A cancer at the heart of Libya’s re-emergence
After roughly four months of high-level discussions between Libya’s two parliamentary chambers, the House of Representatives and the High Council of State, to determine a constitutional framework for a second attempt at national elections, the Libya file is yet again marked with another failure.
The discussions, held in Egypt and organized by the UN secretary-general’s special adviser Stephanie Williams, have failed to gain consensus on what she called “measures governing the transition period leading to the elections.” The buck was ultimately passed to the leaders of both chambers, Aguila Saleh and Khaled Al-Mishri, to resolve their differences before the tenure of Williams ends.
Ironically, this is not the first time that the UN has gambled on those two bodies to agree on a legal framework for elections — elections that would almost certainly put them out of business. Their total loss of credibility among the population for almost 10 years simply means that none of them will likely be reelected. It is this very fact that makes it almost a farce to think that they would agree to anything remotely resembling an election.
The UN’s continued insistence to count on “negotiations” between these bodies to produce any positive outcomes has become the perfect example of what Einstein described as the very definition of insanity — “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time.”
This latest failure caps a tumultuous post-December phase after Libya’s rogue parliament withdrew its confidence in the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity and formed its own interim authority, the Government of National Stability, headed by Fathi Bashagha, a former interior minister.
In turn, the head of the Government of National Unity, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, refused to hand over authority to the Bashagha government that still has significant support in parts of western Libya. His refusal thus created perceptible splits, allegiances, and alliances across the country, adding new complexities to a seemingly impossible transition phase.
For their part, the UN and a number of Western backers have resisted lending their support to the Bashagha government, opting instead to stick with a flawed, incoherent, and highly inconsistent political process rather than seeking alternative and more practical pathways to ending Libya’s lost decade. Then again, the international community has consistently paid lip service to Libya’s woes, given the record of failed mediations and finger-wagging in Casablanca, Cairo, Paris, Brussels, and even Berlin.
Even after the collapse of the Cairo talks, most of the world’s attention on Libya remains fixed on the sharp decline in the country’s crude output, which fell by nearly 88 percent — roughly 1 million fewer barrels per day — compared to last year.
The Government of National Stability and the Government of National Unity both lack the ability to capably manage Libya’s transition.
This collective indifference fuels a crippling reality in a troubled land in which fewer oil exports are a mere symptom. A decade-long obsession with hard deadlines, empty threats of sanctions against spoilers, open-ended processes, and a revolving door of special envoys has not materially moved the needle toward a permanent resolution of the impasse in Libya. For now, the impasse remains thankfully a political one. The Cairo negotiations only netted agreements on the less divisive two-thirds of the draft constitution’s nearly 200 articles, collapsing on a final third that includes a constitutional basis for elections. Even for less keen-eyed observers, establishing a constitutional framework for a national vote on a yet-to-be-determined date after merely four months of discussions was never a realistic goal from the start.
Similarly, the almost immediate push for a new interim authority after the failed talks will not be a panacea for what ails the Libyan political process. After all, a supposed reunification of its parallel governments fell apart in less than a year, which ought to have dashed any hopes that any new governments of national “something or another” would actually “succeed.”
Take, for instance, the meteoric emergence of the Bashagha movement. It is “different,” since this is the first time the House of Representatives has moved to usurp the UN-backed Libyan Political Dialogue Forum and become a kingmaker in its own right. The Government of National Stability remains very much an iteration of a string of failed governments since 2014. In fact, most actors inside and outside Libya agree that the Government of National Stability and the Government of National Unity both lack the ability to capably manage Libya’s transition and break the cycle of successive interim authorities.
Tragically, with the world’s limited attention span laser-focused on Ukraine, there is little political or diplomatic will to shuffle priorities around to postpone the ballot and deal with the well-known impediments to Libya’s transition. Worse yet, the frustrating complexity of Libya’s political dynamics, now entangled with a convoluted patchwork of external interests and engagement, is that no actor can materially shift the discourse and trajectory of the Libyan process without hampering the pursuit of extremely narrow self-interests. Many have tried and failed over the years; actors, both domestic and foreign, have simply aligned and realigned themselves in accordance with the shifting balance of power in order to pre-empt any changes to the status quo or address the root problems hampering the careful management of a very fragile political process.
Curiously, in such a fragmented land, most actors appear to agree that their common “enemy” is any credible intervention that can reunite Libyans while creating a conducive environment to hold secure and incontestably legitimate national elections. To that end, it is unsurprising that even with a respected, well-known, and demonstrably capable UN special adviser, the Libyan conundrum remains an unsolved mess stuck on the same wheel of repeating past mistakes. The UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, in a briefing to the Security Council warned that the lack of a solution would have a negative security impact. Furthermore, beyond the extreme polarization and the urgent need to resolve this political impasse, prolonged inaction also has significant socioeconomic costs that compound the shared woes among average Libyans stuck between parallel institutions.
For instance, despite elevated prices of crude oil, the war-torn country is losing roughly $80 million a day in oil revenues owing to prolonged shutdowns engineered by the squabbling between East and West, rather than focusing on the reparable maladies typical of Libya’s oil infrastructure. More than a decade of “interventions,” skirmishes, and all-out conflict have failed to significantly nudge Libya toward an acceptable settlement any better than the bifurcated intransigent mess we see today. There is plenty of blame to be apportioned, not least because of a decade of internal mudslinging and the clash of interests among opportunistic external actors seeking to create Libya’s political future.
However, the worst “cancer” afflicting Libya is a trifecta of how its eternal roadmaps are not pragmatic, designed by the least credible architects, and as a result, no interventions, highly publicized “inclusive” plans, unilateralism, or negotiated outcomes can feasibly transform the country’s festering quagmire.
Instead, a revolving door has welcomed promising actors clothed in idealism only to be decimated by a woeful reality that the grandest ambitions have failed to undo, leading to their receding into an establishment antithetical to Libya’s democratization or even simply some form of credible stability.
• 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 a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.