Libyan politicians have moved with salutary speed in 2021 to reunify their divided country. With UN help, the new government should hasten to clear two last hurdles: establishing a legal framework for elections and clarity about who holds supreme command of the armed forces.
So far, the Council has made no high-level military appointments and issued no decrees that parliamentarians would find controversial.
Foreign countries’ representatives are well aware of, but for now largely ignoring, the supreme commander problem. European diplomats appear to be turning a blind eye to it.
Neighbouring Egypt, which trained Haftar-led forces and hosted negotiations aimed at reunifying the Libyan military in 2017-2019, also appears keen to bury the issue. U.S. officials seem to have aligned themselves with this group.
They insist that the military’s reunification and reorganisation, which would be the supreme commander’s prerogative, should wait until after the elections, and that there is therefore no urgency to resolving this legal ambiguity now.
It appears that these countries have intentionally pressed the pause button on the armed forces’ reunification because they do not want to rock the boat. Only a popularly elected government would be able to make the necessary hard decisions to reunify and reform the military, they argue.
Dabaiba and the Presidency Council appear to be following the same line of thought. They, too, seem to want to kick the can down the road on most military-related decisions, especially whom to appoint as general armed forces commander, a position held by Haftar but deemed vacant by both the incoming Dabaiba and outgoing Tripoli-based governments.
They are also delaying a firm (and potentially controversial) decision on the departure of foreign military forces and private military contractors. Resolving these issues will require further consensus building and a good degree of high-level international support.
The tendency to procrastinate is understandable, given the sensitivity of the question of whom should be appointed general armed forces commander.
Some of Haftar’s foreign backers might be keen to keep him at the helm of the east-based military coalition until a suitable alternative candidate emerges.
But Dabaiba’s and foreign powers’ hesitation to tackle the reorganisation question could come to seem short-sighted should elections be delayed or tensions between foreign powers resume, prompting them to revert to fuelling a proxy war in Libya, or violence break out in a neighbouring country, potentially requiring the deployment of Libyan military forces along the border.
Despite Libya’s turn away from conflict and launch of a political process with real potential to bring a measure of stability, big challenges loom.
Overcoming problems related to the election roadmap and the supreme armed forces commander position – intrinsically political issues despite their more formalistic legal appearance – are critical to reunifying a country that remains deeply divided politically, militarily and geographically.
Dabaiba and lawmakers should, with UN support, prioritise removing these stumbling blocks, which could impede progress toward elections in late 2021 and military reunification down the line, and thus cut short the transition.
The prime minister’s first step should be to call on politicians, especially members of parliament, the High State Council and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, to reach consensus on the electoral roadmap and speed up approval of a legal framework for elections. The election question is understandably contentious, with implications for Libya’s state structure and division of power.
Disputes over constitutional rules and election sequencing have long overshadowed the country’s politics and transition. Given strongly held and diverse views, it is unlikely that a final decision will make everyone happy.
Still, the Forum enjoys a degree of political and popular support and is representative to a degree unprecedented for some years among Libyan institutions; it is unlikely that another body will be better positioned any time soon to resolve the issue in a way that enjoys more support.
Political groups, foreign stakeholders and the UN special envoy should signal that they support the Forum, in particular its legal committee, in its effort to draft a detailed proposal on the election framework.
Should the legal committee continue to fail to reach consensus, one way out of the deadlock would be to request the different factions within the committee (divided over whether they support the referendum on the draft constitution first, or parliamentary elections, or both parliamentary and presidential elections) to lay out proposals reflecting their preferences and then allow the Forum’s 74 members to vote.
They could vote in more than one round if necessary (should there be more than one proposal, for example) in order to achieve a majority for one option.
If and when that milestone is achieved, the House of Representatives should ratify the agreed electoral roadmap and pass the necessary electoral legislation.
This process would, in essence, replicate what the Forum’s advisory committee did in January. Then, it resolved arguably equally contentious questions about selecting new leaders by proposing a complex but successful voting procedure that led to a winner on the basis of a 50 per cent plus one vote in favour by Forum members.
In the present circumstances, only this bold procedure stands a chance of pushing things forward, but it would require the full buy-in of politicians, the government, the UN and foreign stakeholders. The UN envoy himself should help mediate in order to nudge delegates toward an agreement rather than just facilitating a meeting.
A second priority should be for parliament to ratify the UN-backed roadmap approved by the Forum. The government and Presidency Council should help by liaising with parliamentarians, supported by the UN and foreign stakeholders.
To avoid legal controversies that could undermine the objective of reunifying Libya’s divided military, parliament should make explicit what is now only implicit by endorsing a document that confers the title of supreme commander of the Libyan armed forces on the Presidency Council.
If it fails to do so, one group or another may cite the two contradictory legal frameworks to resist or undermine military reunification once the present political honeymoon ends.
Some Tripoli-based politicians oppose the roadmap’s formal ratification, claiming that forcing parliament to formally recognise the Presidency Council as the supreme commander could trigger unnecessary controversy and even fighting between rival coalitions, which they assume Haftar-led forces would trigger; for this reason, they prefer to maintain a state of convenient ambiguity.
But such views seem unnecessarily alarmist, as the Haftar camp, weakened by its defeat in Tripoli, is unlikely to mobilise against ratification of an agreement that it appears to have already tacitly accepted.
Addressing the ambiguity thus makes sense. A Presidency Council member said in mid-April that he remained unclear as to whether the head of parliament recognised the Council as supreme commander, cautioning against forcing parliament to proceed with ratification.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the lack of clarity could backfire and therefore urged ratification of a document that would unequivocally outline the government’s and Presidency Council’s respective competencies.
Resolving the legal problem of this designation would be a first step toward addressing the many other practical challenges that are preventing an effective reunification.
The appointment of an interim unity government in Libya and its endorsement by the House of Representatives are historic achievements for a country that was embroiled in a deadly war between rival governments and military coalitions, each with foreign backers, less than a year ago.
For now, a return to active conflict in Libya appears unlikely, but whether calm will prevail depends in large part on whether the new interim government is able to follow the transition roadmap and whether external actors continue to support it in doing so.
Much could go wrong. A first step toward moving the process forward and avoiding the pitfalls that have beleaguered Libya in the past would be to set the transition roadmap on solid and unambiguous legal grounds. Libyans deserve this measure of certainty and their politicians should deliver it.