It appears that all bets are off in Libya. Elections that were scheduled for last December were postponed as competing institutions and individuals interpret past agreements according to their interests. Political uncertainty has once again become the norm after Libyans had hoped that the Geneva roadmap agreed in 2021 and leading to the December elections was an ironclad plan to get them moving on the road to establishing a stable political order. Today, rival administrations in the east and west are again asserting their right to legitimacy and rule, although neither appears to have the wherewithal to enforce its writ on the other.
The timing for the current impasse couldn’t be worse as the international community—specifically the United States and European countries—is busy addressing and dealing with the Russian war on Ukraine. A new conflagration between Libya’s competitors may not muster the necessary urgency or collective efforts at the United Nations or among interested parties previously involved in Libya. The schism between Russia—a major supporter of Libya’s renegade General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army fighting Tripoli-based factions—and others on the UN Security Council will prevent any collective action to arrest a security deterioration in Libya. It thus remains essential that at least a modicum of a political process led by the United Nations be allowed to move forward, albeit slowly, in order to facilitate another compromise between Libya’s stakeholders that could preserve the country’s unity and security and help it rebuild its institutions.
Musical Chairs of Instability
Hopes were high that Libyans were on their way to agreement on the fate of their country and state when scores of them joined together a United Nations-sponsored agreement in Geneva last year. Hopes were also high that work to implement the Geneva roadmap was progressing in earnest and office seekers and their supporters appeared to look forward to the December 24, 2021, milestone when parliamentary and presidential elections were to be held. Indeed, Libya was thought to have found an acceptable combination of institutional mechanisms and stakeholder buy-in to help it end a decade of political chaos and disunity, security challenges, and economic dislocation and uncertainty.
Libya was thought to have found an acceptable combination of institutional mechanisms and stakeholder buy-in to help it end a decade of political chaos and disunity, security challenges, and economic dislocation and uncertainty.
But disagreements and hindrances soon began to appear. Haftar and Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), manipulated electoral laws and requirements to their advantage. Eligible and ineligible candidates for the presidency competed for the position, throwing it into chaos. The High Council of State rejected HoR’s manipulations of elections but provided no alternative plans to hold them. Importantly, the presidential and parliamentary elections were to be held without Libyans first adopting a constitution for the country. Confusion and uncertainty prevailed until the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) finally threw in the towel and dissolved the election committees, canceling the polls and bringing the national political process to a complete halt.
Cancelling the elections quickly created its own subsequent developments. The HoR and its supporters in the east declared that the Government of National Unity, established in accordance with the 2021 Geneva process, was no longer valid after the cancellation. Interim Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah’s term also was considered to have expired and a replacement was in order. Considering himself and his mission legitimate until elections are held for a new government, Dbeibah refused to give up his position in favor of a new interim premier. But the HoR brooked no objection and quickly made arrangements to appoint former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha who had served in the Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj—whose authority ended with the Geneva process in early 2021—and asked him to form a new government. Bashagha presented a new cabinet to the HoR which gave it confidence on March 3rd, in the process standing up a rival government, supported by Saleh’s HoR, to Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity.
It is this deterioration in the implementation of the once promising Geneva process that is setting up the conditions for a conflagration between Libya’s east and its west, between the Bashagha-Saleh-Haftar alliance and Dbeibah and his supporters in Tripoli. While Dbeibah lacks the legitimacy of support from the House of Representatives—whose legitimacy is also in doubt because it was elected in 2014 for a four-year term but stays in session—Bashagha’s pretense that he carries the confidence of the HoR was rejected by Libya’s High Council of State. In fact, it has become hard even for the United Nations to deal legitimately with either Dbeibah—who broke the Geneva agreement’s rule not to run for president—or Bashagha who agreed with HoR’s Saleh to subvert Geneva. In other words, how the current impasse may be surmounted will require addressing this problem of legitimacy for either party, making any UN or other plan to go beyond the stalemate tricky, in the least, and pregnant with unwarranted outcomes for the future.
How the current impasse may be surmounted will require addressing the problem of legitimacy for either party, making any UN or other plan to go beyond the stalemate tricky and pregnant with unwarranted outcomes for the future.
Dbeibah and the House of Representatives have proposed their own timelines for holding elections which both inevitably see as bestowing the required legitimacy on the outcome of the political process. Dbeibah has proposed parliamentary elections in the summer of 2022, followed by a presidential poll. In an interview on Turkish television on March 13, he affirmed that the former would be held in June 2021, followed by the latter later in the year. From its side, the HoR decided to forsake elections altogether until 2023 in lieu of appointing a replacement prime minister, a task fulfilled by choosing Bashagha last February. In his interview, Dbeibah accused the HoR of working to extend its own term for another year while Libya cannot wait that long to get its institutions going.
The United Nations Tries Again
The United Nations has since the beginning of its intervention in Libya sought compromises between seemingly irreconcilable opposites and interests. The 2015-2016 intervention that led to the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) was thought at the time to contain the basic ingredients of a compromise that satisfies those opposites. The 2021 Geneva process was an extension of the LPA and came after the folly of the 2019-2020 military operation by Haftar’s forces to conquer Tripoli. It also was a deal with broad political and public support for the sake of returning Libya to the path of legitimate countrywide elections in which some 2.8 million Libyans were to participate. Both of these endeavors fell victim to narrow domestic personal interests and the usual outside interference. While the HoR’s appointment of Bashagha, for example, was lauded and approved by Egypt and Russia, Dbeibah appears to remain Turkey’s man in Tripoli.
Now the United Nations is called upon to try once again to cobble together a process despite the divisions. But the organization’s continued attempt will require more robust assistance and push from all international actors. For now, Stephanie Williams, the UN Special Advisor on Libya, has proposed that the House of Representatives and the Tripoli-based High Council of State appoint six persons each to a commission that would work on forging a new constitution for the country that can govern institutional development such as elections. A few days later, Williams clarified that she’d like for the commission to begin talks on a constitutional framework before the start of Ramadan as well as discuss basics for an electoral law that governs the choice of new representatives in 2023.
Now the United Nations is called upon to try once again to cobble together a process despite the divisions. But the organization’s continued attempt will require more robust assistance and push from all international actors.
Williams’s proposed plan could be ambitious regarding the timetable—Ramadan starts April 1st—although it contains the basics of a new compromise that puts the emphasis on producing a constitutional document for the country. As for the electoral law, the framers must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the Geneva process that lacked an enforcement mechanism to prevent those ineligible from running for president. For example, General Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the later dictator, ran despite war crimes charges pending against them and Dbeibah competed although the Geneva process required him and others who were part of it to skip the round. Any new plan must also work on leveling the playing field of the elections. Two specific issues stand out: Haftar’s military sway over eastern Libya and the obvious subsequent doubt that elections will be free and the unfair distribution of seats between the different regions in favor of the east and south. It is obvious thus that the plan Williams is proposing must have international muscle behind it so that both the constitutional drafting process and the elections are deemed credible and lead to the desired legitimate outcome for all Libyans.
This may be a tall order considering the current divisions between the parties and the inability of their external backers to either stop maleficently interfering in the domestic affairs of Libya or agree to allow the United Nations to lead the process unencumbered. It is indeed difficult to predict if Bashagha and his eastern supporters, Haftar and the HoR’s Saleh, can find a working formula for their relations with Tripoli’s Dbeibah after declaring him and his government illegitimate usurpers of power. Nor is it easy for them to launch a military assault on Dbeibah’s forces in Tripoli. Haftar’s war against the capital between 2019 and 2020 ended in a fiasco and a ceasefire agreement along the Sirte-Jufra north-south line that was only possible because of the help of Russian and Chadian mercenaries. Besides, Bashagha has declared that he has no intention of taking Tripoli by force, preferring to strike a deal with Dbeibah that allows him to assume his supposed duties in the capital.
Internationally, the environment may not be conducive to easy negotiations to help Libya’s competing factions. Although Turkey—the most obvious supporter of Tripoli and Dbeibah—is trying to break the ice in its relations with Egypt and the Gulf Arab states of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it remains bound by its interests and relations in Libya to remain steadfast against Haftar and his eastern allies. With its war on Ukraine straining whatever relationship it has had with the international community, Russia can be unpredictable and unreliable should the UN Security Council address Libya’s stalemate. While Dbeibah’s government voiced opposition to Russia’s war on Ukraine when it began, even Bashagha found it necessary to condemn the invasion despite Moscow’s support of his premiership. It is thus quite possible that Russia will throw all caution to the wind in Libya and oppose any Security Council resolution that may help settle the dispute between Libya’s competing politicians.
Moving Forward, Deliberately and Slowly
It appears that the best way forward in Libya today is a slow and measured process that can be shepherded by Stephanie Williams with technical assistance from the United Nations. Williams’s plan to convene a commission to discuss and agree on a constitution and an electoral law is credible but too ambitious in its timeline. Libya’s two competing centers of power are not likely to act quickly to satisfy the plan’s timetable—before the start of Ramadan—nor to be ready to draft a constitutional document and iron out an electoral law. Given political and other exigencies, the best they may be able to manage, if anything, is agree on representatives to the hoped-for commission. The wheeling and dealing required will most assuredly consume whatever time there remains before Ramadan.
It appears that the best way forward in Libya today is a slow and measured process that can be shepherded by Stephanie Williams with technical assistance from the United Nations.
Considering the failure of Libya’s politicians to adhere to the implementation of the LPA and the Geneva process, Williams and the United Nations must be modest enough to realize that only deliberate steps can produce a lasting agreement. What is also required is a realization that nothing can be left to free interpretation by Libya’s competing politicians. Everything must be painstakingly explained to prevent misunderstandings and obfuscations. Finally, any plan for future electoral politics must be augmented by an enforcement mechanism so that those trying to subvert future institutional building find it impossible to maneuver to advance or preserve their own personal or factional interests.