Libyans could be forgiven for feeling an uneasy sense of déjà vu in recent months. Last year many had hoped the country was finally moving on from a long struggle between rival authorities. But the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, or GNU, that was established in 2021 as part of the United Nations-led political process has been challenged since March by a rival government appointed through a disputed parliamentary vote.
Earlier this month the head of that parallel authority, Fathi Bashaga, sparked militia clashes when he tried to install himself in the capital, before ultimately being forced to leave.
The episode recalled how Bashaga’s current ally, Khalifa Haftar, a septuagenarian military commander based in eastern Libya, launched an unsuccessful offensive to wrest control of Tripoli in 2019, triggering a war that drew in foreign intervention and mercenaries on both sides.
That Bashaga was then a key figure in the effort to thwart Haftar’s offensive is a reminder of how often alliances shift in Libya.
The current political standoff has had economic repercussions that also summon bitter memories. In April, Haftar loyalists returned to the disruptive tactics they had previously used to gain political leverage when they instigated the shutdown of vital oil facilities. The continuing blockade has slashed production in the hydrocarbon-dependent country.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In October 2020, a cease-fire was agreed after Haftar’s Tripoli campaign collapsed in the face of a Turkish military intervention to prop up the internationally recognized government.
The agreement allowed for a dialogue process that subsequently produced the GNU. The interim government was then tasked with preparing the country for elections—both parliamentary and, for the first time in Libyan history, presidential—that were scheduled for Dec. 24, 2021.
That more than 2.8 million people, out of a population of just under 7 million, registered to vote was an unequivocal sign that Libyans wanted a clean slate after years of war dating back to 2014. But disagreements over voting laws—including whether post-Gadhafi Libya was ready for a presidential system—and the list of eligible candidates led the electoral commission to postpone the December ballot, thus bringing the U.N.-driven political process to a standstill.
Since December, the GNU’s leader and Libya’s prime minister, Abdulhamid Dabaiba, has insisted that under the terms of the political agreement that established the GNU, he is only supposed to hand over power to a government elected through a national ballot.
Meanwhile Bashaga claims that the GNU’s mandate expired the day the aborted election was due to take place. His Cabinet, which calls itself the Government of National Stability, or GNS, has the support of both Haftar and Aguila Saleh—the speaker of the House of Representatives, a highly dysfunctional body that was elected in 2014.
While the terms of the U.N.-brokered political roadmap are being contested, a key element of the cease-fire deal also appears in jeopardy.
In early April, Haftar’s representatives to the so-called 5+5 Joint Military Commission, or JMC, declared they were suspending their participation in the commission and called for the closure of oil ports and flights between eastern and western Libya. Though the commission recently met at a conference in Spain, fissures remain.
The JMC—a product of the 2020 cease-fire that was supposed to unify the country’s armed forces and oversee the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries—had previously been lauded by diplomats as a rare success story.
That more than 2.8 million people, out of a population of just under 7 million, registered to vote was an unequivocal sign that Libyans want a clean slate after years of war dating back to 2014.
As tensions rise between the GNU and the GNS, the U.N. is trying to cobble together enough consensus to allow for elections this year. Representatives of the House of Representatives, or HoR, and another body known as the High Council of State—which is more aligned with Dabaiba’s GNU—have been taking part in U.N.-mediated talks in Cairo, but with few signs of any substantial breakthrough. Moreover, critics have questioned the viability of this process, given Egypt’s political and military support for Haftar since 2014.
The situation is not helped by the fact that the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, known as UNSMIL, has been undermined by divisions at the U.N. Security Council. Russia has long backed Haftar, as has the United Arab Emirates, both of which currently sit on the council.
The support mission has had to make do with short-term technical rollovers of its mandate, with a long-term renewal blocked by disagreements among council members over mandate length, mission restructuring and the appointment of its leadership.
All the parties involved in Libya’s power struggles see opportunities in this weakening of the support mission.
Meanwhile, the fallout over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created additional arenas of competition for Libya’s rival factions. In April, Dabaiba—whose GNU still represents the country at the U.N.—made Libya the only country in the Middle East and North Africa to vote in favor of Moscow’s suspension from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Bashaga has also tried to win international support for his rival government by claiming to Western diplomats that he can reduce Russia’s footprint in Libya, though many are skeptical. After all, his ally Haftar remains dependent on Russian forces, including Wagner mercenaries, which are embedded in several of his bases.
There are even fears that as the war in Ukraine grinds on, Moscow could use Wagner to stir up trouble in Libya, creating more challenges for NATO on its southern rim.
In a revealing incident earlier this month, the Times of London published an op-ed under Bashaga’s name in which he declared he wanted to “stand with Britain against Russian aggression.” But the following day, Bashaga denied having written the article, prompting speculation that the Haftar camp had pressured him to disavow it.
The coming month could prove auspicious for two reasons. First, some Libyan factions argue that the U.N. roadmap expires in full in late June, meaning that Dabaiba and his government will lose whatever legitimacy they claim from that framework.
Fresh challenges to his GNU could involve military escalation, even if Libya’s belligerents and their foreign sponsors currently show little appetite for a return to conflict. Second, U.N. special adviser Stephanie Williams—who as acting special envoy oversaw the process that birthed the GNU—is set to leave her post at the end of June. A vacuum in U.N. mediation efforts would carry many risks.
Getting Libya back on a steady transitional path will not be easy. But it should start with a new unity government and a roadmap that prioritizes legislative elections, leaving the contentious question of whether the country should adopt a presidential system for another day.
To get to such an agreement, a new U.N. special envoy who transcends divisions both in the Security Council and within the Libyan political landscape could breathe new life into what has become a moribund process. But that’s a tall order under current circumstances.
Mary Fitzgerald is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.