Oussama Romdhani

It took a failed attempt by Bashagha to force his way into Tripoli last month to draw international attention to the Libyan crisis after it had been dwarfed by the Ukraine war.

Once again Libya finds itself in the middle of a political impasse. Two governments, one in Tripoli and the other in Sirte, with rival prime ministers, are competing for legitimacy as well as domestic and foreign support.

The latest showdown started in February when the Tobruk-based parliament designated former interior minister Fathi Bashagha as a new premier in place of the interim prime minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah. The latter was supposed to serve until the December 2021 presidential election, which was aborted, but he eventually vowed not to relinquish power except to an elected government.

It took a failed attempt by Bashagha to force his way into Tripoli last month to draw international attention to the Libyan crisis after it had been dwarfed by the Ukraine war.

The spotlight also returned to the role of militias as different armed factions smuggled Bashagha into Tripoli and eventually escorted him out.

Ensuing clashes sparked fears of renewed civil war and wariness over the response from Bashagha’s allies, in particular, the parliamentary speaker Aguila Saleh and eastern army commander Khalifa Haftar.

Because of a dispute over payments, tribal elements associated with Haftar had already shut down oil fields. This led the country to losing billions of dollars in revenues at a time of soaring energy prices.

The selfish motivations of politicians have deepened the cynicism of Libyans and their sense of powerlessness, which was rooted in decades of disenfranchisement under Muammar Gadhafi and unbridled interference by foreign powers since 2011.

The role, real and imaginary, attributed to outside powers has added to the sense of confusion gripping most Libyans. Rumours and conspiracy theories have only amplified the perception that the fate of their country is not in their hands and that much depended instead on outside agendas. 

Unfortunately for Libya, outside interference is all too real and cannot be dismissed as a figment of the popular imagination.

Libyans have brought some of that interference upon themselves. Rival factions in the east and west have always found it convenient to look for support from foreign powers.

Considering the history of foreign meddling, there is no escaping the conclusion that the solution to the conflict might require international consensus and pragmatic prioritisation. The sense of ambivalence amongst international stakeholders will only delay any serious settlement dynamic.

The building of a consensus could be helped by Washington’s seeming re-engagement, even if unpredictable international developments could make it temporary or limited in focus.

Another potentially helpful factor could be the regional trend towards de-escalation and reconciliation.

Turkey, which has unquestionably played a key role in Libya, politically, economically and militarily, has edged closer to its former rivals, including Arab Gulf countries and Egypt. Furthermore, Ankara is now more involved in Syria and Iraq and worried about the impact of the Ukraine war on its interests within NATO, the EU and in connection to the US.

But, more than ever, there might be a need for a reset of the UN-sponsored political process, which had already failed the test of holding elections on time last year. The UN continues to navigate Libyan waters without a clear endgame.

Stephanie Williams, the UN secretary-general’s special advisor, convened joint talks in Cairo last month, attended by delegates from the House of Representatives and the State Council, which focused on reviewing “the 2017 Constitutional Draft”.

A new meeting is scheduled in June with the hope of finalising the agreement on the constitutional text before elections can take place.

The problem is that agreement on the constitutional draft and its subsequent submission to a referendum are open-ended objectives that have distracted attention from addressing the more immediate risks from the rift between Dbeibah and Bashagha.

Consensus on a constitutional framework is a theoretical prerequisite for orderly elections. But it is also a prerequisite that Libya might not be able to afford right now, considering the country’s other pressing needs. The constitutional framework could be left to the next parliament to handle.

A more urgent task is to reach consensus on the type of elections to be held. Many hope that holding legislative elections first could give birth to unified state institutions, including a parliament and an interim government and reactivate the constitutional court. Prioritising the much more sensitive presidential elections would mean delaying any ballot for a long time.

Consensus will hinge on assuaging the fears of critics in the east, who see the parliamentary priority as an Islamist ploy to irrevocably cancel presidential elections.

Elections in Libya unavoidably exacerbate tensions. It happened after the 2014 ballot and again before the scheduled vote of December 2021.

Elections cannot easily gain traction on top of the moving sands of Libya’s current zero-sum politics. The country might ultimately need a clean slate of figures who can restore the trust of the public in their political elite.

For now, the focus should be on pragmatically seizing the moment and cutting the endgame to a manageable size.

The mood at home could be propitious. Despite all the fears about the two contending prime ministers sparking civil war anew, there is a growing realisation in Libya that any military solution has become virtually impossible.

Regional and international powers are tired of sterile war by proxy. The Libyan population is exhausted by years of hardship and blocked settlement prospects. They wonder what has taken politicians so long.

Despite regional and tribal differences, Libya is not traversed by insurmountable partisan or sectarian cleavages and certainly has the resources to start anew; if only spoilers just stand out of the way.


Oussama Romdhani is the chief editor of the Arab Weekly.


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