By Mohammed Cherkaoui

This paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict: fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy.


Detractors of the UN Mediation in Libya

With the open-ended cycle of violence, death toll, and civilian suffering in Libya, new questions arise now about the claim of pragmatism of intervention.

Whether the United Nations can, at this point, avoid more civilian fatalities, provide humanitarian assistance for millions of internally-displaced persons and refugees, or guide any mechanism of peaceful transition into stability in Libya, and other those failed states like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

What would be the minimum expectation from the world organization now?

There might be some alternative approaches to what I term a good-enough paradigm of conflict management, whereas affected civilians and concerned public opinion hope for effective frameworks of conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Back in January 2018, Salamé explained how the complexity of the Libyan crisis pivoted around a conflict over resources in his remarks to the Security Council.

He then reiterated his UNSMIL team’s commitment to three fundamental objectives: a) adopting a new constitution as a permanent legal framework, b) reformulating a Libyan national polity, and c) holding general elections while more than two million Libyans have put their names on the electoral register.

As I wrote previously, “the majority of Libyans feel less enthusiastic and believe the current deadlock is too strong to make any real political overtures.

The only political momentum in Libya at present is the United Nations’ search for a new impetus among rival centers of power, including the militias. However, leaders of political and military rival groups are reluctant to engage in the UN process or to commit to any final decision”.

The UN diplomacy seems to be undergoing a period of fatigue. It has apparently exhausted its energy in searching for efficient formulas of conflict transformation, not to insist on full-fledged conflict resolution.

The UN literature asserts, “When an effective mediation process is hampered, other efforts may be required to contain the conflict or to mitigate the human suffering, but there should be constant efforts to remain engaged so as to identify and seize possible windows of opportunity for mediation in the future.”

So far, six UN envoys have experimented with a variety of mediation techniques and combined their institutional guidelines with their personal touch in managing the Libyan conflict.

Any revision of these approaches should take into consideration four main challenges.

1. Fragmented Legitimacy

As mentioned in the introduction, two battles over legitimacy, or two legitimation crises, have spoiled Libyan politics and UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another.

Habermas conceptualizes legitimation crisis as “an identity crisis that results from a loss of confidence in administrative institutions, which occurs despite the fact that they still retain legal authority by which to govern.”

a. First Battle – Why HoR?

I joined the UN Panel of Experts on Libya less than three months after holding the general elections of June 25, 2014, which gave birth to the House of Representatives in Tobruq, and later the first government in Bayda led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani.

The turnout was very low at 18 percent, while most candidates ran as independents. Nationalist and liberal factions gained momentum by securing the majority of seats, whereas the Islamist groups’ representation shrunk to around 30 seats.

There was common interpretation of this electoral outcome that the Islamist forces faced “a devastating loss at the ballot box, and now face a genuine existential threat.”

The ballot results triggered several reactions nationally and internationally. The majority of Libyans, the new parliament, and the international community, would expect the Islamists “to accept the will of the Libya people expressed through the ballot box, and to refrain from using unorthodox tactics, such as using armed militias to influence the political process.”

The United Nations swiftly recognized the HoR as “the only legitimately elected legislature.” Then-UN envoy Tarek Mitri attended its inaugural session in Tobruq August 4, 2014; and later expressed some regret in his report to the Security Council.

He wrote, “Many efforts, including ours, to arrive at an agreement over procedural and related issues failed to ensure full participation of all elected members. A number of representatives decided to boycott the sessions.

Underlining the importance of safeguarding Libya’s fragile transition, with the House of Representatives as the only legitimately elected legislature, we affirmed that every effort must be exerted towards enabling parliamentarians, who boycott the House of Representatives, to join their colleagues.”

However, the political elite of the west and their Misrata fighters’ supporters, with links to Operation Dawn, did not accept the emergence of HoR as Libya’s new legislative assembly in lieu of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC).

A new war of narratives erupted between the two political camps, and the conflict over the constitutionality of HoR became a wider legal battle before the Supreme Court.

Throughout the summer of 2014, the gap deepened between the two de facto parliaments and rival governments over political legitimacy and control of the country’s vast energy reserves.

In ancient Greece, Aristotle argued the legitimacy of the government relied upon constitutionalism and consent; but also posited that political stability relied upon the legitimacy of rewards.

In early November 2014, the Supreme Court invalidated the election of the HoR, and stated that the Election Law Committee “had violated Libya’s provisional constitution.”

The Court verdict led to celebrations in the streets of Tripoli, as it meant the no-constitutionality of HoR in Tobruq. Nouri Abusahmain, then-head of GNC told reporters “we the General National Congress call for dialogue.

A dialogue serves national reconciliation, stability and development.” However, HoR rejected the Court’s decision arguing it was made “at gunpoint” , with the court being controlled by armed militias.

The UNSMIL team was taken by surprise, and the zest of its reaction was “an urgent need for all parties to forge consensus on political arrangements”.

Consequently, the Tripoli-Tobruq political rivalry and emergence of Haftar, as the ‘strong man’ of the east, have had negative impact on the UN mediation efforts.

b. Second Battle – Why GNA?

A second reconstructed legitimacy emerged between November 2014 and October 2015.

The UN mediation focused on multi-track, cross-elite, cross-tribe negotiations held in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Bernardino León, then-head of UNSMIL, engaged in some shuttle diplomacy between HoR and GNC around a compromise prime minister Faiez Serraj.

By mid-October, he secured the initial acceptance of both sides of a revised version of a framework of power sharing.

The diplomatic breakthrough was celebrated October 17 in Morocco by signing the new Libyan Political Agreement. 

The new agreement established a nine-member Presidency Council and a seventeen-member interim Government of National Accord, with the ambition of holding new elections within two years [October 2015-October 2017].

It also maintained the continuity of HoR as a legislature and advisory body, to be known as the ‘High Council of State’. This shift represented the best possible scenario of national unity and positive engagement of several stakeholders.

As the Agreement introduction reads, “Members from all these three legislative bodies made very important contributions to the dialogue process and to the conclusion of this agreement. Other independent stakeholders participated as well.

The armed groups, municipal councils, political parties, tribal leaders, and women’s organizations contributed to other elements of the dialogue to promote a genuine and stable reconciliation.”

The Security Council announced its support of the Government of National Accord as “the sole legitimate government of Libya”, and stressed, “a Government of National Accord that should be based in the capital Tripoli is urgently needed to provide Libya with the means to maintain governance, promote stability and economic development.” 

In the following two years, the military open-ended Karama (Dignity) operation, led by General Haftar, has scaled back the diplomatic hopes of the United Nations.

The battle over legitimacy is not only political Tobruq and Tripoli; but, also entails the complexity of the military-civilian relations in the country.

Haftar is one good example of how certain military figures tend to flex their muscles in the field, intimidate the political will of Prime Minister Serraj, and impose their fait accompli at every turn of the negotiating process.  By mid-December 2017, He declared the Skhirat agreement “void”. So far, Haftar’s intention is “to seize, rather than share, power can come as no surprise.”

Several factors have solidified these disputing constructs of legitimacy: electoral legitimacy, international legitimacy, military legitimacy, and others.

The International Crisis Group has noticed, “While international rifts and competing regional ambitions remain an overarching conflict driver, locally, interlocking competing narratives of political and military legitimacy, a battle for power, tribal rifts and recriminations, and a deeply polarized media are making the war even more intractable.”


Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.


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