Hafed Al-Ghwell

Last week, enraged Libyans took to the streets in cities across the country in the most raucous demonstration of public anger since the fall of the Qaddafi regime more than a decade ago.

In the eastern city of Tobruk, where the North African country’s rogue parliament is located, protesters broke into the building and set fire to parts of it. They were relatively unimpeded because the armed forces deployed there simply withdrew.

In the west, demonstrators gathered at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli demanding action to end to chronic fuel shortages and frequent, 18-hour-long blackouts, while also calling for the resignation of all politicians and new elections, and criticizing militias for the role they have played in propping up a failed system of two rival governments.

Smaller protests took place in other major cities, calling for similar interventions and demanding the government adjust its priorities away from politicking to instead delivering on its promises to address the persistent ills that are hobbling the oil-rich country’s emergence from a veritable “lost decade.”

Granted, Libya has been no stranger to groundswells of public angst since the toppling of Qaddafi’s regime in 2011 after a 42-year reign, given the bitter tensions among the political rivals vying for control of the country.

Many protests tragically descended into bloodshed and sporadic skirmishes between the groups of armed actors crisscrossing the beleaguered country, discouraging average Libyans from seeking redress for their much-publicized woes.

This most recent wave of protests appears different, however, with many observers and experts wondering whether Libya is on the cusp of another generational upheaval similar to the 2011 uprisings that plunged the country into its current mess.

One notable observation during the breach of the parliament was an apparent union between staunch Qaddafi loyalists, wielding their customary green flags, and some of the former leader’s fiercest critics who were demanding, in unison, that the ruling elites address the country’s catastrophic living conditions.

Between the Aguila Saleh-led House of Representatives, the High State Council headed by Khaled Al-Mishri, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity, the House of Representatives’ parallel Government of National Stability led by former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, Haftar family militia rule in the east, and Mohammed Al-Menfi’s Presidency Council, the Libyan public is simply fed up.

The Libyan people are fed up — and rightly so. It would behoove intervening actors to pay attention.

The House of Representatives, for instance, was last elected in 2014 and earned international recognition as the legitimate law-making body in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, which was supposed to last for only 18 months during a political transition.

However, many critics now decry its expired mandate and lack of legitimacy, suitability and urgency in representing Libya’s disaffected population, alleging further that the Tobruk-based parliament has become a mere tool to push an agenda concocted by an uncanny alliance of Khalifa Haftar and Saleh in the service of foreign actors.

In addition, the High State Council also lacks legitimacy. After 10 years in office with nothing but failures to show for it, the notion that it represents any degree of public legitimacy is a farce.

Similarly, the three-man Presidency Council — despite its lofty title and the well-intentioned inclusion of representatives from Libya’s three main regions — remains powerless and relegated to playing a miniscule role in the country’ complex political landscape.

Meanwhile, the two parallel governments, born from drawn-out talks in far-off lands to settle persistent squabbles among Libyan politicians, are facing their own crises. Dbeibah refuses to leave his post as prime minister despite the Government of National Unity’s expired mandate.

Bashagha’s rival government might have the backing of the House of Representatives but it has no control over any state institutions. Meanwhile, much of Libya remains so politically divided that even the most enterprising external actors have resisted lending their support to this new authority, fearing a breakdown in the — still mostly intact — October 2020 ceasefire and a return to hostilities.

To the average Libyan — forced to endure the brunt of needless intransigence, a self-serving and corrupt political system and endless stalemates — the makeup of these makeshift political institutions and the extent to which key actors control them has always been irrelevant, even more so now.

The appointment of the transitional authority last year injected some fresh optimism for the prospect of a long-awaited turnaround in the run-up to a decisive election and the appointment of a unified government that could begin to tackle the issues that keep most Libyans up at night, such as healthcare, the rising cost of food, fuel shortages and prolonged blackouts, to name but a few.

The announcement of new political road maps, or the impassioned dissection of the intricacies and nuances of complex constitution-drafting processes presided over by the illegitimate bodies themselves, do nothing to address Libya’s woes or dislodge the power structures governing a divided land.

Neither will endless coverage of the mudslinging between rival east/west factions.
Contrary to well-regarded assessments of the situation in the country, the realities on the ground are vastly different from top-level perceptions that give too much credence to the corrupt politicians, with envoys glad-handing political elites and praising them for merely being willing to engage in the process — but not necessarily to act in ways that represent the best interests and will of ordinary Libyans.

This grave disconnect has only grown in recent years, during which those entrusted with helping to bring about a permanent solution, such as the UN, have been content with the mere appearance of progress rather than making an effort to actually achieve and maintain it.

For years, most of the diplomatic and mediation efforts in Libya have consistently been monopolized by the nebulous idea of holding national elections. This is followed closely by an irrational belief that once the polls close and results are tabulated, the country will miraculously transform into a nascent democracy, complete with an effective system of governance and established political institutions.

However, this view deliberately ignores the underlying, well-documented fragilities that would prevent elections from ever taking place securely, competently and legitimately. Even the legal basis upon which those elections would be held and governed is under serious threat.

With the failure of the Geneva negotiations and the departure next month of Stephanie Williams, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on Libya, it is unlikely elections will held for at least two or three years, dooming Libya to yet another period of uncertainty and strife, worsened by soaring food prices and a looming global recession expected at the end of this year.

It is therefore no mystery why a plurality of Libyans have taken to the streets and will likely do so again and again, this time unencumbered by demographic, political or other differences, nor a fear of violent reprisals from armed actors.

They will speak with a united voice demanding an end to the illegitimate bodies that the international community still insists on putting in charge of Libya’s future, and to the endless squabbles and posturing by out-of-touch, utterly corrupt self-appointed elites and wanna-be politicians and their symbiotes who thrive amid the bitter divisions.

It is premature to hype this month’s protests as a sign of the resurgence of the Arab Spring in Libya but the tenor of these latest demonstrations should not be discounted or dismissed as a mere spasm that is emblematic of a troubled political landscape.

The Libyan people are fed up — and rightly so. It would behoove intervening actors to pay attention.


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


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