Hafed Al Ghwell
A new year is upon us but for the people of Libya, and the meddlesome congress of external actors desperately seeking dividends from years-long interference in Libyan affairs, we might as well be back in 2013.
Successive governments have come and gone. So have UN special representatives and a series of highly touted, ultimately fruitless, summits and forums that promised much yet delivered so little, if anything at all.
What could have been an aspirational start to a new, transformative chapter in Libya’s history, after the abrupt conclusion of a brutal, 42-year dictatorship, instead resulted in a lost decade marked by sporadic violence, aggressive politicking and reckless brinkmanship.
With the start of the new year, that decade is now over but there remains a theater of the absurd as the North African country wanders ever deeper into uncharted territory.
Looking back, there were occasional sparks of the familiar, naive idealism, last seen between 2011 and 2013, that guided Libyan politics for a while but eventually waned as the country’s political and security situation deteriorated.
A so-called “Libyan-led” process was supposed to solicit the public’s consent for the country’s proposed political future via the ballot box, sparking a period of unification and reconciliation of Libyan institutions, and bridging the gaping rifts with a widely accepted constitution.
However, the somewhat arbitrary December 2021 deadline that was set for this arrived with much fanfare and quickly fizzled out. This left Libya more divided than ever, malign actors emboldened, and the international community embarrassed.
Now, Libya ranks 131st out of 137 countries, with weak governance and competing extraterritorial ambitions only serving to strengthen men at arms at the expense of laying the foundations for Libya’s political transformation.
As always, it is average Libyans who bear the disproportionate brunt of what is, arguably, a deliberately instigated collapse.
Worse, Libya’s socioeconomic woes and political stalemates are not limited to a widening institutional gulf between the eastern-based House of Representatives and the UN-backed Government of National Unity in Tripoli.
For all the accolades lavished on the 5+5 Joint Military Commission, Libya remains overwhelmed by tens of thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries. Meanwhile unmitigated security challenges and porous borders compound the problems of trafficking in arms, persons and contraband, much to the profit of transnational crime.
Naturally, as more guns, people and illicit money circulate freely, so the propensity for violence grows, along with the poisonous, coercive influence of corruption on local authorities, undermining mitigation efforts and further derailing an already fragile transitional process.
Unsurprisingly, after so many years, the “progress,” or lack thereof, can be measured in the extreme oppositional defiance of common sense objectives that have broad, somewhat cross-sectional support both at home and abroad. However, what should have been simple, fast-tracked agreements to limited constitutional amendments allowing for national elections, for example, have descended into messy, roughshod appointments of interim authorities of questionable legitimacy, often via dubious means.
Libya of today is a country of stalled aspirations, steered by the compromised and the paranoid while nationwide public fatigue grows as a result of an infuriating, decade-long status quo.
Additionally, rather than working tirelessly to safeguard Libya’s political future in the window of opportunity provided by a mostly intact ceasefire, suspiciously well-timed “logistical challenges” scuttled opportunities for dialogue and avenues of cooperation.
When talks of some significance do take place, they are now almost always behind closed doors, between the same cast of characters that do not care to conceal their vested interests in retaining power or securing even more of it. Afterwards, curated and choreographed press statements or public appearances in faux grandeur further disguise the painful hypocrisy among political elites who promise much but consistently deliver the exact opposite.
It is no secret that Libya’s well-armed, well-connected elites share a disdain for any semblance of progress in the nation’s troubled transition. Rather, the Libya of today is a country of stalled aspirations, steered by the compromised and the paranoid while nationwide public fatigue grows as a result of an infuriating, decade-long status quo.
Meanwhile, influential external actors that possess some convening power, such as the US or the EU, have elected simply to subordinate their policies to the pared-down ambitions of a flailing UN Support Mission now more accustomed to finger-wagging and putting out fires than acting decisively given what is at stake.
Abdoulaye Bathily, the new UN envoy to Libya, has outlined some of his priorities, which include garnering support for an agreement on a constitutional framework, establishing a timeline for elections, monitoring the ceasefire, and assisting the JMC in overseeing the long-overdue withdrawal of all foreign forces.
These are all fantastic goals and would go a long way toward recovering a portion of Libya’s “lost years” of endless political quagmires interlaced with brief violent episodes. However, the UN’s approach in Libya consistently includes as a condition of progress in the country’s troubled transition the buy-in of spoilers and a public that is still dismissed as a monolith, despite its heterogeneous mix of interests and priorities.
That stubborn and disappointing stance is emblematic of an international community that refuses to acknowledge a sobering reality — Libya will never again have legitimate elections. It is also quite likely that the country will languish in a constitutional vacuum as disagreements mount on an electoral framework, the structure of a post-election government and its composition.
Absent a miracle or some kind of shock to destabilize the unsteady equilibrium of the status quo, this will be the norm for Libya.
There will be dialogue, lots of it, occasional gun battles, and divisive, belligerent rhetoric will intensify but none of this will ever lead to long-overdue reconciliation, unified institutions, restored legitimacy, sustained stability or security by way of the ballot box.
In fact, to some interlocutors, even inviting the participation of average Libyans introduces new modalities to already headache inducing dynamics, where so much is at stake but there is so little willingness to resolve the crippling malignancy now strangling Libya.
However, ignoring or sidelining the Libyan people only skews the country’s political foundations and future in favor of exclusionary elites that measure success in terms of the scale of their monopoly on power or influence — not in their service to the desperate population of a country in free fall.
Beyond this year, only a difficult future lies ahead given that Libya’s fate is now intrinsically tied to regional and global geopolitical headwinds, and not so much to the internal malaise that is underwriting Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s extended tenure, and the House of Representatives’ recycling of itself through successive governments by clinging to legitimacy last granted more than a decade ago.
A rudderless, unaccountable and callously indifferent leadership, emboldened by quarrelsome actors and disinterested powers, will not help Libya navigate a quandary of convergent threats both from within and outside its borders.
Should the status quo endure, Libya will become the hollowed-out carcass of a once-sovereign state, reduced to the status of a mere staging ground for proxy battles among competing interests that are unbothered by the country’s decay, disillusionment and apathy.
Hafed Al Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.