After years of pervasive instability, the world is quickly running out of adjectives to accurately describe the multifaceted and multidimensional crises in Libya spawned during the chaotic decade following the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year regime in 2011.
There is no mystery surrounding the triggers, enablers and multipliers of the woes in the North African country that remain inextricably linked to its intensifying political, socioeconomic and security challenges.
However, repeated UN-led attempts to shepherd diametrically opposite interests and actors toward a tenable compromise have only bled precious diplomatic and political capital and wasted time while Libya hurtles deeper into uncertainty, haunted by the prospect of a return to all-out war.
On the surface, a protracted political impasse and renewed competition between the two main rival factions — the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the UN-recognized Government of National Unity in Tripoli — continues to hamstring efforts to deal with, for example, rising poverty levels, the collapse of public services, and tattered social safety nets.
For now, much of that competition is relegated to vying for control of Libya’s still semi-functional economic institutions and lucrative sources of public revenues, with frequent spillovers that sponsor persistent cycles of elite-driven violence.
In turn, squabbling among the political class is also drawing attention to underlying vulnerabilities that are contributing to the exponential deterioration of human rights in Libya, as well as its politics, the economy and internal security.
Take, for instance, Government of National Unity Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s unilateral installation last month of Farhat bin Qadara as head of Libya’s National Oil Company, replacing Mustafa Sanalla.
Even though Qadara has overseen an increase in Libya’s daily output, much to the relief of energy-hungry European export partners, Sanalla is suing to regain control of the company in hopes of capitalizing on international concerns that Dbeibah’s sprawling system of patronage might be emboldening his resistance to any future “peaceful” transfer of power.
However, Sanalla has no friends among the rival, Fathi Bashagha-led Government of National Stability formed by the House of Representatives and currently vying to forcefully depose the Dbeibah government in Tripoli. Should the GNS succeed — an increasingly likely scenario given the routing of Dbeibah’s presidential guards in parts of Tripoli by militias affiliated with Bashagha, and the mobilization of Zintan militias under Osama Al-Juwaili — Sanalla’s attempts to retake the reins at the National Oil Company will still be rebuffed by the prime backer of the GNS, eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar.
This is just one example among dozens highlighting the divisions within Libya and how often they go on to sponsor violent skirmishes. Meanwhile, self-interested external actors readily look the other way so long as the constant back-and-forth between rival factions does not infringe upon their own priorities.
Simply stating that the situation in Libya is ‘complex’ is a severe underestimation of the crippling realities on the ground that continue to bleed the beleaguered country dry.
It is therefore unsurprising that, at a deeper level, Libya’s dizzying internal dynamics and frayed political economy are increasingly a byproduct of a number of factors that are not only limited to a distracted international community.
An incoherent, contradictory and self-defeating EU approach to the festering mess on its doorstep makes for awkward engagement when member states issue perfunctory calls for conciliation while simultaneously pulling in opposite directions, guided by self-interest.
Meanwhile, a very porous Libya continues to enable malign actors to pursue their expansive agendas and project dominance in far-off lands amid intensifying geopolitical competition.
Worse yet, 10 years of instability has not only cultivated staunch domestic resistance to mending Libya’s myriad divisions, some actors have become willing incubators of it, fearful of losing their new-found power, wealth and influence if and when feasible paths to unity and democratization emerge.
Overall, simply stating that the situation in Libya is “complex” is a severe underestimation of the crippling realities on the ground that continue to bleed the beleaguered country dry while the rest of the world looks on in curious perturbation.
On the other hand, while the UN is theoretically capable of fulfilling its role as an important facilitator and mediator, several concerning developments have left many questioning the strength of its will, competence and credibility, and the efficacy of its interventions.
After all, well-intentioned plans to ensure dialogue are as inclusive as possible by incorporating opposing parties and rival actors have consistently led to impossible dilemmas and frustrating quagmires that often embolden malign actors at the expense of the will of the Libyan people. It is a problem rooted in a dysfunctional policy of plenty of carrots but no sticks.
The UN Support Mission in Libya remains adamant about rehashing ineffectual interventions that tease a veneer of progress but ultimately fail because they tend to ignore major vulnerabilities, such as the difficulty of establishing the legitimacy and viability of any aspirational elections, road maps or political processes. Even worse, the mission continues to rely on the same discredited actors, over and over again, to deliver what they have consistently failed to deliver for the past 10 years.
Nonetheless, the situation in Libya with regard to the current political stalemate, the failure of various attempts at mediation, increasing human rights abuses, and the ongoing dispute over who will take over the reins at the UN mission, highlight the need for a timely recalibration of international engagement and attention on the country. It will not be easy to cure the UN-led process of its various limitations overnight, nor will the divergent interests in Libya suddenly find common ground.
However, a failure to fully leverage the UN’s relative competitive advantages in an effort to improve cohesion, develop more holistic approaches, restore its credibility and effectively communicate its priorities will only doom the North African country to unprecedented levels of uncertainty and violence. Each failure only erodes any future chances for unity and cooperation among the disparate groups vying for control, influence and relevance in this divided state.
In other words the UN Security Council must, for example, desist from its usual practice of resting on its laurels after acceding to Russia’s rather short-sighted demand to renew the Support Mission in Libya’s mandate for only 90 days. Needless to say, any narrowing of the window for the embattled mission to act places enormous pressure on whomever is tapped to lead it.
That indeed is a tall order, requiring maximum support after deep, introspective reflections of how far the UN has come, where it has fallen short and what it needs if it is to succeed in Libya. Unfortunately, the Security Council will likely be tripped up by its preference for interventions that require the least effort, such as a fourth technical rollover of a mandate that was last adopted earlier this year, even though the situation in Libya is extremely fluid, necessitating dynamic and highly adaptive engagement.
A particular area of concern is the stubborn view that holding national elections will be a panacea to Libya’s ills even though the country lacks a constitutional basis for holding them, let alone the basic institutions and governance structures to effectuate the results of said polls in a seamless manner.
In short, the Libyan tragedy will continue to fester, and the UN — and the wider international order — will continue to bleed credibility, for the foreseeable future.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.