity (GNU) must be bold and imaginative in both organizing the interim yet fraught period and convincing Libyans of the efficacy of elections and the importance of their participation.

To be sure, Libya’s geographic position and the record of the past few years of civil war and outside intervention make it vulnerable to spoilers and interest seekers. They also mark it as a potential hub of disorder and instability for the wider region. Without achieving the goals of elections, unification, imposition of law and order, and assurances of outside support and engagement, Libya is likely to return to the chaos that prevailed over the last few years, drift further into disunity and divisiveness that may lead to partition, and threaten to become the perpetual focus of regional instability. The success does not depend solely on the present interim government—albeit the main trusted actor today—but also involves influential domestic players and some regional and international supporters.

The Coveted Elections

The agreement signed in February between representatives of Libya’s three major regions—east, west, and south—stipulated holding parliamentary and presidential elections on December 24, 2021. Preparations for these elections are arguably the most important task that the interim unity government, headed by Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, will undertake, considering the profound complications of the last few years of division and civil war. The United Nations estimates that 2.3 million voter cards have been distributed; but what remains uncertain is the rate of voter participation in the polls which, in a way, remains the crucial test for the government. This is because the upcoming elections have come to be understood by Libyans and outside actors as the vehicle for legitimately reestablishing and codifying the writ of sovereign institutions that should act as the sole wielders of state power. The last time Libya had an election was in 2014, but it was marred by violence and a low turnout (out of 2.8 million eligible voters, only 630,000 of 1.5 million registered voters cast their ballots).

Preparations for these elections are arguably the most important task that the interim unity government, headed by Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, will undertake, considering the profound complications of the last few years of division and civil war. 

The task of organizing the elections has not been easy. The country still has not approved the constitutional document that fully and decisively defines rights and responsibilities. Neither is the electoral law in place. An upcoming meeting in Tunis is supposed to address the issue of the constitution that would be voted on in the current parliament. Moreover, the Dbeibah-proposed government budget—which includes spending for the elections—has not yet been approved by the House of Representatives, further complicating the process. Indeed, time is running out to meet the requirements of successful elections that can give legitimacy to future state building.

There also is the difficult issue of satisfying the appetite in three different regions of the country for what their leaders consider equitable representation. The political process that led to the agreement on the interim government and state structure made sure to have a representative in the Presidential Council from all three regions: easterner Mohammed al-Menfi for president, westerner Abdullah al-Lafi as his deputy, southerner Musa al-Koni as another deputy, and westerner Dbeibah as prime minister. Posts in Dbeibah’s 35-member government also went to ministers from the different regions. Thus, some process of proportional representation in parliament, along with agreements on a just and equitable distribution of state funds, may now be expected so that the political elites allow the elections to be held on time and, more importantly, be accepted as legitimate and final.

At the same time, presidential elections are likely to attract many seekers for the highest office in the land and may very well be heated. Renegade General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army, appears to want to be a candidate, although his fortunes may be too poor. Current members in the government and Presidential Council are proscribed from seeking national office. Others who lost out in the current arrangement may want to run for chief executive. A contender is former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, who is considered to be too close to the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and has good relations with Turkey. Speaker of the House of Representatives Aqilah Saleh is a possibility, but he remains under American sanctions for his role in stalling Libya’s political process in 2016. For its part, the European Union has removed his name from its sanctions list, purportedly as a reward for his positive role in fall 2020 in helping to reach the new political agreement. Other candidates may step forward as well.

Attending to State Institutions

The fact that the departed Muammar Qadhafi did away with state institutions in a weird application of the concept of popular will and governance has had its impact on Libyans’ understanding of what constitutes regularized institutional life. That is why the uprising that toppled him in 2011 had at its core a yearning for modernizing statecraft and eliminating the personalism that governed more than 40 years of Qadhafi’s reign. Over the last few years, however, Libya fell victim to the whims of state and non-state actors who saw fit to assert their control over segments of society, territory, and institutions, making the issue of imposing unified state control and action a pivotal task for the interim authorities at present. This involves having ironclad plans for controlling the security situation, organizing economic sectors and activities, and managing the ongoing migration problem.

The uprising that toppled Qadhafi in 2011 had at its core a yearning for modernizing statecraft and eliminating the personalism that governed more than 40 years of his reign.

First, to assure military advantage, the new Libya has to address the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries deployed by myriad local and outside actors. A United Nations estimate in December 2020 stated that more than 20,000 Syrians, Russians, Sudanese, and Chadians were operating in the country. General Haftar still holds sway in the east and continues to enjoy the support of Russia and the United Arab Emirates. By the same token, militias that were the backbone of the former Government of National Accord’s (GNA) defense of the capital, Tripoli, during Haftar’s assault on the city between 2019 and 2020, still threaten law and order. A group of them was reported to have attacked a hotel in the capital that was being used by the new Presidential Council. Further, Turkey still refuses to announce a definite date for withdrawing its troops from the country—after they succeeded in helping to defend Tripoli during Haftar’s assault.

Second, improving the economy is another daunting and crucial task. In 2020, Libya’s gross domestic product plunged by more than 31 percent, although later in the year it began to rebound following negotiations on a political compromise in the fall. The current year promises a better situation and, certainly, a more successful political atmosphere will help. Most importantly, the country’s hydrocarbon sector continues to be the main revenue source for the country, despite the fluctuations of global prices and supply and demand considerations. The sector also suffers from funding disputes between Libya’s Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation, which limit its potential output of over a million barrels per day. Moreover, the Central Bank itself is divided into a main branch in Tripoli and one in the east and this has negatively impacted the stability of exchange rates and prices in different parts of the country.

Third, Libya has to be able to control its illegal migration problem. Each year, thousands of illegal migrants from Africa and Middle Eastern countries enter Libya through its porous southern border as they make their way to Europe via the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Over 600 migrants have died so far this year as they made the perilous journey. Since 2014, more than 20,000 migrants have died or were lost at sea. Migrants and refugees also confront palpable dangers in Libya’s domestic social and humanitarian conditions. In a report in September 2020, Amnesty International detailed “a litany of abuses in Libya including unlawful killings; enforced disappearances; torture and other ill-treatment; rape and other sexual violence; arbitrary detention; and forced labour and exploitation at the hands of state and non-state actors in a climate of near-total impunity.” In essence, controlling illegal migration and managing and organizing refugee flows have become litmus tests of the ability of Libya’s authorities to both adhere to international humanitarian law and impose law and order in the country.

A Welcome Regional and International Engagement

What Libya’s transitional government can count on as it addresses the serious challenges it is currently facing is an apparent buy-in and support from the regional and international communities. As a major actor in Libya’s developments over the last decade, Egypt has seen that its interests are best served by supporting the political compromise reached earlier this year. Morocco and Tunisia were instrumental in helping Libya’s disparate factions to sign the Libyan Political Agreement in 2015 and the current compromise deal. Cognizant of the impact of insecurity in Libya on its own stability, Algeria is coordinating efforts with Tripoli’s transition government. Other Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates—which has been one of General Haftar’s most ardent supporters for years—endorsed the agreement as leading to Libya’s stability, security, and development.

What Libya’s transitional government can count on as it addresses the serious challenges it is currently facing is an apparent buy-in and support from the regional and international communities. 

Internationally, Libya’s political compromise found a receptive audience in the United States and Europe, with emissaries visiting Tripoli and opening diplomatic missions. Many countries are also counting on developing robust economic relations with Libya once the security and political situation stabilizes. Libya’s Minister of State for Economic Affairs Salama al-Ghwail invited Arab and international companies to partake in projects worth $135 billion over the next decade that can create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the nascent private sector. Of particular significance is the American enthusiasm about developments in the country, with the Department of State adding the title of Special Envoy to Libya to Ambassador Richard Norland’s duties in Tripoli. This is a welcome change from long years of American neglect of developments in Libya and, more specifically, from the callous support the Trump Administration provided to General Haftar’s challenge to the United Nations-supported GNA.

The Tasks Are Difficult, but Doable

The latest political compromise that succeeded in choosing a new Presidential Council for Libya and a prime minister who, in turn, formed a national unity government contains both the requirements of success and the unfortunate possibilities of failure. In that, Libya’s arrangement is no different from many others in countries that experienced or are now going through the vagaries of civil war and instability, elite conflict, and outside intervention. What essentially makes or breaks such agreements are the wishes of involved parties and their willingness—or lack thereof—to work together toward achieving what they all claim to be in the long-term interest of their countries.

There is no sugar-coating Libya’s troubles today; the panoply of challenges facing the current stewards of its politics is indeed daunting, ranging from organizing and holding pivotal elections, to unifying political and economic institutions, to addressing the migration problem, among others. But from what has transpired since Libyan political elites agreed to the latest arrangement, there should not be much room for spoilers to freely sabotage the process. With the continued promise of Libya’s natural economic resources and what appears to be open-ended regional and international support, chances for obstruction should be slim. Indeed, the political compromise achieved in Libya seems to guarantee that domestic actors—both those enthusiastic about it and those who have lukewarm feelings­—receive their fair share of economic largesse, a significant determinant of buy-in and participation in the process of change. What Libyans and their political leaders must understand is that the present moment of opportunity should not be wasted in pursuit of narrow political or economic interests; rather, they should capitalize on it so that Libya can finally emerge from its dark decade after deposing Muammar Qadhafi.

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