Stephanie T. Williams
Last month’s marking of the two-year anniversary of the Libyan ceasefire agreement offers an opportunity to take stock of the North African country’s trajectory.
Libya’s wily and opportunistic post-2011 ruling elite – a network of security, political and economic actors – continues to prioritize patronage and its own transitory deals above the future of the country.
While the ceasefire has overall been respected and the country has not witnessed a repeat of the large-scale violence of 2019-2020, Libya has slid backwards into institutional division, misgovernance, limited bouts of violence, and human rights abuses against Libyans and migrants alike.
With the international community’s attention focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Libya has dropped from the headlines and been deprioritized in many capitals. Despite the somewhat gloomy outlook, there are a number of viable entry points for the international community and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to mitigate the worst domestic and regional knock-on effects of the Libyan crisis, address some of the conflict’s persistent underlying drivers, and meet the aspirations of the Libyan people.
Two years ago, on October 23, 2020 at the United Nations (U.N.) headquarters in Geneva, ten senior Libyan military officers decided to formally bring an end to the country’s third civil war (2019-2020) since the uprising against Muammar Qadhafi in 2011. When the Joint Military Commission (JMC), the so-called 5+5, put their signatures on the historic ceasefire agreement, which I also signed in my capacity as the United Nations mediator, there was much cause for optimism.
After nine years of chaos, violence, unprecedented foreign interference, institutional division, societal atomization and infrastructure collapse, most Libyans looked forward to what could have been a genuine opportunity to turn the page.
At the time, we had hoped that the Libyan parties to the conflict and their associated political and business constituencies would at long last find the necessary common ground to elevate the defense of Libyan sovereignty above their own narrow interests and partisan solicitations of foreign interference.
In the U.N., we used the Geneva agreement to pressure the Libyan political class, noting that surely if those who had taken up arms against each other could meet to forge a way forward for their country, so too could the politicians.
Our pressure worked for a while. There was some progress achieved through the agreement on a roadmap to take the country to elections, and the forming of the first unified government to receive overwhelming parliamentary approval in seven years.
But this hard-won progress began to stumble as Libya’s ruling elite descended once more into bickering over their shallow claims to control the country’s post-2011 institutions. Since the cancellation of the presidential elections in December 2021, Libya has continued to drift back to political division, polarization, eye-watering levels of corruption, and outbreaks of violence.
The country’s plethora of hybrid armed groups – from east to west – continue to prey upon key national institutions while orchestrating violence without regard for the innocent civilians killed and maimed in the process.
Blatant foreign interference has not abated, with the continued meddling of some of the same cast of foreign actors who have featured prominently in the conflicts of the last decade.
Libyan National Army Commander Khalifa Haftar’s 2019 attack on Tripoli – backed by a host of countries (Egypt, France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates) and notably, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s White House – brought in the Turks on the side of the then-UN recognized government.
Turkish intervention was key to ending that war, but the Turks exacted their price through forcing a series of controversial security and maritime agreements. Recent economic agreements signed in the past few weeks with the current Tripoli government pave the way for Ankara to explore for oil and gas off the Libyan coast, once more escalating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.
Less is known about the new military agreement, signed just days ago, which has also caused irritation domestically and in international circles.6 How to break Libya’s dystopic cycle of war followed by fragile peace followed by stalemate and then back to war has been the singular challenge since the first manifestations of serious division emerged in 2014, when Libya’s second civil war erupted.
As experience has demonstrated, it will be difficult to count on Libya’s post-2011 ruling class to produce a solution. This network of armed groups, business and political actors tend to shoot at each other during the day and collude by night, while continuing to accrue substantial rewards at the expense of their excluded compatriots, particularly in Libya’s vast southern hinterland.
This transactional ruling class, some of whose network can be traced back to the days of the former regime, uses Libya’s state and sovereign institutions as cash cows in what could be described as what former U.N. Special Representative Ghassan Salamé aptly coined as a “redistributive kleptocracy,” bringing into their circles on a regular basis just enough of their compatriots to sustain the system.
It is a phenomenon that has led to a deepening of the gap between the ruling class and those who are left behind, a substantial portion of the society. Multidimensional poverty and income inequality have been on the rise for the last decade and the human rights of Libyans and many illegal migrants continue to be abused
The holding of national elections has rightly been demanded by the Libyan people and most of the international community; the last national elections (parliamentary) were held over eight years ago, in 2014. As I can attest, it is much easier to talk about elections in Libya than to make them a reality.
This is in large measure due to the fact that Libya faces a democracy dilemma, a paradox that has impeded progress towards the national polls for which nearly 3 million Libyans (out of a total population of approximately 7 million) have already registered to vote. This enthusiasm is a clear manifestation of the Libyan people’s desire to choose their own leadership.
Libya’s democracy dilemma first manifests itself through the rational fear that some potential presidential candidates, if elected, will pursue a winner takes all, one-person, one-vote, one-time strategy, resulting in a return to the days of awful dictatorship.
Muammar Qadhafi’s ghost – past, present, and future – continues to haunt the country he brutally ruled for 42 years, as demonstrated by the surprise entry into last year’s presidential race of the longtime ruler’s heir apparent and son Saif Al-Qadhafi, for whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued a warrant for the commission of crimes against humanity.
The younger Qadhafi’s candidacy, along with those of would-be strongman Haftar and current head of the Tripoli government, Libyan Interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba, stirred deep controversy.
Haftar’s attempted coup d’état in April 2019 caused considerable death and destruction and alienated a substantial portion of the population in western Libya – where the majority of Libyans reside. Dabaiba acted in bad faith by violating the pledge he took during the February 2021 Libyan Political Dialogue Forum – a pledge made live on-air and in writing – that he would not put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency.
Not to be outdone, the eastern-based Libyan Parliament – the House of Representatives (HoR) – in September 2021 produced deeply flawed electoral legislation and refused to abide by the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement’s requirement for consultation on such legislation with the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS).
By the time I returned to Libya as the Special Advisor to the Secretary General in early December of last year, there was widespread consensus that the presidential elections constituted a threat to the country’s civil peace.
The second manifestation of Libya’s democracy dilemma is the unwillingness of many members of the country’s remaining two democratically-elected bodies, the HoR (elected in 2014), and the HCS (a consultative body comprising the remnants of the Parliament elected in 2012), to produce elections which would likely deprive them of their seats and access to lucrative salaries, benefits and the fruits of patronage.
When I met with a high-ranking member of the Parliament in December 2021, he complained about my talk of elections, noting – without a hint of irony or shame – that the Lebanese Parliament had remained in place for twenty years without new elections (from 1972-92) throughout that country’s long and horrific civil war.
My HoR interlocutor saw no reason not to expect Libya’s parliament to do the same (in other words, to remain in their seats until 2034!). In fact, the members of Libya’s two defunct legislative chambers know full well that, given their deep unpopularity and the low regard in which they are held by most of the population, they are unlikely to be reelected.
Stephanie Turco Williams is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy, having recently served as special adviser on Libya to the United Nations secretary-general. Her research includes examining international mediation efforts in an era of global disorder and conflict resolution in failed states. Williams previously served as the acting special representative of the secretary general (ASRSG) for Libya and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and before that, as the deputy special representative of the secretary general for Libya. During her tenure as the ASRSG, Stephanie led the United Nations’ mediation that resulted in a nation-wide Libyan ceasefire agreement signed on October 23, 2020 and a political agreement reached on February 5, 2021 that produced Libya’s first unity government in seven years.