Libya’s political rivals unlikely to budge despite protests
After more than a decade of civil strife, internecine fighting and bitter and often lethal squabbling among various political rivals, which has led to a de facto partition of the country and its constitutional institutions, ordinary Libyans have had enough. Youth-led protests have broken out almost simultaneously in both parts of the country with one goal in common: To bring down the ruling bodies that have kept the oil-rich country of no more than 7 million people divided and in a state of perpetual chaos.
With two governments, one in the capital Tripoli, recognized by the UN, and the other somewhere in the east, where it is supported by the parliament that is based in Tobruk, Libyans have had enough, as the years of political impasse have led to deteriorating living conditions exacerbated by endemic electricity cuts.
Libya’s problems are multifold. The collapse of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 led to a short-lived state of euphoria and raised hopes that the country could finally come together and embrace a democratic path that would enable the people to enjoy a windfall of oil dividends. Libya has the largest oil reserves, at 48 billion barrels, in Africa and is among the top 10 countries globally.
But tribal rivalries, old grievances between Tripoli and Benghazi and foreign interference have fragmented the fragile social structure at almost an atomic level, as mediator and deputy head of the UN Support Mission in Libya for political affairs, Stephanie Williams, said recently. Her efforts to get the two main sides — speaker of the Tobruk parliament Aguila Saleh, whose term and those of the deputies have long since expired, and the chairman of the High Council of State, Khalid Al-Mishri — to agree on a roadmap for holding new elections have so far failed.
This is what triggered the angry protests. The meeting in Geneva was meant to iron out differences over the controversial elections law that derailed last year’s vote a few days before polling day. The reality is that there are at least two factors that have made achieving a consensus impossible.
In the east, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, with backing from some regional countries and Russia, wants to make sure that the election results will clear the way for him to assume power. What he failed to achieve by force, he now wants to secure at the polling booth.
On the other side, an Islamist-backed government headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh refuses to give up power to an unelected government — led by Fathi Bashagha, who has the support of Saleh — until elections are held. Dbeibeh has international recognition but, most importantly, he has so far enjoyed US backing.
While the political process appears to have hit a brick wall, it is the Libyan youth that is now trying to achieve a breakthrough.
In between, there are the tribes that are well armed and have their own political ambitions and loyalties. Haftar and Dbeibeh both want to lead Libya, but there is one wild card that could upset things for both: Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, who wanted to contest last December’s elections and, according to observers, could have emerged as a compromise candidate. He is said to have the support of Libya’s two western neighbors, Tunisia and Algeria, and is a person of interest for Russia.
But Qaddafi is not without rivals from his inner circle, including his cousin Ahmed Qaddaf Al-Dam, who has close ties to Egypt.
While the political process appears to have hit a brick wall, it is the Libyan youth that is now trying to achieve a breakthrough. Sadly, the protests will soon be absorbed by the political elite on both sides of the divide. Already, Dbeibeh has sided with the protesters and blamed the other side for failing to deliver what the Libyan people want, which is a fresh election. Saleh has come out to say that he did not pull out from the Geneva agreement, when in fact he did.
With the US and the Europeans focused on the war in Ukraine and with the deep polarization in the UN Security Council, there is little hope that outside pressure will succeed in bridging the divide any time soon. Personal political ambitions and outside interference will keep both sides apart for now. The young people of Libya will take to the streets, but not for long. At some point, they will be forced to retreat. There is too much at stake for the warlords and tribal heads to reach an agreement.
What Libya needs is a fair and free election if it is to turn a crucial corner, but none of the key stakeholders can guarantee the result. For now, Libya’s upheaval is likely to continue.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.