Libya — no new momentum in stalled aspirations
After a decade of do-nothing governments, parallel authorities, failed external interventions and sporadic armed convulsions, the recent appointment of the UN secretary-general’s eighth special representative for Libya is shaping up to be just another iteration of the destructive futility that has been choking the country in the post-Muammar Qaddafi era.
There is little chance that Abdoulaye Bathily, a 75-year-old Senegalese politician and diplomat, will substantially transform the nation’s troubled paradigm in his role as head of the UN Support Mission in Libya. His tenure, like those of his predecessors, will consist mostly of repeating the same, tired playbook of putting the cart before the horse: Insisting on elections when Libya is inundated by an array of intransigent actors responsible for the North African country’s myriad political, economic and security challenges.
It is tempting to rekindle optimism based on the appointment of a new special envoy without objection in a Security Council dogged by interminable squabbling, mirroring a deeply fragmented global landscape. However, even after Libya’s highly anticipated first post-civil war elections in July 2012, which were meant to provide a foundation for a legitimate government, the country soon descended into a disturbing pattern of short, sharp civil wars followed by protracted peace efforts that renewed tensions and, eventually, led to fresh outbreaks of violence.
The last round of national elections, in 2014, and the UN-anointed succession of Tripoli-based transitional governments beginning in 2015 have now enshrined a frustrating dynamic whereby opportunistic rival authorities vie for legitimacy, power, influence, territory and ever-larger shares of Libya’s oil wealth.
Between then and now, nothing has fundamentally changed. Merely facilitating diplomatic tete-a-tetes and relearning what is already well known and exhaustively studied, only to wind up proposing ineffectual “inclusive” dialogues between the same individuals and groups that have led the country into this bottomless pit, while ignoring the plight of ordinary Libyans, will only continue to empower malign elements and to derail a long-overdue process.
It might be premature to predict how the tenure of the new UN envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, will play out but so far the signs are not promising.
Parallel authorities in the east and west of the country, combined with a nascent separatist movement in the south, are increasingly resorting to the force of arms in their attempts to settle recent and enduring grievances, including imagined ones. Furthermore, when the fighting subsides, the same faces and shifting alliances emerge, populating an expansive list of rival factions and interests vying for control or seeking to profit from imagined spoils, and complicating Libya’s already tangled mess with huge ramifications in the economic and security spheres.
Unfortunately, there is little appetite for any radical approaches to Libya beyond the same pinball and red carpet diplomacy of a forgotten past, interspersed with a rash of meetings that are less propitious and more pomp and circumstance.
It might be premature to predict how Bathily’s tenure will play out but so far the signs are not promising. At the international level the overall response has atrophied, with three-fifths of the Security Council still over-focused on infeasible, and most likely one-time, elections that will almost surely produce flawed and corrupt results, which will in turn lead to more violence.
Most of the factions in Libya have dutifully welcomed Bathily’s appointment but some key figures have yet to comment on it, suggesting a preference for a taciturn “wait-and-see” approach as they evaluate how the new envoy will navigate a landscape riddled with hurdles and pitfalls.
A Herculean task awaits him after the repeated failures of his predecessors, and he will need to tread a razor-thin tightrope as he tries to strike a balance between the competing ambitions of external actors, while finding common ground among diametrically opposed local actors pushing their own versions of “acceptable” political settlements.
Before Bathily even begins tackling these issues, the Security Council will first need to approve a much-needed restructuring of the UN Support Mission in Libya that goes beyond simply relocating its offices from Geneva to Tripoli. Doing so, however, risks further entangling the UN in Libya’s turbulent political and security environment, which is fueled by increasingly desperate parallel authorities seeking to utilize any perceived advantages, as international patience wanes.
Bathily has until the end of this month to articulate what his approach will be, especially given the significant headwinds he faces, to bridging divisions and corralling rival entities more akin to mafias than political parties toward a tenable solution that can provide long-sought stability, unify the country and reduce the risk of a return to violence.
The options are not great. Either the UN continues pushing for elections through the same old faces or launches a whole new dialogue. Holding polls first could return some legitimacy to Libya’s institutions and boost a floundering constitutional drafting process, laying the groundwork for a unified executive. But the reality is that trying to hold elections in the current environment, and relying on the same spoilers, would only be deleterious and misguided.
At the same time, attempting to hold consultations to merge the UN-backed Government of National Unity and the Fathi Bashagha-led Government of National Stability from the House of Representatives is unlikely to be successful since neither side is even willing to negotiate with the other. The end result is a Catch-22 situation where unification, elections or even a whole new UN-brokered diplomatic track will require securing not only extensive Libyan buy-in but international acquiescence as well, which is impossible because of the extent of the rivalries and the fragmentation at all levels.
The situation almost seems futile but there is still one way the UN might navigate the Libyan quagmire; not necessarily to arrive at some idealistic scenario but at least to move things along and ease the crisis of political power currently casting long shadows over Libya's future. The struggle to control, or at least gain unrestricted access to, Libya’s lucrative oil wealth is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of conflict necessitating an urgent resolution. Both of the rival authorities in the country claim they have the right to control the oil funds that Libya is heavily reliant on to keep its tattered economy running and critical government functions operational.
Should the international community continue to ignore this glaring vulnerability, not only will production cuts designed to starve Tripoli of revenue affect Libya’s energy exports — to the detriment of Europe — it will also have severe socioeconomic repercussions on average Libyans.
Given the strategic importance of these state funds, and the dire need to preempt socioeconomic collapse, an interim mechanism to control access to them and their distribution should be a top priority for the UN.
Just two years ago, a similar mechanism helped halt Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli and in 2021 added fresh momentum to the first real attempt at establishing a unified government. There is no shortage of support for a new interim financial arrangement, known somewhat cumbersomely as the Mechanism for Short-Term Financial, Economic and Energy Dependability. This Washington-backed plan would have oil revenues temporarily held in the National Oil Corporation’s accounts at a Libyan offshore banking institution wholly owned by the country’s central bank.
Funds for public sector salaries, subsidies and safety nets would be made available to the central bank every month, with additional emergency transfers only occurring with the written consent of the National Oil Corporation, the Government of National Unity and the central bank.
Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as it might be, parts of this proposal are vague and lack essential provisions that could go a long way toward alleviating the UN’s burden. For instance, the arrangement could link the unfreezing or disbursement of oil revenues to very specific political objectives and milestones, particularly those pertaining to progress on unification or having productive dialogues on the constitution, as well as elections.
The lack of specificity and the repeated rebuffing of calls to utilize this leverage to resolve Libya’s political and military impasse suggests that this arrangement is borne out of the typical self-interest governing external interventions in Libya. In other words, the newly proposed mechanism only ensures Libya will continue pumping crude, benefiting US allies in Europe, without taking any steps to reduce the risk of repeated armed confrontations as the rivalry between the parallel governments heats up.
In short, Libya’s tragedy will continue, and probably fester, for the foreseeable future.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell