Libya’s Belligerent Elites May Doom the Country’s Future

Once again, Libya is falling victim to its political elites’ failure to agree on a long-awaited election mechanism and constitutional provisions that would secure the country’s transition to a functioning democracy after the collapse of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. It is glaringly apparent that these elites have substituted a structure of political authority and their position in it for the necessary task of building state institutions for economic and social governance, institutions that would provide much-needed benefits to a population that has been starved of peace and stability for the last decade. Indeed, rather than working toward building a positive political future for Libya, those participating in the United Nations-brokered political process that began in 2015 have mostly just debated mechanisms that assure for themselves the means of remaining in power.

At issue in the current round of UN-sponsored negotiations are disputes over who should be interim prime minister until national elections can be held, qualifications for the future president, and the legitimacy of representative institutions. Following the collapse of the December 24, 2021 electoral plan that was shepherded along by the United Nations, the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) declared that the mission of interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah had ended, and, in a chaotic parliamentary session, elected former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha in his place. Naturally, Dbeibah rejected the decision and thus continues to head the country’s administration in Tripoli, insisting that his tenure expires only when elections finally take place according to the Geneva process. Today, Bashagha remains holed up in the coastal city of Sirte and unable to take over the reins of government in Tripoli. But twice before—on May 17 and June 11—forces loyal to Bashagha tried and failed to wrestle control of the capital from Dbeibah and those loyal to him.

Three rounds of negotiations in Cairo—last April, May, and June—proposed by UN Special Representative to Libya Stephanie Williams and covering whether former members of the military should be allowed to run for president got bogged down and ultimately failed. Members from the HoR and the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS) participated in these negotiations as representatives of rival administrations based, respectively, in the country’s east and west. All three rounds fell victim to the desire of one man, 78-year old leader of the so-called Libyan National Army General Khalifa Haftar, to become president, a wish he has harbored since launching his Dignity Operation back in 2014. For Libyans from the western part of the country, the obvious concern is Haftar’s military control over the east and his attempt to impose his will on everyone, as in 2019 when he marched on and attempted to seize Tripoli. Western Libya’s politicians understandably fear that Haftar’s military control of the east will ensure that he wins the eastern vote, if not by persuasion then through coercion. After the failure of the Cairo talks this past June, Williams called upon the negotiating parties to reconvene in Geneva in order to reach an agreement on elections soon, a demand that is likely to suffer the same fate as the many others that came before it.

As for the legitimacy of current institutions to represent the people, the situation is as indeterminable as ever before. The HoR, which proclaims itself the legitimately elected representative of the Libyan people, was voted in by a 2014 poll in which only 18 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. It now operates under Haftar’s control in the eastern city of Tobruk, but has no writ in the western part of the country. From its side, the HCS, which works as an advisory body to the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity under Dbeibah, has hardly any following or support in the east. Meanwhile, the alleged interim premier Bashagha was simply chosen by the HoR, and draws much of his support from the renegade Haftar. But Dbeibah’s legitimacy is doubtful as well, since he was initially chosen to lead a transitional cabinet to organize elections; but elections were never actually held. Dbeibah even violated the provisions of the 2020 Geneva Ceasefire Agreement—which prohibited its signatories from running for office—by running for president in 2021. In essence, those claiming to speak for the Libyan people and to now negotiate on their behalf lack the necessary popular legitimacy to make decisions as true representatives of the wider community of Libyans on either side of the country’s east-west political divide.

It was therefore no surprise that Libyans from all walks of life finally took matters into their own hands. On July 1, throngs of protesters sacked the headquarters of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, essentially undermining whatever legitimacy the HoR claims to have. Demonstrations were held in other cities as well, and Dbeibah’s government in Tripoli was not spared this recent round of revolt. It is obvious that Libyans have grown disillusioned, and are tired of the stalemate over who should lead a transitional government or what qualifications and constraints there should be on a future presidency. What matters for Libyans today are ways to get the economy going—especially the oil sector, which could provide the people with a decent standard of living and place the country on sure footing so that it can undertake much-needed development projects. But oil facilities have been shut down by elites aiming to manipulate the economy in the service of partisan interests, depriving the country of billions of dollars in revenue at a time when the world desperately needs to control runaway prices by increasing oil supplies following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Perhaps it is time for a new approach that emphasizes the day-to-day concerns of average Libyans instead of focusing on striking an accord between equally interested but dubiously legitimate elite groups. The United Nations has the expertise, capability, and support to engage with local actors on the ground to provide the necessary services and humanitarian assistance that current authorities in both the east and west of Libya have failed to deliver. In times of conflict and disagreements among elites, coordination with civil society groups and local activists becomes essential to sustaining societies and communities. It is also high time for the interlocutors in the current UN-sponsored Geneva negotiations to understand that their narrow interests must not supersede those of the wider Libyan society and of the nation that Libya deserves to become, more than a decade after throwing off the chains of Qaddafi’s dictatorship.

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