A Semblance of Compromise Obscures Old and New Rifts
The formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU) under Abdelhamid Dabeiba in March 2021 was a breakthrough in efforts to overcome Libya’s political division. But the settlement’s flaws are already starting to show.
The Foreign Military Presence
The contrast between the semblance of compromise and the facts on the ground is starkest in the continuing presence of foreign forces and mercenaries that back the parties to the most recent civil war.
According to the ceasefire agreement of 23 October 2020, all foreign forces were to leave Libya within three months. Six months after the ceasefire agreement was signed, no such withdrawal is in sight. In fact, Turkey and Russia are continuing to reinforce their presence.
Turkish military flights to al-Wutiya Airbase continue, as does the building of fortifications in central Libya by mercenaries of the Wagner Group, whose activities the Russian government denies but actually controls.
Another key actor is the UAE, which has financed and equipped at least parts of the contingents of Russian, Syrian and Sudanese mercenaries bolstering Haftar. Turkish and Russian footprints are solidifying because both continue to serve as security guarantors for the conflicting parties.
These groups fear that their foreign backers’ departures would alter the balance of power, provoking renewed fighting. The Syrian mercenaries that Turkey has deployed in Libya are largely irrelevant to the balance of forces, but the formal Turkish military presence is crucial.
Turkish officials consistently argue that the ceasefire agreement does not affect their official presence, but more recently, they have started signalling that Turkey is ready to withdraw the Syrians if Haftar’s mercenaries leave the country too.
But for Haftar, whose foreign backers do not acknowledge their role, the Russian mercenaries are vital. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for his Syrian and Sudanese fighters.
In the absence of an alternative foreign security umbrella, a Russian withdrawal would threaten Haftar’s influence in southern and central Libya, and could even provoke the collapse of his power structure.
As with other core issues in the conflict, there is therefore little chance for progress on the matter so long as Haftar remains an indispensable, albeit difficult, partner for his foreign sponsors.
Neither the UAE nor Egypt will want the withdrawal of mercenaries to lead to Haftar’s sudden demise and the eruption of conflicts in eastern Libya. Even beyond the mercenary dilemma, conflicting foreign interests will compound the centrifugal forces within the government.
States that were on opposing sides in the recent war are now trying to woo individual figures in the GNU. So far, Prime Minister Dabeiba has sought to maintain ambivalence in relations with these states.
But as they push for the government to position itself more clearly, they could exacerbate tensions within the GNU – such as between Dabeiba and the Presidency Council, both of whom claim the right to represent Libya internationally.
The Coming Crisis
On paper, the GNU’s role is to prepare the country for the parliamentary and presidential elections planned for 24 December 2021, to usher in Libya’s first unified and democratic government since 2014.
In reality, the GNU’s formation has created a vested interest in the new status quo. Dabeiba’s grand plans for public investments and decentralization leave little doubt that he aims to stay on beyond 2021, just as the clientelist networks in his government will also seek to hold on to power for as long as possible.
This is all the more the case as an LPDF decision prevents GNU members from running in the elections. The conflict of interest is most glaring in the House of Representatives, whose members have just placed their candidates in ministerial positions – and should now prepare these ministers’ exits by adopting a constitutional and legal framework for the elections.
To block such votes, parliamentarians interested in the survival of the Dabeiba government could exploit the continuing dispute over the HoR’s presidency and meeting venue, as well as over the possibility of holding a constitutional referendum.
A plausible scenario therefore is that progress towards the elections could remain elusive, meaning that the Dabeiba government could hold on to power beyond 24 December 2021.
This situation would be bound to trigger a new political crisis even if the government blames the HoR for the delay. Many actors have only accepted the new government due to its limited mandate. Extending it would call the GNU’s legitimacy into question.
The ranks of the government’s opponents, which are set to grow with the upcoming distributive struggles, could then swell dramatically. Renewed political division would be a real possibility.
In view of the significant obstacles to elections, domestic and foreign pressure currently focuses on making sure that the elections take place – but not on creating the conditions for free and fair elections.
For the UN as for Libyan political forces, the elections have become an end in themselves. There is little discussion whether they will help to resolve conflict. Nonetheless, the minimum conditions for successful elections are lacking.
By reunifying military command structures, the GNU was supposed to mitigate the risk that armed groups could manipulate electoral results or refuse to recognize them. But by now, it has become clear that little progress is likely to be made in the security sector.
If the elections happen, they are bound to be accompanied by violence and irregularities in several cities and regions. The situation is most problematic in areas controlled by Haftar, where dissidents face fierce persecution.
Presidential elections harbour particular potential for conflict, since the victory of any candidate affiliated with a party to the conflict would pose an existential threat to that party’s adversaries.
But even in the absence of large-scale escalation, the risk that political forces could challenge, reject and even fight the results would be high.
The stated aim of the UN-led process is to tackle a root cause of the conflict by ensuring fairer and more transparent management of state wealth.
In reality, however, the GNU’s formation has prepared the grounds for intensified looting of the state. This, in essence, is what competing networks have agreed to under the cover of regional and local proportionalism, and to that effect, they have circumvented most substantive issues in the conflict.
The appointment of a prime minister whose name is synonymous with Qadhafi-era corruption epitomizes this understanding. As a basis for a reunified Libya, this settlement could have wide-ranging consequences and shape the political system even after the next elections.
More immediately concerning is the fact that this settlement creates the conditions for renewed conflict, even if the imbalances and losers it produces will take time to surface.
Current European attitudes towards the GNU will not encourage it to temper these tendencies. Europeans are relieved that they can present the GNU’s formation as a success of their diplomacy. They also display a keen interest in the deals Dabeiba dangles in front of them.
Official European policy in support of the elections notwithstanding, some diplomats exhibit a growing preference for the stability they hope Dabeiba could bring.
This is problematic, since Dabeiba’s continuation beyond December 2021 would be very likely to provoke a new political crisis.
It is important to encourage progress towards elections, even if they will bring serious risks under the current conditions. But the elections should not be seen as a mere box-ticking exercise.
Europeans should not only focus on ensuring the passage of a legal framework for the elections. Their attention should shift to the conditions in which the elections will take place, and the actors that could prevent the subsequent peaceful transfer of power.
Dr. Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Africa and Middle East Research Division at SWP.