Libya — a tale of two governments, again
A troubling sense of deja vu has settled over Libya in recent months, following the escalations that capped the failure last year to hold general elections and finally end a senseless struggle between rival governments with self-proclaimed mandates over post-Muammar Qaddafi life in the country.
Since March, the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, which was established in 2021 as part of a UN-led political process, has faced a serious challenge from a rival government based in Sirte, the Government of National Stability, that was appointed through a controversial vote in Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives.
Tensions flared three weeks ago when attempts by the head of that parallel government, Fathi Bashagha, a former interior minister, to enter Tripoli and depose the Government of National Unity sparked clashes between militias.
His gamble was ultimately unsuccessful but the episode was reminiscent of the attempt by Bashagha’s current ally, Khalifa Haftar, a military commander based in the east of the country, to wrest control of Tripoli in 2019 in an effort to derail the transitional processes in the country. It triggered a war that drew a variety of external actors and escalated a competition of interests on both sides, with Bashagha himself emerging as a key figure in the effort to thwart Haftar’s offensive.
Bashagha’s current affiliation with Haftar’s forces and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives is not a strange or surprising occurrence, however. It is a stark reminder of how alliances, affiliations and loyalties governed by shared interests are constantly shifting in Libya.
Nonetheless, the situation inside the North African country has devolved, yet again, into a familiar and untenable state — and that is by design.
Since the unceremonious fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, intransigence, massive corruption and a political impasse have stifled attempts to accelerate what should have been Libya’s seamless embrace of democracy. Partisanship and self-interest quickly overtook reconciliatory efforts that drove the country’s now decade-long, turbulent transitional processes in a deeply fragmented land, replete with tribalism, hyper-localized tensions, and extremely fluid security and sociopolitical dynamics.
Throughout the ensuing political crises, limited skirmishes and even an all-out civil war, Libya appears to have settled on a strange governance equilibrium. Attempts at unity and reconciliation have always crumbled, leaving two competing, parallel authorities safeguarding the interests of elite cabals and their pursuit of internal ambitions, backed by external actors — all at the expense of the war-weary and frustrated Libyan people.
In hindsight, it should have been fairly easy to anticipate Libya’s struggles with transitioning to a nascent democracy, given the unprecedented political, social and economic changes in the post-Qaddafi era. Forty years of centralized authoritarian rule was quickly replaced by a variety of competing actors, factions and rival institutions, armed and unarmed. While that might have brought many of the country’s disparate voices to the fore to enhance its democratization processes, it produced few unifying figures with high profiles that did not derive their legitimacy from localized, tribal or other partisan dynamics.
The end result was further fragmentation at a very inopportune time, the post-Arab Spring phase, which not only fueled the constant shifting of allegiances and loyalties, it also sparked violent conflicts, undermined national reconciliation, fueled massive corruption, and hardened divisive attitudes in both the east and west of the country.
Given recent developments, there is an argument to be made that the Bashagha-led parallel authority does possess a few internal advantages over an increasingly isolated Government of National Unity led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah who, for now, retains authority over the country’s finances via the Libyan Central Bank.
Bashagha’s meteoric rise from member of parliament to interior minister in former Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj’s interim Government of National Accord is mostly due to his mastery of an art of compromise that is severely lacking in Libya's sociopolitical landscape. Over the course of a decade, Bashagha’s willingness to seek trade-offs and negotiate with even the most diametrically opposed factions through discreet channels naturally earned him substantial connections, name-recognition and some influence in western, eastern and central parts of Libya.
Much like in the Charles Dickens novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ this might be the best of times and the worst of times for Libyans.
This penchant for compromise, combined with a favorable stature abroad, also nurtured Bashagha’s national profile, which now rivals other well-known figures in the country and could have turned a three-way race for the presidency between Seif Al-Islam Qaddafi, Haftar and Dbeibah into a four-way affair.
However, it is likely that even Bashagha’s solid credentials, his substantial external backing, a bevy of connections crisscrossing a war-torn land and his ability to work with “the other side” will fail to re-energize the nation’s stalled democratic aspirations. Ironically, the willingness to compromise — a cornerstone of his political maneuvering — will actually do more to preserve the status quo than push Libya toward a much-needed turnaround.In a tragic twist, as prime minister-designate of the Government of National Stability, he is simultaneously, the best, arguably, and the worst option for a transition process belabored by intense rivalries and endless grievances.
The more the Government of National Stability works the middle ground in the name of unity and addressing the plight of millions of Libyans, the more opportunities will be afforded to detractors seeking to derail the country's emergence from its lost decade, and the more Bashagha’s appeal will diminish in the west of the country, where compromise with Haftar is viewed almost universally as an absolute red line that no one should cross.
Overall, the current situation in Libya is almost the worst possible scenario in terms of hopes for conflict resolution and de-escalation. Neither side, east nor west, is capable of overpowering the other to unilaterally drive Libya’s transition process and extend its authority over the rest of the country. Yet both sides are equally convinced of their legitimacy, longevity and imperviousness to any externally engineered solutions, particularly those that do not materially benefit their leadership.
Of course, democratization and political transitions will never be feasible, let alone sustainable, if they simply become one-sided affairs. However, when neither side shares any interest in working with the other to settle long-standing issues or commit to a singular road map, every new development simply becomes an opportunity to undermine a rival and apply a “poison pill” to the transition process.
In other words, there will only be the emergence of even more “Governments of National Somethings,” each confident in its own mandate to oversee Libya’s transition, only to crumble years later having achieved little other than entrenching an all-too-familiar status quo. If it happened before, it will happen again.
And, while Bashagha’s march on Tripoli should have served as a demonstration of intent that things would be different this time around, all it amounted to was a poorly conceived “test” to determine whether the prospect of violence — previously defused by a still partially intact October 2020 ceasefire — remains an effective disincentive to escalation.
Much like in the Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” this might be the best of times and the worst of times for Libyans.
It could be the best of times for them to seek a way forward, having been abandoned to their own devices by a weak and ineffectual UN flustered by no-win scenarios and loss of credibility in the country; an international community that is now distracted by the conflict in eastern Europe; a divided Brussels not keen on sticking to a coherent, unified approach to the Libya quagmire; and a US that is not really interested in doing anything serious in Libya.
Unfortunately, it is simultaneously the worst of times for change in Libya given that those in charge of the transition have no interest or incentive whatsoever in seeing it through.
The lack of any real possibility of success means, sadly, that the only road that remains open for Libya is a downward spiral into further fragmentation and hopelessness.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell