Can the UN’s new plan for Libya overcome the ‘chicken or egg’ paradox?
Libya is once again in the headlines, following a recently announced plan by the UN’s special envoy to the North African country, Abdoulaye Bathily, to re-energize the stalled political process and bring to a decisive end a decade-long, extremely turbulent transitional period.
Incumbent elites have repeatedly resisted attempts to reach an accord as it would be tantamount to relinquishing their monopolies on power, wealth, the use of force, and the ability to leverage foreign interference to further their narrow interests. In addition, the leading actors want to avoid any accountability from any potential transitional justice initiatives.
This staunch defense of the status quo serves only to promote the antithesis of what most Libyans, and the global community, hope to achieve through a free, fair and credible election process.
Bathily’s plan to hold elections this year was well-received, save for some apprehensive voices lamenting its lack of implementability, and the whiff of a woefully familiar insistence on the ballot being some kind of cure-all for Libya’s woes.
The UN has nothing concrete to show for nearly 12 years of mediation but now, for the first time in a long while, experts are hopeful that this latest gamble might just turn things around for good. After all, without such ambitious plans — which hint at introducing an alternative path from the existing corrupt institutions, buoyed by a rare international cohesion and shared understanding of the need for elections — a Libya adrift will likely result in renewed conflict.
Heavily armed actors have had time to gather their forces, ingratiate themselves with enterprising external meddlers and consolidate gains from the brief scuffles between the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity and the eastern coalition led by Khalifa Haftar.
Meanwhile, with neighboring Tunisia also undergoing unprecedented crises, sparking a surge in north-bound migration, a return to armed conflict in Libya would have devastating implications for the sub-region, as well as the Central Mediterranean region, and must be avoided at all costs — which probably explains the rare convergence of support for Bathily’s plan.
But what exactly is this proposal that is being hailed as a promising first step? Bathily wants to convene an electoral steering committee of up to 40 members drawn from across Libya’s sociopolitical scene. This would include civil society, activists, community leaders, and even prominent figures among the current political elites.
Such a diverse group would be empowered to lay the groundwork for, and map a path to, elections. The process would require settling squabbles over the constitutional basis for electoral laws, security planning, logistics, and dispute resolution.
It is a plan eerily similar to the 2021 road map that resulted in the once highly-touted Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which eventually collapsed due to corruption, coercion, intimidation and malign influences, robbing Libya its previous best hope for stabilizing its transition.
For some reason, Bathily’s plan is light on such details, which observers find concerning not only for the glaring vulnerabilities this reveals in its implementability but also for the lack of a credible plan for what will happen after Libyans cast their ballots. They should not only be fully cognizant of what they are voting for; they should also be aware how the resulting government will act, thereby granting it both legitimacy and a much-needed decisive mandate.
Insisting on elections that are credible enough to confer impeachable legitimacy requires existing good governance, which Libya desperately lacks.
Unfortunately, as successive UN special envoys have discovered, Libya is trapped in a strange “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” paradox that would confound even the most hardened elder statesmen. Insisting on elections that are credible enough to confer impeachable legitimacy will require existing good governance, which Libya desperately lacks.
That level of technocratic competence can only be preceded by a well-established electoral regime, constitutionally empowered to welcome a plurality and diversity of candidates to campaign unhindered. It would also cultivate trust in its processes and results, which is key to staging peaceful transitions of power.
However, Libya lacks that, too, due in part to a ruling elite that is not keen on the idea of potentially relinquishing its power to newly elected representatives, or being stripped of ill-gotten gains in transitional justice proceedings.
As a result, even if the international community glad-hands Bathily’s encouraging proposals, average Libyans remain, for the most part, unconvinced because the plans do not resolve the paradox or provide a suitable road map for dealing with it in an appropriate time frame.
Thus, the prevailing sentiment among the public is a familiar sense of despair as once-promising aspirations quickly give way, yet again, to nihilism and indignation. In Libya, repeating the same process many times over and expecting a different result has only left a beleaguered public feeling resigned in the face of feuding elites, because the alternative is a peace imposed by the force of arms.
So, what will happen next? Provided Bathily manages to leverage international support and can shepherd the next iteration of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, elections could, technically, take place this year. That will depend on whether deeply involved actors such as Egypt and Turkey follow up on their diplomatic assurances with actual action by pressuring their Libyan proxies to take a seat at the negotiating table.
Next, the UN Security Council would also need to do more than just issue statements or draft impotent resolutions. Elections are not easy even at the best of times and all the harder in a country ravaged by conflict, political divisions and crisscrossed by competing external interests. If this “new” plan is to succeed in seating the next government, as well as sparking the restoration of functional state institutions after years of neglect or usurpation, it will need a more involved Security Council that is not distracted by geopolitical tensions elsewhere.
A key challenge, among several others, is of course security. It is still unclear how Bathily hopes to steer a political process in a bifurcated country where the east and south are controlled by a hostile coalition made up of thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries, including the infamous Wagner mercenary group.
In addition, for controversial figures such as Haftar and Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, as much as the ballot is a threat, it also offers a relatively bloodless alternative to state capture, provided they can influence electoral outcomes either during closed-door deliberations by Bathily’s proposed high electoral steering panel, or by endlessly litigating its resolutions.
Worse, they could also resort to ballot-stuffing, voter intimidation and unattributed attacks on voting locations, all to create dubious pretexts for contesting election results after the forceful disenfranchisement of Libyans in areas they control.
For now, it can only be hoped that whatever manner of elections transpire will restore some stability and, more importantly, grant legitimacy to a unified executive authority, and not produce another dictator who will dismiss any constitutional basis for future elections.
Setting aside the shaky foundations of Bathily’s plans, reenergizing Libya’s stalled transition in this way will at least restore some momentum in the parallel tracks aimed at fixing the country’s security architecture, finalizing a constitution-drafting process, and initiating a national reconciliation underpinned by robust transitional justice.
• 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.