Hafed Al-Ghwell

It has been more than a decade since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, yet post-civil war Libya remains a foggy mess, shackled to woeful uncertainty as different factions remain at bitter odds with one another on how to move the country forward.

Intractable squabbles, a self-serving political class, threats of violence, and intense rivalries have become standard fare in Libya’s dynamics, casting long shadows over what should have been fairly straightforward transition processes.

Last year’s inevitable debacle led to the indefinite postponement of milestone parliamentary and presidential elections, representing another failure in the UN’s decade-long efforts to resolve the political chaos in the country. The resulting malaise has only served to create fresh grounds for the two main political camps in the North African country to intensify their squabbling about their visions for what a post-conflict Libya should look like and who will govern it.

One camp, the eastern-based House of Representatives, Libya’s so-called parliament, in an effort to preempt the appointment of a new temporary government is seeking to install its own interim authority, and then work on a constitution before holding elections sometime after next year.

On the other side we have the UN-recognized Government of National Unity, which has rejected the House of Representatives’ newly chosen government and wants to hold parliamentary elections as soon as June this year, before tending to the creation of the constitution and holding presidential polls.

Setting aside the question of which strategy is “best,” these new fissures risk unleashing fresh tremors across Libya, undoing months of painstaking efforts to merge a bifurcated government, unify the military and jumpstart a war-ravaged economy that continues to grapple with the effects of COVID-19.

It also complicates the calculus for foreign actors with a stake in Libya’s transition processes, including the UN. So far, the UN continues to be adamant about the need to hold elections sooner rather than later, deeming it “very reasonable and possible” for nearly 3 million registered voters to cast their ballots by this summer in, at least, a parliamentary election.

Curiously, rather than issuing a forceful rebuke, the UN only expressed “concerns” about the House of Representatives’ March 1 confidence vote on a new 39-person interim government succeeding the UN-backed GNU. For now, this has been sufficient to discourage other countries, with the exception of Russia, from welcoming the new government. For both Libyans and the wider world, however, sustained support for or against UN-facilitated processes is still up for debate.

There is a strong rationale for propping up the interim Government of National Unity’s continued guidance of the transition process while a ceasefire holds. On the other hand, the widely reported corruption within the current government, along with more than a decade of repeated failures and persistently fragile processes, have created an undeniable pretext for some actors to support any kind of new authority that may or may not be based on a popular consensus.

Fortunately, despite the fact that both sides are aligned with heavily-armed loyalists and enjoy broad support from far-off powers with extraterritorial interests in Libya, there is very little appetite for a return to conflict merely over political squabbles. In addition, most external actors are averse to underwriting new skirmishes, and so are resorting to soft-power tactics and manned fortifications rather than the pursuit of maximalist ambitions through the illiberal use of firepower.

Nonetheless, risks remain that deeper crises could further cripple Libya the longer this political schism between the east and west of the country remains unresolved, which could potentially undo the unsteady equilibrium between foreign-backed armed factions and lead to a total partition of the country.

The last thing Libya and the wider region need is another muddled, open-ended process and the laying of a new track that promises to heal old wounds while opening up new ones.

In a landscape fraught with hazardous choices and a potentially bleak future in which neither side is willing to yield, seeking a way forward in a consensual, inclusive way is a no-brainer. Ironically, the feverish bid to avoid negotiated outcomes among Libya’s corrupt political elites has simply created a perfect storm that can only be resolved through compromise.

There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to the dilemma du jour of whether to hold elections before approving a constitution or vice versa, necessitating that both sides abandon a “winner-takes-all” mentality and take the first, important steps toward a sustainable resolution. Nevertheless, holding parliamentary elections by June this year is both very feasible and also carries a much lower risk of a winner-take-all result. However, a very long road lies ahead of that and attitudes are hardening on both sides.

Just last week, the UN held a consultative meeting in Tunis with Libya’s High Council of State to resolve the intractable malaise now plaguing the country’s transition. There was one notable absence: The House of Representatives was invited but seems currently to be promoting its own vision of holding a constitutional referendum before elections and is refusing to negotiate alternative paths.

On the surface, this stance appears to carry some water since any election will need a solid constitutional basis to legitimize the results and bind candidates to the outcome. However, the House of Representatives’ road map betrays an intent — and long record of doing so — to shackle Libya to open-ended, politically divisive and legally unsound transition processes that will neither deliver on a constitution nor lead to decisive elections, giving it an excuse to remain in power.

Into this road map lawmakers have slipped ambiguous and questionable conditions for the approval of the draft 2017 constitution and holding elections, such as charting imaginary regional boundaries and calling for the “reconstitution” of the High National Elections Commission. The specific details of the delineation of regional boundaries or the exact rules by which the High National Elections Commission will be reconstituted are either unclear or omitted.

Meanwhile, the Constitution Drafting Assembly, which was elected in 2014, has yet to reconvene since the drafting and approval of a constitution in 2017, and some of its members are opposed to the House of Representatives’ proposals.

In addition, the parliament’s plans offer no timelines, nor do they propose any alternatives should some of what they envision fail to materialize, as has happened many times before. In place of concrete details are vaguely worded provisions, including working with the High Council of State to draft a temporary constitutional framework and election laws despite the fact that the two bodies are diametrically opposed on just about everything.

Both sides continue to engage in activities and make proposals designed to undermine each other’s agendas or subvert their opposition’s influence in the transition process.

There is very little chance that either side will subordinate themselves to the will of desperate Libyans who want to cast their votes and decisively end a years-long shambolic episode — unless there is a massive public revolt.

Instead, what we have today is merely a continuation of a sustained campaign by Libya’s ruling elite to frustrate or overcomplicate political processes already designed to cater to their interests far more than to the aspirations of average citizens.

Sadly, the UN seems to lend this self-serving agenda credibility by legitimizing it with UN-speak press releases, meetings and never-ending consultations, instead of calling things what they are, holding these characters responsible for their actions and keeping the organization’s repeated promises that it will seek sanctions on those who are actively spoiling the prospects for elections.

It is no surprise that some Libyans and foreign observers are denouncing the maneuvering and plans of all those involved, which are designed to preserve the status quo rather than as good faith attempts at moving a stalled political process forward.

The last thing Libya and the wider region need is another muddled, open-ended process and the laying of a new track that promises to heal old wounds while opening up new ones.


Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.


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