Libyans have always had a proud sense of exceptionalism. Despite attempts to compare Libya to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and even uprisings from France to Russia, their own revolution has long retained this sense of exceptionalism, too. Today, however, over eleven years later, the dust has settled upon a much more mundanely tyrannical new world.
A parasitic and beligerant ruling class
The story of Libyan politics today is one of a population desperate to rid itself of a parasitic nouveau elite class before they hollow out the country through corruption and reshape Libyan society in their own grotesquely venal image. The elites and the media machines they wield speak on length about Libya’s divisions between east and west, islamists and secularists, democrats and militarists. But to broach the messages of this elite is to uncover a profound commonality unfurling throughout Libya. A population once divided by communities and geography is now being united by the struggle for normality.
Libya is a country that is spoken of as wealthy yet it’s a land where Libyans often have to trade their dignity for cash withdrawals, while spiralling inflation is pushing the honest into poverty and driving the youth towards criminality with its promise of obscene wealth. Beyond the fatigue and despair, the strongest common cause of the Libyan people eleven years after the revolution is a deep disgust for those who have claimed authority and used it for nothing other than gluttonously satisfying their immediate self-interest.
The stubborn venality of Libya’s nouveau elite has been starker than ever this year. Since uniting to sabotage hopes of national elections in full view of the 2.8 million Libyans who registered for them, they have resumed a petty scrap for political dominance. The veiled justifications employed by prime ministers, parliaments and field marshals for their latest machinations have become so thin that their shamefully naked ambition is on full display before the nation they purport to lead; a reality they are perilously refused to acknowledge.
Ironically, all have tried to exploit the disappointment over the lack of elections to mobilise support for their attempts at political consolidation, which may have been successful were they not so overtly cynical. And that is not where Libya’s political irony ends.
Two different governments, same corruption
Libya’s sitting parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), reduced to an anti-democratic body where only a curated selection of MPs are retained to validate the whims of its speaker, Aguileh Saleh, and leverage their representation of Libyan sovereignty to validate Egyptian foreign policy, has played protagonist. Claiming, with some validity, that the legitimacy of the sitting Government of National Unity (GNU) had expired along with its failure to hold elections and that the GNU’s appalling corruption created an imperative to replace them, they moved to appoint a new Prime Minister. This could have been a popular move had the HoR retained even the slightest sense of propriety and due process in executing it.
Instead, a process that was so flagrantly manipulated it could make President Donald Trump blush was contrived to elect a pre-selected Prime Minister, Fathi Bashagha, and then impose a government upon him and Libya that was cooked up in a session of lunchtime horse trading in Saleh’s sitting room and supplemented by demands from the Haftar family to control key ministerial portfolios. It was an affair that did not escape the attention of the Libyan people.
As such, Fathi Bashagha — a tragic character who spent ten years building revolutionary credentials only to publicly trade them for an authority so limited he couldn’t even select his own government — thought he was becoming a Prime Minister but instead only became what is colloquially referred to as a “useful idiot”. However, he was not even Saleh and Haftar’s useful idiot as originally intended, but that of his rival Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, Prime Minister of the GNU. Bashagha had been appointed in such a flagrantly corrupt manner and came accompanied by such a shocking cabinet (which includes a representative of Libya’s largest smuggling family assuming the role of Minister of Interior) that he immediately lost all credibility and viability. A onetime hero of Tripoli was unable to even return to Libya’s capital: when he attempted to do so, he was quickly hounded out.
However, Dbeibah performed his role as antagonist with no less a sense of irony or incompetence. In his panic to see off Bashagha he threatened MPs, shut down Libya’s airspace, and rebuffed any notion he could be the lesser of two evils by paying hundreds of millions to militias to side with him over Bashagha.
Meanwhile his own familial corruption has gained such notoriety that quips like being unable to buy a packet of cigarettes without giving to Dbeibah a cut have become commonplace. The public works he promised, such as new infrastructure and repairs to the electricity grid, have become mired in corruption and could well drive a domestic resistance against him once prolonged power cuts resume amidst what is forecast to be a sweltering summer. These arrogant missteps mean that Dbeibah’s cunning plan to stir popular protests against the HoR as a precursor to staggered parliamentary elections could very well be him forging the weapon of his own demise. Protests have indeed started and spread far and wide but, unnoticed by Dbeibah, their main target is corruption and no one’s corruption is more infamous than his.
Will history repeat itself?
For such an internationalised conflict, the impact of international policy on Libya’s latest political pantomime is most notable by its absence. The international “Hail Mary” to restore the experienced and proactive Stephanie Williams to lead the UN mediation was undermined by a refusal to back her programme, reducing the whole experience to such a dazzling display of feckless time-wasting that even Libyan politicians will no doubt be taking notes. But forebodingly, recent history has demonstrated that, without cohesive international pressure to push Libya’s elite into a process, they instead slide back into conflict. Something we can see forming today.
The Haftar–Saleh axis in the east has been fatally weakened by a lack of finances, insecure over a political base that is rapidly abandoning them, and anxious over faltering military capabilities – especially as Russian forces have started to withdraw and move to the Ukrainian front – not to mention the Marshal’s ailing health. Their trump card to instigate an oil blockade has failed to give them any dividend, and even the peoples of eastern Libya give their justifications short shrift. This discontent will compound along with power cuts caused by a lack of fuel to eastern power stations because of this blockade.
Desperation has long been a justification for foolishness and in a last-ditch effort to retain relevance, overturn the Libyan landscape, and regenerate support from the states that once backed him to kill Libyan democracy, Haftar could feel that his only recourse is to instigate a war.
The security sector fragmentation caused by Dbeibah and Bashagha’s clumsy clash could provide an opening for this or cause a conflict in its own right amongst the fiefdoms of western Libya. Regional actors and alliances are dangerously buying in once more to a zero-sum perspective of Libyan politics that eschews political change for patronage. This means that any conflict has the capacity to quickly devolve into an international proxy war once more.
The wildcard in all of this is the Libyan people and their indefatigable sense of exceptionalism. As Libyans feel abandoned by the international community, robbed by their elite, and hurtling towards existential doom, the ingredients are there for public unrest to be sparked by an upcoming summer of discontent.
Today’s Libyan people are united by their own desperation, meaning that should they take to the streets in large numbers, they will inevitably face bullets and spark a conflict that will be outside the machinations of the current elite and much more familiar to what was witnessed eleven years ago.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is a political analyst and researcher who specialises in Libyan affairs and more generally politics, governance and development in the Arab world.