Despite Libya’s Progress on Election Laws, Deep Divisions Remain

Recent meetings in Morocco between representatives of Libya’s two main factions, the Government of National Unity (GNU) in the West and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the East, have yielded a tentative agreement on election laws that may pave the way for holding nationwide presidential and legislative elections at some point in the near future. However, this agreement has yet to be signed by the leaders of the two factions. The leadership’s reluctance to nail down such laws is indicative of the deep divisions that remain in Libya, which benefit the political class and the militias associated with it, but which keep the country in political chaos and fail to resolve its myriad problems, including corruption that is rampant on both sides. Although elections may not be a panacea for Libya’s ills, they would at least begin a process of national reconciliation, which the country desperately needs in order to move forward.

The Long and Divisive Road to Elections

Since 2014, Libya has been divided between two rival governments, the House of Representatives in the East, backed by the so-called Libyan National Army of self-proclaimed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and the government in the West, based in the capital city of Tripoli. In its latest incarnation, the latter is called the Government of National Unity, and is internationally recognized. Each of these governments is supported by various militia groups, as well as outside players.

After Haftar failed to take Tripoli by force in 2019–2020, the United Nations put in place a process that led to the appointment of an interim government in February 2021 and the promise of holding presidential and legislative elections in December 2021. However, these elections failed to materialize because of sharp disagreements on their rules, as well as eligibility criteria for presidential candidates. In the aftermath of this debacle, the interim prime minister of the GNU, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, declared that he would remain in office. The HoR charged that Dbeibah should no longer stay in this position because his tenure had expired at the end of 2021, and in February 2022, this faction appointed a rival prime minister, Fathi Bashagha. Ironically, Bashagha was interior minister in the Tripoli government when Haftar tried to take control of the city.

Bashagha thus became prime minister of the eastern faction, now called the Government of National Stability. Why Haftar and the HoR chose him as prime minister was the subject of considerable speculation, but it may have had to do with the fact that Bashagha was likely to have more legitimacy vis-à-vis Dbeibah because he once held a prominent position in the Tripoli government. Backed by militias, Bashagha tried to enter Tripoli twice in the past year but was repelled by forces allied with Dbeibah, resulting in scores of civilian deaths. After these failures, Bashagha ensconced himself and his government in the central coastal city of Sirte.

The main reason that reconciliation has not taken place is that the opposing factions benefit from the status quo.

Then, in mid-May of this year, the HoR fired Bashagha, allegedly because of “poor performance and corruption,” but more likely because, in the words of one analyst, he had outlived his usefulness. Since he failed to take Tripoli, for the HoR faction Bashagha was no longer worth keeping on. Whether the corruption charges are true is anyone’s guess, but since most Libyan politicians are alleged to have their hands in the till, the corruption charges may have been raised simply to obfuscate other reasons for his dismissal. One alternative theory is that Bashagha got into a dispute with members of the HoR over the budget, with him complaining that the money allocated by the Libyan Central Bank was insufficient to run his government. Another theory is that Haftar may have wanted to use Bashagha and his allied militias to try to take Tripoli without harming his own forces, and when that did not work, Bashagha was no longer needed. The HoR subsequently announced that Finance Minister Osama Hammad would temporarily take over Bashagha’s duties.

In the meantime, UN Special Envoy for Libya Abdoulaye Bathily has tried to get the election process back on track. In March 2023, he said that elections could be held by the end of the year if the two factions could iron out their differences by June. A steering committee was formed with equal representatives from the HoR and the High State Council, which is associated with the GNU. Negotiations began in Libya but were shifted to Morocco in the latter part of May.

Some Progress Announced on Elections, but Leadership Stays Aloof

On June 7, the steering committee announced from its meeting venue in Bouznika, Morocco that it had reached an agreement on presidential and parliamentary election laws. Although the details of this agreement were not revealed publicly, the announcement was the only positive news to have come out since the elections were postponed in late 2021. A representative from the High State Council, Omar Aboulifa, claimed that, “All that is left is for parliament to ratify” the agreement. However, neither Aguila Saleh, speaker of the HoR, nor Khalid al-Mishri, leader of the High State Council, decided to sign it, thereby putting the agreement in doubt.

Indeed, according to Libyan press reporting, Saleh and al-Mishri were supposed to attend the press conference on the deal, but they chose not to because of disagreements over conditions for running for president. The two leaders had actually arrived in Morocco for the signing ceremony, but when al-Mishri reportedly left the meeting hall over the dispute the signing ceremony had to be cancelled.

It is possible that the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates may be at the root of the dispute. The GNU has maintained that dual citizens should not be allowed to run for president—a criterion that was clearly aimed at Haftar since, in addition to his Libyan nationality, he holds US citizenship based on his long residence in the United States prior to 2011. Whether the representatives from the High State Council conceded on this point during the negotiations with the HoR representatives is hard to say; but if they did, that would account for al-Mishri leaving the meeting hall without putting his signature on the accord. For its part, the HoR is opposed to Dbeibah running for president, charging that he reneged on an earlier pledge that he would not do so when he threw his hat into the presidential ring in late 2021.

Behind-the-Scenes Talks and Entrenched Interests

Regardless of what happens with the election law agreement, it seems that Haftar and Dbeibah are exploring some type of power sharing arrangement on their own, outside of the UN process. Over the past year, Dbeibah’s nephew, Ibrahim Dbeibah and Haftar’s son, Saddam Haftar, have been engaged in an ongoing dialogue supposedly aimed at bringing about some form of reconciliation. But it is unknown whether these talks, some of which have reportedly been held in Egypt and the UAE, are serious or are just meant to buy time while each side tries to bolster its military and economic capabilities.

Dbeibah’s decision to replace the head of the Libyan National Oil Corporation in July 2022 with a Qaddafi-era official took place soon after Ibrahim Dbeibah and Saddam Haftar had a meeting in the UAE, suggesting some type of agreement on this issue. The reason behind this consensus may have had less to do with politics and more to do with illicit economic activity, according to one prominent analyst who noted that there has been an “uptick in corruption” involving the national oil corporation in recent months.

However, the main reason that reconciliation has not taken place is that the opposing factions benefit from the status quo. Neither side wants to give up power and the associated economic benefits that come along with it. Corruption is said to be widespread in both camps, to the point that the majority of Libyans see the political class as being only out for itself and not caring about the average citizen who is struggling financially.

Moreover, foreign patrons want the status quo to continue because it benefits them as well.  Despite the pledge by international actors at the Berlin Conference in January 2020 that foreign forces and foreign intervention in Libya should cease, this agreement has been widely flouted. The Tripoli government is still supported by Turkey and its allied troops, while the eastern government has the support of Egypt, the UAE, and Russia’s notorious Wagner Group, made up of mercenaries who not only fight for a particular side in a given country but often engage in the economic exploitation of that country’s resources.

One report that circulated earlier this year among Libya observers said that the Libyan Central Bank sent the national oil corporation around $6 billion after the head of the corporation was replaced in 2022, but that this money was not used for any upgrades of Libyan oil facilities as one might expect. Instead, the money remains unaccounted for, and rumors have circulated that Haftar used part of these funds to pay the Wagner Group. These mercenaries, in addition to supporting Haftar’s 2019–2020 offensive against Tripoli, have reportedly been used to protect key military bases and major oil facilities in the eastern part of the country.

As for Turkey, it wants to stay in the good graces of the Tripoli government, in large part to maintain its support for gas exploration projects in the Mediterranean Sea that are being opposed by several neighboring governments that resent Ankara’s unilateral expansion of its maritime borders. In addition, having friendly ties to Tripoli allows Ankara to project force in North Africa. The recent reelection of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will likely mean that Turkey will not depart from this policy, nor from Libya anytime soon. As for Egypt and the UAE, while paying lip service to Libyan reconciliation and occasionally hosting meetings of the two factions, they still favor Haftar and the HoR because of their opposition to Islamists.

The Militia Problem

Since the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, one of the main problems in Libya has been the proliferation of militias. These forces are usually allied with one political faction or the other and have been a major cause of violence and instability in the country. Efforts by the UN to undertake security sector reform through a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration and integration process have largely gone nowhere, and as long as there is no unified national government, each side will see militias as useful allies in the power struggle.

Many of the militias have been involved in illicit activities, particularly in human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Many of the militias have also been involved in illicit activities, particularly in human trafficking and drug smuggling, and they sometimes turn on each other. In May 2023, the GNU’s military forces struck militias west of Tripoli in the town of Zawiya that it accused of trafficking in fuel, narcotics, and human beings. That same month, two militias, both loyal to Dbeibah, clashed in Tripoli after a member of one of the groups was arrested by GNU authorities. Although a cease-fire between the two main Libyan factions has generally held since October 2020, there have been occasional bouts of violence since then.

Unfortunately, the recent civil war in Sudan has the potential to make these matters worse.  Human trafficking, which was already a serious problem in Libya because destitute people from various African countries wanting to reach Europe often try to go through Libya, is likely to pick up as life becomes unbearable in neighboring Sudan. Some Libyan militias will undoubtedly see this development as an opportunity to exploit.

No Substitute for Elections

Although national elections may not end Libya’s myriad problems—and there is always the possibility that the losing side will not accept the results—it is hard to imagine that true national reconciliation can take place without them. Without a central national government brought about through free and fair elections, Libya will not be able to deal with its militia problem and create a true national army; nor will it be able address the corruption that is sapping the wealth of the country. But in order for these goals to be achieved, the international community must step up its efforts in Libya to persuade all foreign forces to leave and put pressure on the two main political factions to move ahead with elections. Efforts by the steering committee in Morocco to agree on election rules seem to have been a good start, but pressure needs to be applied to both GNU and HoR leaders to accept the compromises reached in Morocco, to sign the agreement, and to set a new date for elections. After more than a decade of violence and instability, the Libyan people deserve a better future. The longer elections are postponed, the greater the chances that civil war will erupt again, with civilians continuing to suffer as they always do during conflicts.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Facebook/High Council of State