It is indeed promising that in less than a month Libya’s new interim Government of National Unity (GNU) claims to have united about 80 percent of critical state institutions from the executive authority itself to the legislature, central bank, energy and various other ministries.
This initial progress delivers some measure of confidence in the GNU’s ambitious plans for the remaining months of its mandate, which expires at the end of this year with elections on Dec. 24 elections. However, uniting state institutions was low-hanging fruit. Numerous challenges remain, even as a new constitution and electoral laws are being drafted under the auspices of the temporary transition authority.
The biggest hurdle, and perhaps the first test of whether the GNU will be able to achieve much of its agenda, is whether the various, often warring, stakeholders will agree to a draft constitution to replace an over-amended Constitutional Declaration from almost a decade ago. What Libya needs now is a permanent constitution, one that enjoys broad public support and can quickly establish an interim constitutional basis for the December elections.
Unfortunately, the last meeting of the 17-member constitutional committee was deadlocked on the approval of a proposed election law, out of an abundance of caution and perhaps an acknowledgment of the challenging road that lies ahead. Failure to arrive at an agreement before the year-end election simply means another interim government will be appointed until a constitution is drafted, endorsed, adopted and approved in a referendum.
Beyond holding the promised December elections, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s government has pledged to improve the living conditions of Libyans who are exhausted by years of political division, economic hardship, the pandemic, corruption, the lack of public services, crumbling infrastructure and a decimated healthcare system.
International assistance and donor aid will only go so far in reversing more than a decade of decline and disrepair. Besides, the lack of a properly unified government will only complicate the accessibility and delivery of critical public services to some of Libya’s most vulnerable.
These failures result in communities grudgingly welcoming armed groups such as local militias, or even hosting foreign fighters and mercenaries, in pursuit of some measure of security or stability. This is why a single, unified and functional government is crucial to delivering on the promise of improved living conditions, which in turn will address some of Libya’s pressing challenges with regard to internal security, criminal justice and post-war reconstruction.
However, uniting governments accustomed to operating separately for over five years is no easy feat, despite GNU claims. Unification entails audits, restructuring and reforms to modes of operating, not to mentions massive debts incurred by the two previous governments, all of which will undoubtedly face stiff resistance, especially when it comes to accounting for each government’s expenditures.
Officials are unlikely to be forthcoming in their responses to inquiries, refusing to participate in any initiatives to curb the impunity they enjoyed in an environment lacking accountability and transparency, and rife with corruption. It is not sufficient to simply paper over malfeasance, waste and corruption with talk of unity, especially when bloated bureaucracies consistently steal a third of the state budget annually.
An urgent test for the Dbeibah Cabinet is the resolution of the feud between Mustafa Sanala, chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), and Sadiq Al-Kabir, the central bank governor. Oil remains the lifeblood of Libya’s economy and primary key to its prosperity, which makes the ownership and distribution of oil revenues a major source of contention.
The advent of the interim government and rush to unity has not stopped the dispute between NOC and the central bank, with Sanala demanding that oil revenues flow directly to the NOC and not the central bank, given the latter’s checkered past of paying salaries to a wide range of militias.
It remains to be seen whether Dbeibah’s strategy of appointing an oil minister, a position that did not exist under the previous government, will actually work. It may simply introduce yet another element to the NOC-central bank rivalry, since oil revenues will now be paid to the new ministry, under the sole discretion and responsibility of the GNU.
Assuming the temporary government succeeds in controlling the revenues, it could accelerate reforms, invest in much-needed infrastructure and revitalize parts of Libya still ravaged by years of fighting.
Unfortunately, the interim government will find it difficult to equitably distribute funding in parts of the country still disconnected by roadblocks manned by heavily armed militias. Disarming them before December is simply not feasible.
The new government has yet to signal how it plans to continue operating, let alone hold elections while thousands of well armed, well funded non-state actors remain active.
Granted, it is too soon for the new government to tip its hand and give the militias that reject his overtures time to entrench themselves. However, Dec. 24 will decisively put an end to the era of militias, which imperils polling security and the integrity of the elections.
Furthermore, while the GNU enjoys domestic, regional and international support, the previous Government of National Accord (GNA) depended on these militias for its own security and survival.
Their contributions to defending Tripoli against Khalifa Haftar’s offensive from the east have also netted some of them even more funding and power, which means any attempt to neutralize them will be risky and foolhardy, and will only create far worse challenges for the GNU or any other governing entity afterwards.
In addition, dealing with local armed actors is one thing, but when it comes to expelling more than 20,000 mercenaries from Chad, Sudan, Syria, Turkey and Russia, the bar is far too high for a government meant to last for only nine months.
Meanwhile, the presence of these foreign troops continues to impugn Libya’s sovereignty and imperil its national security. Worse yet, the military commission established to deal with Libya’s security situation in tandem with talks to settle its governance crisis has more or less given up, punting the onerous task of seeking their removal on to the UN.
The commission is still struggling to unite Libya’s two main “armies” and there are growing concerns that Haftar may be having doubts about his initial support for the GNU. Armed groups loyal to him are still scattered over large swaths of Libya and if he changes his tune, as he has many times before, and tries to retake control of most of Libya, it could jeopardize the GNU’s progress and derail the whole UN plan to stabilize Libya.
It is therefore unsurprising that while Haftar holds no official position in the temporary government, the UN Special Envoy, Ján Kubiš, has visited him in the spirit of securing the cooperation of Libya’s various warring factions in adhering to and facilitating the planned December elections.
For now, we can only celebrate what little progress is being made, in the hope that it is all building up to a major turning point for Libya. It should not be lost on the Libyan government, however, that turning yesterday’s enemies into today’s neighbors is easier said than done.
National reconciliation will not be achieved in a couple of months after a decade of bitter fighting, injustice, dehumanization and forced displacement. If the goal of elections by year end is to be achieved, the temporary government could do well by dispensing with unrelated ambitions that are impossible to achieve in less than 260 days.
Despite all the optimism, Libya’s future is still in serious doubt.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.