European policymakers should look on current protests in Libya as a rare opportunity to push for change in what has long been a stagnant political environment.
On the evening of 1 July 2022, just days after the United Nations’ 18-month timeline for elections in Libya came to an end, the country’s citizens should have been inaugurating a new government. Instead, the parliament building burned while Libyans danced in celebration around it. This is not what the UN’s road map envisioned, but many observers familiar with the plan always suggested that it would go this way.
Of course, the fate of the parliament building serves as a giant, flaming symbol of Libya’s political transition and international policy on the country. Unless things change, the situation will only get worse. Protests are now taking place across the country and these will continue to escalate.
There is a high risk of another conflict, further state collapse, the prolonged closure of Libya’s oilfields, and deeper Russian involvement should Libya return to chaos. Libyans are clearly demanding that the entire political class be replaced with a government that actually governs. And they no longer believe the UN can help them achieve this.
What was once widely regarded as a Libyan-led political process now lacks all credibility.
The crisis is unfolding on the doorstep of a European Union that remains understandably preoccupied with Russia’s war on Ukraine. But, as the cliché goes, never let a good crisis go to waste. European policymakers should approach this as a rare opportunity to push for change in what has long been a stagnant political environment.
If Europeans can help bring about the change Libyans are demanding, they can weaken a major Russian foreign policy interest, stabilise a key energy route between North Africa and Europe, and transform a source of instability into a valuable partner.
Nonetheless, while the protesters have common cause, they do not form a well-organised, cohesive movement capable of creating change by themselves. They represent the patchwork that is Libyan society and a collective outburst of exasperation at the state of their country and its prospects.
Just as symbolic as the burning parliament building was a sign depicting Stephanie Williams, the UN’s Libya envoy, with a red ‘X’ through it – which protesters in Tripoli held up alongside similar images of Libyan political elites. Ironically, this occurred on the same day that other international policymakers on Libya breathed a sigh of relief that she had agreed to stay on in the role for an extra month.
What was once mislabelled as a Libyan-led political process now lacks all credibility. And most Libyans view the traditional mediator of their disputes – the UN – as having helped engineer the disaster they face.
They have also lost faith in every major political figure and institution. This includes military leaders such as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and other militia commanders (who are all highly political despite pretending to only be interested in security).
Some groups initially hoped that Libya’s Presidency Council – which is formally the country’s head of state but, in practice, has often been marginalised – could use a decree to pass an electoral law and establish a constitutional basis for elections. But this idea quickly fizzled out and protesters are planning to engage in civil disobedience and further protests to make their voices heard.
Meanwhile, Libya’s political elites have responded in a comedically predictable fashion. Each major actor – such as the current prime minister, the speaker of the parliament, and Haftar’s spokesman –has shirked their responsibility for the situation, attempted to co-opt the protest movement, and tried to strengthen their grip on power by arguing that only they have the solution to the crisis.
As the increasingly powerful force of public anger collides with the seemingly immovable greed of Libyan elites, it is clear that any solution will require some international support. Given the collapse in the UN’s credibility, countries that already have a presence in Libya – such as France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States – will need to take a more direct role in managing the changes to come.
All this may sound like just one more headache for Western policymakers who are already overwhelmed by the international and domestic challenges they face. However, the protests could be a blessing in disguise. Libya’s collapse has long been problematic for Europe, leading to a series of security crises, destabilising neighbouring states, and generating opportunities for geopolitical rivals to increase their influence in Africa and the Mediterranean.
And many European policymakers have been frustrated with the stubborn destructiveness of Libya’s political leaders. They have long searched for an adequate mechanism to force through reforms in the country. The protests could provide just that.
Moreover, past political processes created many of the tools needed to shape reform in Libya. Policymakers need only use them in a coordinated fashion. To truly move forward, Libya needs:
(a) an electoral law and a constitutional basis for a new set of institutions that can complete the political transition;
(b) a credible security programme to provide gainful employment to Libyan fighters (and thereby discourage them from serving corrupt political figures); and
(c) a financial mechanism that can prevent corruption among Libya’s elites from sabotaging vital reconstruction projects, such as that for the electricity grid.
States with experience in Libya’s security sector and good relations with various militias could coordinate this effort using the security working group of the Berlin process, building on the UN Security Council-recognised Joint Military Committee to create a more capable vehicle for change.
On the economic front, they could improve the functionality of the Mustafeed programme the US recently announced by tying it to elections and allowing more Libyan experts to engage with it. Libya’s international supporters also need to identify a neutral state that could host and help a Libyan expert legal committee to oversee the drafting of the requisite law and constitutional basis.
This state would also help this committee consult with relevant Libyan constituencies to generate public support and a true sense of ownership over the electoral process to come.
Change is coming quickly in Libya. While the burning parliament building may appear to be an ominous sign, it could come to symbolise the end of Libya’s parasitic elites. If the EU is to make this a reality and solve a long-standing challenge in its neighbourhood, it will need to fill the void, pick up the pieces of Libya’s broken processes, and reassemble them in a way that can reform the country and answer the demands of its people.