Libyan legislative leaders quit talks in Geneva on a constitution and elections without reaching a deal on Thursday, pausing diplomacy to resolve a standoff that has imperilled a two-year peace process.
The talks between the House of Representatives and High State Council legislative bodies were aimed at agreeing a constitutional basis and interim arrangements for elections that were originally scheduled for December 2021.
Many Libyans fear that a failure to set a path to elections and resolve an existing dispute about control of an interim government will thrust the country back towards territorial division or conflict.
Since the planned December election was abandoned, Libya’s rival factions have moved to a standoff over control of government with both sides backed by different armed forces.
U.N. Libya adviser Stephanie Williams said that while they had made progress in agreeing the role and powers of a future president, parliament and government, they were not able to bridge other differences.
“Disagreement persists on the eligibility requirements for the candidates in the first presidential elections,” she said, adding that she would make recommendations on alternative ways forward.
Disputes over the eligibility of several controversial candidates were the trigger for the collapse of December’s election.
The House of Representatives in March appointed Fathi Bashagha to take over as prime minister, but Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah who was installed in the role through a U.N.-backed process last year has refused to step down.
Clashes have sporadically broken out in Tripoli between factions that back either camp, with Bashagha having twice failed to enter the capital in the face of armed opposition by groups tied to Dbeibah.
Meanwhile, parallel efforts to resolve disputes over access to state oil revenues are fraying, with the eastern branch of the central bank warning it could start printing its own money again and groups in the east blockading oil facilities.
Analysts expect Bashagha to make another attempt to take over in Tripoli by reshuffling his government and giving more cabinet positions to allies of armed faction leaders in the capital.
Some of the armed forces in Tripoli and western areas would likely still oppose any move by Bashagha to take power because his government is backed by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, who mounted a 14-month offensive against them from 2019-20.
With Dbeibah also contemplating a reshuffle to keep powerful factional allies on board, there is an increasing number of possible causes for conflict, said Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui.
“Officially nobody wants to fight. But the sheer number of sources of contention is growing,” he said.
The U.S. Libya ambassador Richard Norland on Wednesday told Reuters that it would be possible to go ahead with an election even if the stalemate between Dbeibah and Bashagha was not resolved and different forces controlled different regions.
He said that if factions could agree on a joint committee to agree spending priorities and oversee transparent arrangements to manage and distribute oil revenue, then it could function as a pseudo government until elections.
However, analysts fear that getting rival factions to resolve disputes over corruption and spending that have festered for years would be very difficult and the involvement of foreign powers could cause further complications.
“It may well disrupt the current fragile equilibrium much more than the initiative’s U.S. sponsors anticipate,” said Harchaoui.
Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Toby Chopra and Jonathan Oatis, William Maclean
How the UN failed Libya
In the decade since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, Libya has had two civil wars, and seen worsening living conditions and increased foreign interference. The UN has sponsored numerous discussions, dialogues, panels and other peace initiatives that have been increasingly ineffective.
Its latest efforts focused on holding presidential and parliamentary elections that were meant to take place by the end of last year, believing that this was the only way to resolve the country’s tumultuous political transition.
However, as long as militias control vast territories and rival factions view elections as a zero-sum game, it is impossible to ensure that they are free and fair or that the results will be respected. With no elections in sight, the provisional government’s legitimacy has been weakened, and eastern forces have set up a rival government headed by Fathi Bashagha.
In the aftermath of the first civil war, militias who were instrumental in toppling Gaddafi became more powerful and the interim government appeared unwilling to curtail their influence. The increased lawlessness resulted in the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in a parliamentary election held in 2014. Meanwhile, General Khalifa Haftar launched a military campaign, called Operation Dignity, against Islamist militias, winning him the support of many eastern tribes, secularists and Gaddafi loyalists.
In response, Islamist movements led by Misrata in north-west Libya, launched Operation Dawn and consolidated control of Tripoli, forcing the newly-elected House of Representatives to flee to Tobruk. Under pressure from Islamist militia groups, the Libyan Constitutional Court ruled in November 2014 that the election was unconstitutional and therefore illegitimate.
The events of 2014 reignited tensions between rival tribes and highlighted the conflict between Islamists and secularists. Libya found itself with two opposing legislative bodies, which accentuated divisions between two of Libya’s historic regions, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Throughout 2015, the UN pursued negotiations in order to create a unified government, known as the Skhirat Agreement.
Not only did the agreement exclude several key actors, but it was also deeply unpopular and left several issues unresolved. The security provisions were vague and failed to specify how militias would be contained and disarmed.
In early 2016 the UN implemented the agreement, despite it not being ratified by the House of Representatives, and recognised the new government in Tripoli as the only legitimate authority. The appointment of Islamist hardliners in the new government and the continued presence of militias, especially those affiliated to Misrata, further disillusioned secularists and tribes in eastern Libya.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE continued to back Haftar and the east in order to fight the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist groups. Turkey and Qatar share the brotherhood’s ideology and have supported the efforts to defeat Haftar.
The UN’s one-sided peace agreement resulted in a political impasse and the conflict turned into a proxy war between regional powers. The second civil war further undermined Libya’s institutions, and forces on both sides have been accused of human rights abuses and war crimes.
While political negotiations were able to resume following Haftar’s failed offensive on Tripoli in 2019, the causes of the civil war have yet to be resolved. The UN’s naive belief that elections will lead to national reconciliation could jeopardise the shred of stability that has been achieved over the past two years.
However, Bashagha’s surprising alliance with the east could be an opportunity to achieve meaningful reforms that could stabilise the country in the long run.
Bashagha is a powerful figure from Misrata, with close ties to other western tribes, and he was also the Interior Minister of the Tripoli-based government. Foreign powers involved do not appear hostile to him and he could be an acceptable compromise for both sides.
With Libya once again torn between two rival governments, the UN should be careful to not repeat the same mistakes as 2015.
Instead of focusing stubbornly on creating a centralised government and holding elections as soon as possible, the UN should focus on limiting the influence of foreign powers and militias, creating a federal state and improving living standards.
Federalism would provide greater autonomy to Libya’s three historical regions and could help mend sectarian divisions. If elections are no longer viewed as a zero-sum game, it would be easier for rival factions to respect the results.
Libya is also a resource-rich country with a relatively small population of just under seven million. Facilitating greater cooperation between the east and west regarding oil production could drastically improve living standards.
Restoring the economy will be the most efficient way to strengthen institutions and ensure stability in the long-run.