Libya: Despite Talks on a Unified Government, Impasse Remains

Talks last month in Cairo between representatives of Libya’s two rival governments raised hopes over progress in resolving the country’s 10-year political impasse. The talks discussed the formation of a unified government with the authority to supervise long-overdue nationwide elections. Although the two sides agreed on the need to forge such a coalition, and committed to forming a “technical committee” to iron out their differences, most Libya observers remain deeply skeptical that political unification will move forward anytime soon. Entrenched political and economic interests of the two factions, plus the support they receive from outside powers, make the chances for success exceedingly slim. Meanwhile, Libya faces mounting challenges. The country is dealing with the fallout of last September’s devastating flood in the city of Derna, high rates of poverty, militia activities that include illicit economic rackets, and human trafficking by some of these same militias exploiting migrants seeking to reach Europe.

Libya’s Deep Divisions

Libya has been deeply divided for more than a decade. The internationally-recognized government based in Tripoli in the west, called the Government of National Unity (GNU) in its most recent incarnation, controls about a third of the northern part of the country. A rival government in the east, under the House of Representatives (HoR) based in Tobruk, controls the remaining two-thirds of this northern area (the rest of the country is mostly sparsely-populated desert). The Tobruk-based government is supported by the self-anointed Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar and his large militia force, the Libyan National Army (LNA). The GNU, meanwhile, is supported by various militias in the west.

The internationally-recognized government in Tripoli controls about a third of the northern part of the country.

Militias loyal to the GNU, aided by elements of the Turkish military and its allied Syrian Arab mercenaries, halted a 2020 attempt by Haftar to take over the western part of the country by force. A ceasefire, put in place in October of that year, has held despite occasional outbursts of violence between rival militias.

United Nations-supported national elections, which were hoped to end Libya’s division, were scheduled for December 2021 but were postponed indefinitely over issues related to the eligibility of candidates and election rules. In the aftermath of this postponement, interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah vowed to stay in power until new elections were held, while the government in the east, charging that Dbeibah’s term had ended, named a rival prime minister, former interior minister Fathi Bashagha. The latter was replaced last year by Osama Hamad, Bashagha’s own finance minister.

Over the next couple of years, the UN Special Representative for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, tried to get the elections back on track but came up short. The plan now is to first create a temporary unified government that will supervise preparations for a nationwide election. But bringing about such a unified government is far from easy.

Pessimistic Report by the UN Envoy

On February 15, prior to the Cairo meeting, Bathily addressed the UN Security Council in what can only be described as a pessimistic message. Despite various meetings and tentative agreements, he stated, “key Libyan institutional stakeholders appear unwilling to resolve the outstanding politically contested issues that would clear the path to the long-awaited elections in Libya.” He underscored that the status quo “seems to suit” these stakeholders.

Bathily noted the following challenges:

— The HOR Speaker, Aguila Saleh has said that he would only support a unified government as the “sole legitimate authority”in charge of elections.

— Muhammaed Takala, president of the High Council of State (which is independent of the two governments), has rejected the election laws issued by the House of Representatives.

— Al–Dbeibah has insisted that only the GNU should supervise the electoral process.

— Haftar has insisted that both governments be parties to unity government talks or both be excluded from them.

Bathily called on “all Libyan institutional actors” to engage in a dialogue without preconditions.

Meeting in Cairo

Although Cairo has long supported Haftar and the secular HoR faction, largely to prevent Muslim Brotherhood members and Islamist terrorists from Libya infiltrating Egypt, it has hosted talks between the two factions. The most recent discussions were held in Cairo on March 10 under the auspices of the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Egyptian diplomat Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Participating were Saleh of the HoR, Takala, and Mohammed Menfi, President of Libya’s Presidential Council (the latter two are usually associated with the GNU).

The three Libyans reportedly agreed to form a technical committee aimed at resolving disagreements and to establish a “single government body responsible for overseeing Libya’s electoral process and delivering essential services to citizens.” After the meeting, Menfi

said that the gathering was a “very important beginning” that would “live up to the ambition of Libyans to hold elections.”

And a Veiled Threat from Haftar

While this all sounds positive on paper, it is far from clear that such a unified, temporary government can be formed. Only four days after the Cairo meeting, Haftar gave a speech in which he said the political process “has been given more opportunities than necessary,” adding that his forces have reached a “high level of preparedness and readiness” and would not hesitate to “issue bold decisions and strict orders to confront with utmost strength anyone that would tamper with the fate of the people and the country.” Haftar made these threatening comments while attending his forces’ military maneuvers in the coastal city of Sirte, very close to GNU-controlled territory.

Why Haftar made such threats is unknown, especially since his ally, Saleh, participated in the Cairo meeting. Haftar may have sought to ensure that he would be part of the unified government negotiations to put the HoR faction in a better bargaining position.

Regardless of Haftar’s motive, Bathily traveled to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on March 21 to meet with Haftar, perhaps to convince him to desist from making such threats. After the meeting, Bathily wrote on (formerly Twitter) that participants had agreed to coordinate initiatives to enable elections and work toward a political settlement among the major actors.

Two days later, members of the Preparatory Committee for National Reconciliation (who represent Haftar’s forces), criticized its chairman Abdullah Al-Laf for failing to include the kin of dead fighters from these forces in the General Authority for the Care of Martyrs’ Families. These Haftar loyalists charged Al-Lafi with bias and said he was undermining the effort to achieve national unity. It is probable that Haftar had a hand in this matter.

Entrenched Interests

As Bathily noted in his UN address, both factions have a stake in maintaining the status quo because it serves their interests. Corruption is seen as widespread in both governments, and billions of dollars in oil revenues are reportedly unaccounted for. Militias supporting the factions have been engaged in oil smuggling. Libya’s National Oil Corporation estimates that up to one-third of petroleum and diesel provided by the state is smuggled. And like a Mafia organization, money is then kicked up to the top. As one prominent Libya analyst, Alia Brahimi, noted: “The political impasse in Libya can be interpreted as the result of a tacit bargain among elites to prolong their tenure in power. Both sets of politicians want to ensure continuing access to legitimate and illicit state resources.” In addition, many militias are involved in the smuggling of people and drugs.

Foreign Complicity

Despite foreign governments’ pledges in recent years to desist from interfering in Libya, they have continued to do so, even with military force. The two main outside forces are Turkey and Russia, which have established a kind of modus vivendi over Libya with the former aiding the GNU and the latter aiding Haftar’s forces. It also appears that Russian mercenaries in Libya previously associated with the Wagner Group have come under formal Russian military command. According to former UN special envoy for Libya Stephanie Williams, Turkey, which has admitted to training 15,000 Libyan personnel since 2020, is closely associated with the 444 Combat Brigade in Tripoli (one of the country’s strongest fighting forces) and “maintains a permanent presence” at al-Watiya airbase near Zintan and at the naval base in Misrata. Meanwhile, Russia has sent Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov to eastern Libya several times since last August, and may be seeking military basing agreements on territory controlled by the eastern faction.

In addition, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and possibly France have reportedly aided Haftar’s forces, while Qatar has supported Tripoli’s forces and Italy has supported the Tripoli faction politically. The involvement of these foreign countries makes it hard for those Libyans who want a genuine Libyan solution to prevail. If a unity government were to emerge, such foreign forces undoubtedly would come under greater scrutiny and face political pressure to leave. Hence, the presence of these foreign forces helps to perpetuate the country’s political divisions.

Human Misery Abounds

If all this were not bad enough, Libya has faced mounting humanitarian crises in recent months. The terrible flood in Derna in which as many as 8,500 people were killed, thousands more unaccounted for, and some 45,000 left homeless, was a devastating human tragedy made worse by the lack of accountability. The fact that the area’s two dams failed so quickly showed negligence on the part of the authorities who should have used government funds for their upkeep. According to Amnesty International, neither political faction has undertaken a full investigation, nor have they facilitated the issuance of death certificates so family members can claim pensions for their lost loved ones.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office has initiated criminal investigations into the dam disaster, and eight officials were arrested a few months ago. It remains to be seen how far accountability will go. To its credit, the UN, with the support of humanitarian agencies, has aided hundreds of thousands of Libyans with emergency humanitarian assistance, including shelter, clean water, food, educational support, and medical and psychological treatment.

Many Libyans are mired in poverty, ironic for an oil-rich country with a small population.

Meanwhile, Libyan officials have tried to deflect blame over the negligence in Derna. The LNA and its internal security agency even arrested civil society activists for protesting the mismanagement of the crisis and the lack of accountability.

On top of this tragedy is the ongoing migration problem, where tens of thousands of destitute Africans, usually from Sub-Saharan countries, have arrived in Libya every year seeking to use it as a transit point to Europe. Often trafficked by militias, many migrants have been subjected to extortion, sexual abuse, and even death. On March 22, the international press reported that 65 bodies of migrants were found in a mass grave in southwest Libya. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it believed that they died while being smuggled through the desert. Earlier in the month, about 60 migrants who set off from Libya in a rubber dinghy perished in the Mediterranean Sea. Although Libyan Interior Minister Emad Al-Trabelsi of the GNU faction stated that his agency has “launched security campaigns to control human smuggling gangs, activate electronic surveillance towers to secure the borders” and train border guards “in a manner consistent with…respect for human rights,” clearly much more needs to be done. As the US Department of State said in 2023: “Endemic corruption and militias’ influence over government ministries contribute to the GNU’s inability to effectively address human trafficking.”

Finally, the sad fact remains that many Libyans are mired in poverty, ironic for an oil-rich country with a small population. They wonder why a country with this abundant resource is unwilling or unable to take care of its citizens. It is not surprising, therefore, that they blame the political class for negligence, corruption, and graft. Although oil production has been affected by violence and protests, it has slowly increased over the past year and is projected to rise above 1.5 million barrels per day by 2025. To be sure, one of the reasons why the political factions are reluctant to move toward elections is their fear that the fed-up populace will vote them out of power.

The United States and the EU Need to Do More

Although the Biden administration has backed UN efforts in Libya and supports national elections, it has not shown enough attention to help bring the country out of its present morass. Granted, the Israel-Hamas and the Russia-Ukraine wars have occupied US attention, but the administration has not even moved the US Embassy back to Libya (US diplomats dealing with Libya operate out of Tunisia) once violence abated. Moreover, to punt the issue to the United Nations as the United States and the European Union have done  without giving the UN real power is, in effect, evading Libya’s problems. At a minimum, getting countries in the international community to not be spoilers in Libya should be a start so Libyans themselves can work out their own differences. This will not be an easy task, but removing foreign forces and military assistance from Libya will at least not reinforce the political divisions in the country, and hopefully public pressure from Libyan citizens will force the two sides to compromise and hold elections.

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: Shutterstock/Hussein Eddeb