Libya: Reasonable calm for now, but at what cost?
Since 2012, Libya has experienced multiple failed political transitions, taking a heavy toll on its people. The complex internal divisions and external factors affecting the country have repeatedly threatened to send it into another spiral of crisis and violence. However, recent developments hint at a breakthrough in the decade-long political deadlock. Rival Eastern and Western governments are increasingly leaning toward discrete contacts to quietly develop some “new” compromise palatable to both East and West following the dismissal of Fathi Bashagha by the House of Representatives.
To some, the situation in Libya is seemingly a lot better than it was two years ago when repeated attempts to overrun the capital, Tripoli, featured waves of sporadic violence and needless upheavals. Today, the city appears largely peaceful, and fewer roadblocks impede traffic. In some areas, there are even infrastructure improvements, delivering a sense of relief and hope to average Libyans that the days of street-to-street gun battles are behind them.
However, if you scratch the surface of this “mirage of reasonable calm,” a deep sense of insecurity still grips a traumatized populace. Abductions, forced disappearances and extrajudicial detentions remain frequent, worsened by the consolidation of militias-turned-hybrid actors that source legitimacy from their close ties to the ruling elite. Other constant features of the Libyan crisis, such as miscarriages of justice, abuses of power and corruption, are still rampant, albeit not nearly as visible nor eliciting much public furor.
After all, even if unaccountable elements continue exercising enormous influence on Libyan security dynamics, politics, governance and, increasingly, the economy, most Libyans are just content to witness a relative improvement due to increasing oil and gas revenues now flowing freely in the economy. Besides, unlike neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, which were severely impacted by the knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine, Libya has escaped debilitating food inflation. At the same time, fuel remains subsidized and thus cheap. The familiar anxieties caused by the friction between Libya’s rival governments are only discernible from the diplomats and international organizations that still operate as if they are under siege and only move around with armed guards.
This same faux calm dynamic is also playing out elsewhere in Libya’s other cities and regions, except in Fezzan. The continued marginalization and exploitation of people and resources there has transformed it into an additional “frontline” in a country crisscrossed by rivalries and opportunism, leaving the area vulnerable to transnational criminal networks and violent extremists.
In addition, porous borders with Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan pose genuine security threats, especially from the latter’s ongoing internal conflict that could significantly impact Libya. Finally, the illicit trafficking of arms, persons, and contraband into (and out of) the country via Kufra could benefit the eastern-based Libyan National Army, led by the warlord Khalifa Haftar.
In this strange climate, the UN is still trying to forge ahead and frame up a pathway to elections by the end of the year. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, initially sought to broaden the negotiation process and establish an electoral roadmap with clear timelines, ensuring inclusive, accessible and fair elections. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that these efforts will not address how Libya will sustain a peaceful and just transition once the votes have been tallied and its supposed new leaders are announced. And that’s not all.
Bathily’s “elections-first” plan to help Libya find an exit from its gridlock is still fraught with problems, even though it enjoys broad support from Western capitals. In their view, by holding elections first, Libya will temporarily postpone the messy, dead-end negotiations around the constitution and also side-step the preferred “solution” by Libyan elites to simply elect a new interim authority from within their own ranks.
Alongside any political progress, going to the polls will also be a way to provide all Libyans with incremental peace dividends to ensure their enduring support for the complex negotiations that were put off to facilitate the elections. Moreover, elections allow outsiders to become part of the political process, breaking up the ruling elites’ monopoly on power with the blunt instrument that is the will of the people. Additionally, the “new” structures that form in their wake will help address grievances related to the rule of law, public services delivery, the delegation of authority to subnational bodies, local economic development and, more importantly, the normalizing of security in Libya.
The country is arguably in a more difficult situation then when the force of arms and unrestricted violence was the primary currency for negotiation.
Of course, such an undertaking would require significant investment from the global community to transfer negotiated arrangements into real change for the people. Yet, without a constitutional framework, the powers of the presidency and a future parliament will technically be undefined, creating a dangerous “fix-it-as-you-go” mentality, easily exploitable by enterprising actors or other malign elements that have grown exceedingly comfortable with the status quo.
This is not to say the UN’s efforts are doomed to fail. On the contrary, there is still a possibility to corral all stakeholders — including hardened “survivors” of constantly shifting allegiances and rivalries — to support Libya’s quest for peace, stability and a unified, fully functioning government, without repeating past mistakes. However, the current UN plan still has gaping holes that rival authorities on either side appear eager to exploit, of course, with their own plans.
With Bashagha no longer a useful pawn in the hands of the House of Representatives and Haftar, the latter’s entourage has since broached the subject of a new government. In it, Bashagha’s deputy, Osama Hamad, could become Dbeibah’s deputy prime minister, with full authority on all things “East,” especially finances.
Hamad is a particularly interesting choice because his stint as a finance minister in the Fayez Al-Sarraj government and his role as a former deputy of the eastern government’s finance minister has helped him straddle an uneasy divide. Thus, if some new deal or “unity” government materializes, according to the designs of those involved in the not-so-secret Haftar-Dbeibah discussions, Hamad — who is politically closer to the East than the West — will be right at the center of it.
For now, it is too early to predict where the ever-shifting sands of Libya’s political dynamics will go. Just a year ago, few would have envisaged today’s momentary calm, and fewer still would have believed that Dbeibah and Haftar camps could collude to manipulate the trajectory of Libya’s transition.
Yet, here we are. Whether the back-room deals will result in material changes is still debatable since several thorny issues still need to be solved.
For instance, it is unlikely the military coalitions in western Libya would quietly accept Haftar as the most senior military officer in a combined military. Will they even agree to join the Libyan National Army? Similarly, the head of the eastern parliament does not favor Dbeibah remaining in power, a view supported by rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives, making backtracking on that akin to political suicide.
Meanwhile, the Haftar-Dbeibah end-around is unlikely to garner support from Western capitals and the UN itself, given their stance of: “elections first, everything else after.” That the two factions are talking is reassuring, but the West does not want to see a deal materialize that would again postpone elections. Moreover, to average Libyans, entrusting the country’s future to the Haftar-Dbeibah coalition is unthinkable since it means consolidating power for an indefinite period around two controversial figures with mixed track records. Haftar’s insistence on hand-picking the ministers for defense, interior and foreign affairs in this future government is even more concerning. At the same time, he serves as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, making him the shadow head of state.
In conclusion, Libya is arguably in a more difficult situation then when the force of arms and unrestricted violence was the primary currency for negotiation. It is a frustrating paradox because, on the one hand, Libya is relatively in a better place with little to no violence, oil money flowing freely, and rival factions talking. However, the status quo remains unchallenged, shutting everyone else out and freezing Libya in place.
On the other hand, if the international community has its way and elections go ahead, their inevitable violent aftermath will upset the “reasonable calm” mirage currently lulling Libyans (and other stakeholders) with a false sense of stability.
Why rock the boat when the state of affairs seems “better” than ever?
• 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.