There is little end in sight for Libya’s lengthy transition period, which began in 2011 with the uprising against forty-one years of Muammar Gaddafi rule.
The new political elite has failed to unite the country and restore faith in state institutions after successive rounds of open warfare, including intense fighting in 2019-2020, the repeated emergence of parallel governments, and canceled presidential and parliamentary elections in 2021.
In fact, the latest tactic of politicians across the divide, who appear committed to preventing fresh elections and retaining their grip on power, is to hold a series of performative meetings about the need to prepare for elections.
On January 5, after months of talks brokered in Egypt, Libya’s rival legislative bodies finally agreed to begin discussions to develop the constitutional basis for elections.
The heads of the two opposing chambers—the High Council of State (HSC) in Tripoli, where the United Nations-backed government is located, and the House of Representatives (HoR), based in the east and in the grip of General Khalifa Haftar—are yet to release details of the agreement except to confirm that further talks will take place. The two sides have also allegedly raised the idea of establishing yet another transitional executive authority—formed of representatives from both constellations—before any elections.
This sudden alleged progress was likely devised to head off the United Nations (UN) at the pass. Upon assuming leadership of the UN mission in Libya in October 2022, UN Special Representative Abdoulaye Bathily was unequivocal in his intention to revive the electoral track.
The vote scheduled for December 2021 was aborted due to the absence of a clear constitutional basis and fundamental disagreements over the rules, including around who could stand. Warning that “the people’s patience is not limitless,” Bathily quickly embarked on a listening tour of the country and made plain his belief that long-awaited elections were the only way forward.
However, as representatives of powerful interest groups vested in the status quo, Aquila Saleh of the HoR and Khalid Mishri of the HSC seek to eclipse Bathily’s efforts with an ostensibly Libyan-led roadmap for elections. Unfortunately, this could lead nowhere by design.
The main regional patrons of the two sides have every reason to support this obstructionism. Egypt, which has long backed the HoR camp based in the east and declares itself committed to its neighbor’s stability, will support the continuing dysfunction until it has secured its economic and strategic interests across Libya.
Meanwhile, Turkey, allied with the Tripoli government, opposes any sudden moves in Libya before its own presidential and parliamentary elections due in June.
A bargain, unspoken or otherwise, to prolong peace talks to remain in power would form part of an emerging pattern of cooperation across the political divide aimed at embedding elite interests. This was made especially evident by an informal agreement in July 2022, which replaced the technocratic head of the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), recognized by the US State Department as an anti-corruption champion, with a prominent official from the Gaddafi era.
Indeed, the trend of elite reconciliation to safeguard personal gain has been partially driven by the ascendancy of Gaddafi-era figures within the Tripoli-based administration. While former regime officials were more typically allied to the counterrevolutionary eastern camp, the arrival of current Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh in Tripoli reshuffled the deck.
Abdel Hamid is the nephew of Ali Dbeibeh, the Mayor of Misrata under Gaddafi and 1989-2011 chairman of a major state contracting agency, the Organisation for the Development of Administrative Centres. His son, Ibrahim, is a close advisor to Prime Minister Abdel Hamid and the driving force—together with Saddam Haftar, the son of Haftar, the eastern warlord—behind the thawing of tensions.
The longstanding warmth of relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and key groups—namely the Dbeibeh clan and the Haftar family—has helped standardize the hymn sheet. In particular, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh’s July 2022 decision to replace the NOC chief with a Gaddafi-era crony occurred just after Ibrahim Dbeibeh met with Saddam Haftar in Abu Dhabi.
However, the worry is that this surprise consensus, unprecedented in recent years, was directed towards largely illicit ends. Rumors have swirled about an uptick in corruption within the oil sector. Additionally, in January 2023, the attorney general ordered the arrest of several NOC executives for major accounting irregularities related to fuel imports.
Furthermore, documents detailing secret agreements between the Libyan government and little-known Emirati and Russian hydrocarbon companies have surfaced. For example, one leaked memorandum of understanding appears to show a deal between the Russian state-owned oil firm Zarubezhneft and AGOCO, a NOC subsidiary company based in the east and under the control of Saddam Haftar.
The agreement includes launching an oil trading network, which may well be aimed at mobilizing Libyan oil terminals as points of export for Russian crude to bypass sanctions.
The most significant talking point in Libyan policy circles also relates to Russia and revolves around recently published spending figures from the Central Bank. They show that 34.3 billion dinars (roughly $6 billion) was finally released to the NOC after the NOC leadership was changed. However, it is unclear that this money was, in fact, used to fund the oil sector, in which there was very little movement in 2022.
There is scant evidence that new projects have been launched or creditors paid. Documents clearly show that AGOCO, the Haftar-linked subsidiary, received 5.2 billion dinars in 2022. Yet, on January 23, its chairman complained that it was broke.
Meanwhile, alarm is growing within Libyan legal circles and the diplomatic community on account of unconfirmed reports that these state funds were partially used to pay the Wagner Group—a Kremlin-linked mercenary company.
The Wagner Group extended pivotal support to the renegade General Haftar during his war to seize Tripoli in April 2019. Since the ceasefire in October 2020, Wagner fighters have entrenched around key military bases and, revealingly, major oil facilities. Part of the appeal of using private military contractors for the Kremlin is their limited cost to the Russian treasury and willingness to self-fund through commercial opportunities where they are active.
The Wagner Group has propped up authoritarian leaders across Africa in exchange for gold and diamond mining licenses and is playing a high-profile role in the fighting in Ukraine, most recently near Bakhmut, where there are salt and gypsum mines. Uncertainty over the fate of the 34.3 billion dinars and suspicions about the Wagner Group may well explain the impromptu visit made by CIA Director William Burns to Libya on January 12.
The political impasse in Libya can be interpreted as the result of a tacit bargain among elites to prolong their tenure in power. Both sets of politicians want to ensure continuing access to legitimate and illicit state resources. The individuals at the center of this inertia strategy must be called out and held accountable for thwarting progress at such a critical juncture in Libya’s transition and post-conflict reconstruction.
The Libyan people deserve the chance to reconcile, rebuild, and elect their representatives. By holding the country in a state of suspended animation and engaging in opaque activities behind the scenes (which embroil Libya in major geopolitical crises like the war in Ukraine), this policy of deliberate inaction may soon transform into a raft of very active problems.
Dr. Alia Brahimi is a nonresident senior fellow within the Middle East Programs. She is also a former research fellow at Oxford University and the London School of Economics. Nonresident Senior Fellow Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East program.