Nearly a year after national elections were supposed to be held in Libya, the country is still not any closer to resolving the deep political and geographical divisions that have plagued it for years. The divisions are now so entrenched that the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, has warned that the country has already been essentially partitioned into two. In the meantime, Libya continues to be a transit point for the many thousands of African migrants who each year seek to reach Europe. But a combination of EU counter-measures, abuses by militias running migrant camps, and Libyan efforts to deport migrants back to their home countries has created a humanitarian crisis that comes on top of Libya’s own substantial problems. Sadly, unless elections are held soon and a truly national government is created, Libya is headed for more turmoil.
Elections Remain Suspended
A ceasefire agreement in late 2020 between the opposing sides in Libya—the Government of National Unity (GNU) based in Tripoli in the west and the House of Representatives (HoR) based in Tobruk in the east—was supposed to lead to nationwide elections in December 2021. However, these elections were indefinitely postponed, largely because the two sides could not agree on election rules, or on candidate eligibility criteria. And the possibility of holding elections in 2022 never materialized, despite sustained efforts by UN diplomats to try to achieve a breakthrough, as both factions dug in their heels.
Consequently, each faction now has its own prime minister. The internationally recognized GNU kept its interim prime minister, Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, who was only supposed to be in the position long enough to oversee elections. Meanwhile, the HoR voted for Fathi Bashagha as its prime minister, charging that Dbeibah’s mandate had expired in late December 2021.
Abdoulaye Bathily has continued the efforts of former UN envoy Stephanie Williams, meeting with the two factions and with regional leaders to try to resolve the impasse. But he has ultimately come up short. Bathily, expressing his frustration, told the UN Security Council on December 16, 2022 that the ongoing impasse “carries a serious risk of further dividing the country and its institutions,” and highlighted multiple signs of the country’s division.
Noting that 2.8 million Libyan citizens are registered to vote, Bathily urged the Security Council to apply pressure on the opposing factions to finalize a path to a new constitution and elections, and warned that the Libyan people’s patience “is not limitless.” Bathily also suggested that new, creative ways must be found to hold elections in the country under a unified, neutral administration, although he did not provide any further details.
Violence Has Fallen, but Could Escalate Again
The only good news for Libya at this stage is that the ceasefire of late 2020 has generally held, and is more than welcome after the deadly 2019–2020 period, when the forces of self-appointed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who supports the HoR faction, attempted to seize Tripoli, only to be beaten back by militias allied with the Tripoli government, alongside allied Turkish forces and Syrian mercenaries. The attempt resulted in hundreds of casualties.
The only good news for Libya at this stage is that the ceasefire of late 2020 has generally held, and is more than welcome after the deadly 2019–2020 period.
Nonetheless, there have been occasional bouts of violence since then. In August 2022, about 32 people were killed when rival militias clashed in Tripoli. And on December 16, violence broke out between rival militias in the town of Sabratah, west of Tripoli, resulting in the death of two people and the injury of two others. In addition, Bathily has noted that some 39 people have been killed and maimed by explosive remnants of war in 2022. Meanwhile, both factions continue to build up their forces.
Some of this violence may have more to do with competition over extortion rackets and other criminal activities than with ideological rivalries between the militias supporting the country’s two major factions. Nonetheless, the chances for an upsurge in violence are ever-present since the country seems unable to settle its political differences peacefully, while the public is increasingly frustrated with a political class that seems intent on lining its pockets rather than settling disputes that could bring long-term stability and prosperity to the country. After all, Libya is an oil-rich nation with a relatively small population. But tragically, a significant portion of the population lives below the poverty line.
Dbeibah Looking for International Legitimacy
One development that recently became public was news that the alleged bombmaker in the 1988 terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir al-Marimi, was apprehended in Libya in November and handed over to US authorities for transfer to the United States. On December 15, Dbeibah acknowledged that his government had played a role in the arrest and transfer, justifying the decision in a televised speech, saying, “An arrest warrant was issued against him from Interpol. It has become imperative for us to cooperate in this file for the sake of Libya’s interest and stability.” It was later revealed that a militia linked to Dbeibah’s government had apprehended al-Marimi in his home, likely at Dbeibah’s request.
Dbeibah has come under significant public criticism in Libya for this bit of cooperation with US authorities, especially since al-Marimi had already served ten years in prison in Libya for his role in Qadhafi’s regime and was released in July 2022. Dbeibah undoubtedly sought to curry favor with the United States as a way of bolstering his own legitimacy. Although the GNU is the internationally recognized government of Libya, Dbeibah’s own standing as prime minister is still legally dubious, as his term in office was only supposed to last until the elections that were planned for December 2021. The fact that he was willing to incur public backlash to gain this type of international legitimacy for himself may be an indication of just how keen he is to remain in power, likely hoping that a US endorsement will somehow help him.
Turkish Gas and Oil Exploration Deal Remains Controversial
Compounding the issue of what many Libyans see as an infringement on the country’s sovereignty is the Dbeibah government’s decision in early October 2022 to sign a gas and oil exploration deal with Turkey for Libya’s territorial waters. The deal follows on the heels of a 2019 agreement between Tripoli and Ankara that recognized an expanded version of Turkey’s territorial waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, which elicited condemnation not only from many Libyans but from neighboring countries as well. The Speaker of the HoR in Tobruk, Aguila Saleh, called the October 2022 deal “illegal and unacceptable,” while the prime minister of his faction, Fathi Bashagha, threatened to annul it.
Foreign Forces Remain a Problem
Turkey probably believes that it can sustain such a deal with the Tripoli government because it was instrumental in turning the tide against Haftar’s offensive in 2019–2020, and because the Tripoli faction remains dependent on the Turkish military for support—despite the fact that all foreign forces were supposed to depart Libya by the end of 2020. In late October 2022, Turkey and the GNU signed a deal to “boost the capacity of Libya’s air force using Turkish expertise.”
Libya still suffers from both the proliferation of homegrown militias and the continued presence of foreign military forces on its soil. In addition to Turkish military support for the GNU, the eastern government retains the support of Egypt and the UAE.
Libya still suffers from both the proliferation of homegrown militias and the continued presence of foreign military forces on its soil. In addition to Turkish military support for the GNU, the eastern government retains the support of Egypt and the UAE, which have provided Haftar’s forces with military equipment. The notorious Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force that reportedly has close ties to the Kremlin, has also provided support to Haftar’s forces.
The Migrant Issue, the EU, and Human Rights Abuses
If these problems were not bad enough, Libya has become a transit point for tens of thousands of African migrants each year who seek to cross the Mediterranean and find safe haven and employment in Europe. Since 2015, the EU has given the Tripoli government about $500 million to help stem the flow of these migrants to Europe. The money was supposed to go to the Libyan Coast Guard to provide it with better ships and equipment and to improve the conditions of migrant camps in Libya. However, according to Human Rights Watch, much of this money has
wound up in the hands of Libyan militias and human traffickers.
The EU has declined to create a common European search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, believing that such a mission would only encourage more migrants to try to make the treacherous crossing. Instead, the EU has created a border agency called Frontex, which provides aerial surveillance using both aircraft and drones, and which helps the Libyan Coast Guard detect migrants’ boats in the Mediterranean.
Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics have charged that Frontex’s approach is not actually designed to rescue migrants from perilous journeys, but to prevent them from reaching the EU. Moreover, they argue that Frontex is complicit in human rights abuses because once these migrants are in the custody of the Libyan Coast Guard, they are transferred to migrant camps in Libya that are supposed to be administered by the Tripoli government, but are instead run by militia groups. In these camps, thousands of people have reportedly endured torture, sexual abuse, and extortion at the hands of prison guards.
Migrants in detention in Libya are allowed what has been called “assisted returns” to their home countries, meaning that they are forced to return to the places from which they fled, which are often in areas known for human rights abuses.
In other cases, migrants in detention in Libya are allowed what has been called “assisted returns” to their home countries, meaning that they are forced to return to the places from which they fled, which are often in areas known for human rights abuses. According to a UN human rights report, returnees not only face danger upon their return home, but also bear personal, financial, and psychological burdens, in addition to the severe trauma they suffered in migrant detention camps in Libya, all of which amounts to a violation of international human rights laws and standards.
Although EU countries have the right to control their own borders, the system that has been described by these reputable NGOs—at least vis-à-vis the Libyan authorities—allows the EU to reduce the flow of migrants to its borders while simultaneously ignoring what happens to migrants once they are in Libyan custody. This migrant issue is compounded by illicit activities on the Libyan side, as many militias are also involved in human trafficking and related abuses, and in extortion schemes that they use to enrich themselves and probably many government officials as well. It is a lucrative industry, which makes this particular aspect of the EU-Libya partnership morally questionable, to say the least.
What Is to Be Done?
The presently divided system of governance in Libya benefits the political class and the militias associated with it, but unfortunately does very little for the average citizen simply trying to stay safe, earn a decent living, and live their life. Relying on the two sides—the GNU and the HoR—to iron out their differences seems to be a losing proposition. The two entities are certainly not the cure-all for Libya’s many ills, but are rather a large part of the problem.
Some other ways that have been mentioned but not yet clearly delineated by the new UN envoy to Libya—for example, a neutral administration—should be tested. This may require some tough policies by regional and international players to overrule the two factions and instead find another mechanism by which to hold elections, and would likely involve a good deal of pushback from these factions. Once elections are held, their results are certified, and a truly national government is established, its main task should be to rein in the country’s militias and perhaps to incorporate some of them into a new national army. Granted, this is easier said than done; but the most likely alternative is a permanent division of the state, something that most Libyans do not want because, as Bathily noted in one of his reports to the UN, the Libyan people desire “peace, stability, and legitimate institutions,” not warring factions or feuding states.
Once elections are held, their results are certified, and a truly national government is established, its main task should be to rein in the country’s militias and perhaps to incorporate some of them into a new national army.
Much more also needs to be done about the tragic migrant situation in Libya. The EU, backed by the United States and perhaps by Gulf Arab states, needs to ensure that funds destined for migrants are actually administered in a way that treats these people humanely, and that they are not diverted to militias that often use migrants for their own nefarious purposes. The UN and the EU should ensure that outside observers have regular access to camps and that migrants are not forcibly returned to their home countries. The international community should use carrots and sticks in this approach, promising more funds for Libya if the migrants are treated more justly, but threatening to cut said funds if abuses continue.
After more than a decade of chaos and violence, the Libyan people deserve a chance at a fresh start. A national government that is truly devoted to the welfare of its people could help lift the country out of its present morass. Libya is fortunate enough to have substantial oil revenues and a relatively small population, both of which make this a feasible outcome. But getting there will require sustained regional and international engagement to ensure the welfare of the Libyan people, and not the interests of outside players.
Featured image credit: Facebook/Media Office of GNU PM