Following the postponement of national elections in December 2021, which were supposed to usher in a new, unified government, Libya has again reverted to two opposing political camps backed by their respective militias. Despite the tireless efforts of UN diplomats, the two sides—the House of Representatives (HoR) in the east, and the Government of National Unity (GNU) in the west—have failed to agree on key articles in a new constitution, including eligibility requirements for political candidates. Amid this ongoing impasse, there have been periodic bouts of violence, as well as rising economic hardship that was further aggravated by the Russia invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted crucial wheat imports for Libya’s hard-pressed population. International players also contribute to the problem through their detrimental military presence in the country. But these outside actors could still be part of the solution if rather than sowing discord they instead use their influence to press their Libyan allies to seek a compromise that benefits the country as a whole.
Election Postponement Fallout
The UN-sponsored presidential elections that were originally slated for December 2021 offered some hope that after more than a decade of political turmoil and bloodshed, Libya’s crisis was finally nearing an end and that the country would finally start on the road to recovery. However, the elections were suspended indefinitely when various factions failed to agree on eligibility criteria for candidates, as well as on rules governing the elections. Not helping matters was the fact that some of the leading contenders for president were highly controversial figures, such as Khalifa Haftar, a strongman and self-appointed field marshal who is supporting the HoR based in the eastern city of Tobruk and who made a bid to seize the capital city of Tripoli in 2019. Another candidate was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libya’s former dictator, Muammar Qadhafi. Gaddafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the 2011 Libyan uprising against his father. Yet another candidate was Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, the GNU interim prime minister who was himself overseeing the elections. Dbeibah was installed in his position via a UN-backed process, a condition of which was that incumbents cannot run for office—a stipulation Dbeibah ignored because Haftar, who is subject to a separate prohibition against military leaders seeking high office, was also running.
In response to the postponement of the elections, the Tobruk-based HoR called on Dbeibah to immediately resign since his tenure in office was set to expire regardless of whether or not elections were held. Dbeibah, who heads the GNU that is based in Tripoli in the west, refused to do so. Both sides then dug their heels in and, in a situation that the Libyan people know all too well, left the government divided.
In February 2022, the HoR unilaterally named Fathi Bashagha, a former interior minister (and, ironically, a former opponent of Haftar) as prime minister. In response, Dbeibah and his allies announced that they had no intention of leaving office, with Dbeibah saying that he would “accept no new transitional phase or parallel authority,” and that the actions of the Tobruk faction were “another attempt to enter Tripoli by force.” He added that he would only hand over power to an elected government. Hence, even though the GNU remains the internationally-recognized government of Libya, the country once again has, in essence, two rival governments.
The UN’s Failed Efforts at Reconciliation
UN representatives, who had invested much time and effort to try to bring about the December 2021 elections, did not give up hope and so tried to bring the two factions together to iron out their differences and to reschedule elections. In May and June, UN Special Advisor for Libya Stephanie Williams brokered talks in Cairo between the two sides on the new constitution. Although there was agreement on 137 of the proposed articles, the two sides could not agree on the remaining articles, which dealt in part with the sequence of presidential and parliamentary elections, eligibility criteria for candidates, the composition and seating of the parliament and senate, and issues related to the decentralization of government.
After the Cairo talks failed, Williams invited representatives from the two sides to Geneva in late June, but the effort also failed to achieve any breakthroughs.
After the Cairo talks failed, Williams invited representatives from the two sides to Geneva in late June, but the effort also failed to achieve any breakthroughs. The talks were attended by Speaker of the HoR Aqilah Saleh and by Chairman of the Tripoli-based High Council of State Khalid al-Mishri. Williams said afterward that while the two sides had agreed on the role and powers of a future president, parliament, and government, they were unable to bridge other differences, such as eligibility criteria for political candidates.
Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and was a major oil producer prior to the upheavals of 2011. But the divisions and violence that have since wracked the country have left this lucrative industry with more than its share of disruptions. Many of the country’s oil facilities are located in territory controlled by Haftar and his allies in the HoR, providing this side of the Libyan dispute with a serious advantage. In April 2022, protestors blockaded several major ports and oil fields in Libya, causing production to fall from an average of 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2021 to less than half that amount. It is likely that these protests were orchestrated by Haftar and his supporters in order to deny oil revenues to the Dbeibah-led government, especially since many of the protestors were calling on Dbeibah to resign.
In mid-July, Dbeibah replaced the head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, Mustafa Sanalla, with Farhat Bengdara, a former governor of the Central Bank of Libya. Some analysts believed the move was designed to appease Haftar. Soon after—and not coincidentally—Libyan oil production rose to 1.2 million bpd, the same level achieved in 2021. Although the Dbeibah-led government has said that it wants to raise production to between 2 and 2.5 million bpd within five years, these higher production figures will be difficult to reach as long as instability, political uncertainty, and extortion schemes remain part of the Libyan landscape.
Given the ongoing global energy crisis stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the sharp drop in Libyan oil production this past spring caught the attention of world powers, including the United States.
Given the ongoing global energy crisis stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the sharp drop in Libyan oil production this past spring caught the attention of world powers, including the United States. In April, the US Embassy in Libya issued a statement condemning the oil shutdown, stating that it not only deprived the country of substantial revenue, but that it was also “contributing to increasing prices.” The embassy insisted that, “Responsible Libyan leaders must recognize that the shutdown harms Libyans throughout the country and has repercussions across the global economy.” The statement went on to suggest the creation of a temporary monitoring mechanism to bring transparency to the expenditure of Libyan oil revenues in order to “prevent the diversion of funds for partisan political purposes.”
While no political figures were named, the US embassy statement was likely aimed chiefly at Haftar for instigating the protests that disrupted oil production, with the veiled threat that the US could disregard its current position of neutrality and instead lean more heavily toward Tripoli, especially now that higher oil prices have caused a spike in inflation worldwide. But the message may have also been directed to both sides of the Libyan divide, as corruption appears to be rampant throughout the country. Prominent Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui told the press that there is “kleptocracy and systemic corruption in the east as in the west, as the fancy cars and villas of the elite constantly remind the public.” And Harchaoui went on to accuse militias from both sides of carrying out large-scale fuel trafficking.
Public Frustrations Boil Over
Public frustrations mounted in the aftermath of the failed talks in Cairo and Geneva. In early July, protestors stormed the HoR legislature in Tobruk and set it on fire. Protests also broke out in other Libyan cities, including the capital city of Tripoli. Demonstrators were not only angry about the failure of the political factions to come to an agreement to hold elections, but also about constant electricity shortages and the rising cost of food and fuel.
According to data from a World Food Program survey in August and September 2021, 37 percent of households in Tobruk had “inadequate food consumption.” The food crisis stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only made this situation worse. Prior to the invasion, Libya had been importing 54 percent of its wheat, 62 percent of its barley, and 69 percent of its maize and corn from Russia and Ukraine. In addition, the shortage of imported wheat has exacerbated suffering already caused by drought, the civil war, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The severe cutback in oil production in April also adversely impacted electricity output, which is especially problematic during the hot summer months when cooling is desperately needed.
The severe cutback in oil production in April adversely impacted electricity output, which is especially problematic during the hot summer months when cooling is desperately needed.
The political impasse, food shortages, high prices, and persistent reports of corruption have all made ordinary Libyan citizens increasingly angry at their country’s political class. This discontent was recently documented in a New York Times article focusing on the Libyan town of Tarhouna, which has suffered severely from militia violence over the past several years. One town resident charged that “everyone on the [political] scene only looks out for their own interests. They don’t even see Libya.” In other words, the political class seeks only political power and economic gain while the rest of the country suffers.
Machinations by Outside Powers
Not only does Libya continue to be plagued by militia groups and violence—on July 22, for example, fighting broke out in Tripoli between militias allied with the country’s two political factions, leaving 16 dead and at least 50 wounded—but it still hosts foreign military forces as well. All of these foreign forces were meant to leave the country under previous international agreements, but they still remain. Turkey, for example, is still sending both its own military officers and Syrian mercenaries to the country in support of the Tripoli government, while Russia’s Wagner Group, a military contractor, is still assisting Haftar’s forces. The longer such foreign forces remain in the country, the harder it will be to bring about national elections, as each side may still believe that such forces enhance their military capabilities, thereby disincentivizing the act of seeking a negotiated settlement.
One recent development of some note is Turkey’s attempt to cultivate ties with the faction in eastern Libya. In early August, Ankara invited HoR Speaker Aqilah Saleh to Turkey to meet with his counterpart, Turkish Speaker of Parliament Mustafa Şentop, as well as with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Why Turkey chose to extend this invitation is the subject of some speculation, especially since it has long sided with the rival government in Tripoli, and since Turkey’s military role has been crucial in beating back Haftar’s forces. One possible explanation is that Turkey does not want to burn its bridges with eastern Libya—where much of the country’s oil production remains—should a Libyan unity government somehow be achieved. Another theory is that Turkey may want Saleh and other prominent politicians to endorse the decision that Ankara had reached with the previous government in Tripoli agreeing to Turkey’s expanded territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean—though there is no indication that Saleh is inclined to do so.
The UN effort in Libya is currently in flux. On August 1, Stephanie Williams resigned from her position as UN Special Advisor to the country, and there has so far been no agreement on her replacement.
Meanwhile, the UN effort in Libya is currently in flux. On August 1, Williams resigned from her position as UN Special Advisor to the country, and there has so far been no agreement on her replacement. Russia, much to the consternation of other countries on the UN Security Council, agreed to only a three-month extension of the UN mission to Libya, claiming that it does not make sense to enact a year-long mandate when there is no appointed envoy. The real reason behind this move may be that Russia does not want a replacement envoy to come from a western country. During Security Council deliberations, Russia’s delegate accused his “western colleagues” of engaging in “neocolonialist thinking,” and of trying to “impose their script on the country’s future.”
The Need for a Reinvigorated International Response
While political factions in Libya continue to dig their heels in and while some international players continue to pursue their own agendas, the Libyan people continue to suffer. Even though the political process has been frustrating to many earnest diplomats, there needs to be a renewed push by the international community to compel the two opposing sides in Libya to come to an agreement on the remaining articles of the constitution and to set a new timetable for elections. Elections will not be the cure-all for Libya’s ills, but they are what most Libyan citizens appear to want, as they hope that the truly national government that would come out of such elections would address Libya’s myriad problems, including the country’s militias, which must be reined in and disbanded. To be sure, this will not be an easy task; but the present situation is not tenable in the long term, and the last thing that the Libyan people need is a renewal of the civil war, which will surely come if the political situation is not resolved.
Aside from such humanitarian concerns, it is also in the international community’s interest to bring stability to Libya. Doing so would undoubtedly boost Libyan oil production, providing Europe with additional energy resources to help make up the difference as it reduces its dependence on Russia and to reduce fuel costs and inflationary pressures around the world. All foreign governments that wield influence over Libya’s political factions must exert even more effort to compel each side to reach a compromise. Ideally, the UN should play this role. But with the present global situation making the UN Security Council essentially a non-cooperative body, it is up to the individual countries involved in the Libyan situation to step up their efforts to reach a conclusion to this long and bloody conflict and to the current political stalemate.