Following years of war and political fragmentation, Abdoulaye Bathily, the United Nations’ Libya envoy, has warned that Libya will be “at risk of partition” if it continues to delay elections that were supposed to be held nearly a year ago.
The international community had cast the planned December 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections as a potential opportunity to stabilize the country, although they were also controversial and plagued by eligibility challenges and legal disagreements that were never resolved.
The elections’ ultimate breakdown “was the predictable outcome of a process riddled with built-in self-defeating factors and whose implementation favored legal, constitutional, and political acrobatics,” Omar Hammady, a former advisor to the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, wrote in Foreign Policy in February.
According to Jason Pack, author of Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder, “Bathily is raising the alarm that at present, Libya lacks an internationally recognized prime minister, that the international community has no plan for a transition, and that Egypt and Turkey have recently hardened their support for opposing factions. Although actual partition is not possible in the short term, Bathily is right to point out that it is the natural endpoint of the indefinite continuation of the status quo.”
Libya’s ongoing instability stems from a NATO intervention in 2011, which helped depose then-dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and subsequently plunged the oil-rich nation into more than a decade of instability and conflict.
The intervention created a power vacuum “filled by legions of armed militias, foreign mercenaries, Islamist extremists, human traffickers, and regional and international powers, who have all transformed the North African country into the region’s greatest exporter of instability and mayhem,” Colum Lynch reported for Foreign Policy in March 2021.
That shaped Libya into the deeply fractured country that it is today, with rival powers battling for legitimacy and foreign leaders jockeying for influence with little regard for civilians. Between 2014 and 2020, Libya was embroiled in a brutal civil war that ultimately concluded with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
The cease-fire did little to heal the country’s political fissures, and opposing administrations empowered by militia support are still competing for control. On one side is Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who was only supposed to oversee a transitional government in Tripoli yet has clung to power after the failed elections. His government is internationally recognized.
His authority has been challenged by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which is backed by Khalifa Haftar, a military commander in the country’s east who has the support of Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. The House of Representatives has refused to recognize Dbeibah’s authority following the failed election and instead announced another prime minister, Fathi Bashagha.
In August, at least 32 people died and more than 150 more were injured after violent clashes broke out among the militias in Tripoli, fueling concerns of a potential slide back into conflict.
Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Prior to joining FP, she worked at Foreign Affairs and the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research in Lusaka, Zambia. She is a graduate of Cornell University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in government and economics.
West exasperated at Libyan politicians’ failure to plan elections
Diplomats from France, Germany, Italy, UK, US to meet on Friday to discuss next steps.
Ex-UN envoy: ‘A transactional ruling class uses Libya’s state and sovereign institutions as cash cows’
Western leaders are growing increasingly impatient with Libyan politicians who, despite finding time to agree a 42 percent pay rise, have failed to finalize plans for national elections, The Guardian reported on Thursday.
Special envoys from France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US are due to meet in Washington on Friday to discuss next steps after rival Libyan factions last week failed to reach a final agreement in Cairo on a constitutional basis for national elections.
One Western diplomat told The Guardian: “They are some making sincere efforts at mediation. But the abiding character of too many Libyan politicians on both sides of the divide is (to) pay lip service to the necessity of elections and then do everything possible to throttle them so they can continue lining their pockets.
“We may have to stop hoping we can persuade these people to agree to elections and instead find a way to work around them.”
Friday’s meeting, convened by US Special Envoy Richard Norland, will look at how to hold elections and whether a deadline for establishing a national Libyan body to agree on them is necessary.
Unelected interim governments have run the country for nearly a decade now, with efforts to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018 and 2021 aborted, while last year’s elections were canceled due to disputes over the qualifications of candidates to stand.
Commentators said this disguised a deeper reluctance from interim politicians to risk a winner-takes-all process that would strip them of state patronage and power.
Stephanie Williams, former UN special adviser on Libya, said: “A 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.
“It could be described as a ‘redistributive kleptocracy,’ bringing into their circles on a regular basis just enough of their compatriots to sustain the system.”
Libyan politicians’ salaries rose by 42 percent for 2022 despite estimates that half the population are in poverty.
Critics have said the scale of salaries and disbursements evidenced an unaccountable political class eager to avoid the verdict of the ballot box.
Tim Easton, Libya expert at international affairs think tank Chatham House, said: “The central bank figures are still opaque, but clearly spending on salaries is staggeringly high.
“Given the amount of money supposedly spent on public services, ordinary people are simply not receiving adequate level of service.”