Robbie Gramer and Liam Scott
More than a decade after the country’s plunge into chaos, there are two governments and little governance.
A high-level delegation of Libyan officials and parliamentarians traveled to Washington last week to rally U.S. support for a stalled election process in a bid to end their country’s decadelong cycle of conflict. Without an end to the political gridlock over a U.N. proposal to hold elections, the country could spiral into another wave of conflict, these Libyan officials warned, with far-reaching implications for North Africa and southern Europe.
Libya is split politically between two rival governments, one based in the country’s capital of Tripoli, and another based in the country’s east and nominally backed by a Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar. The United Nations recognizes the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU).
“The situation in Libya now is calm, but with the armed elements in the east and west, if there is a delay in reaching an agreement,” the country could break out in conflict again, said Abdullah al-Lafi, the deputy head of the Presidential Council, a U.N.-backed GNU body, during the visit to Washington this month. “The lack of elections will only lead to more divisions.”
Yet other regional experts warn that the international community’s fixation on elections is misguided, as elections won’t fix many of the country’s underlying sources of political instability, deep-seated corruption, and economic malaise.
The debate underscores how Libya has devolved into a political quagmire and left its population of nearly 7 million with little hope for a fix to the country’s decade of violence. A bevy of rival powers vying for influence within Libya, including Russia, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and major European countries, has exacerbated the instability and served to prolong the crisis. The UAE and Russia support Haftar’s Libyan National Army in the conflict, whereas Turkey intervened in support of the U.N.-recognized government.
“Driving foreign forces from Libya is a basic component for the success of the elections project,” Al-Lafi said.
The Libyan delegation that traveled to Washington this month met with Biden administration officials in the White House and State Department, as well as staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a bid to rally more U.S. support for the U.N.-brokered elections. Libya has been mired in political limbo since a U.N.-brokered peace plan in 2021 established an interim government—one meant to be replaced by an elected government in December of that year, but elections never took place. The U.N. deal halted most of the fighting that had plagued the country for a decade, after a popular uprising and NATO air campaign led to the ouster and killing of longtime Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011.
“The country is now nearly 10 years into this violent conflict, and I suspect that public interest in the democratic process is losing—if they haven’t lost it already—momentum,” said Thomas Hill, an expert on North Africa with the U.S. Institute for Peace. “Another failure only increases the probability that Libyans resign themselves to the belief that only a ‘strongman,’ capable of imposing peace through military force, is the way forward.”
While experts believe that a majority of Libyans want elections, the country’s two dueling administrations have been deadlocked in negotiations for years over the legal basis for elections and the composition of the new political system. Russia, which backs Haftar, has maintained a military footprint in Libya through the shadowy mercenary Wagner Group. Western officials have warned that Russia could play a spoiler role in Libyan elections if it doesn’t throw its support behind the U.N.-brokered election plan. Al-Lafi echoed those fears.
“Today we notice that there are military forces from Russia in the region. This represents a major risk even to the success of the elections,” he said. “We need international support for an agreement of the departure of foreign armed forces that are in Libya.”
The top U.N. envoy for Libya, Senegalese diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily, said in a press conference this month in Tripoli that the country could hold elections this year if both rival legislative bodies hash out clear electoral laws and a road map for elections by June. The alternative, he said, would be more chaos and gridlock that heighten the risk of conflict. “Successive interim arrangements, endless transition governments, legislative bodies whose terms of office have expired are a source of instability,” he said.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in late February hosted Bathily and senior officials from Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Qatar, Turkey, the UAE, and the United Kingdom to discuss international support for the elections. The meeting failed to make progress on the negotiations.
But elections alone can’t fix Libya’s problems, said Claudia Gazzini, an expert on Libya at the International Crisis Group. For starters, Libya still needs to unify its financial institutions, military, and executive branch, all of which are divided, she said.
Good government, not more ballots, is what the country needs, Gazzini said, but that’s not forthcoming.
“Rather than money being used for better governance, essentially, it’s a downward slope of bad governance, corruption, and a thriving illicit economy,” Gazzini said. “There’s a very naive idea of the transformative power of elections.”
On the other hand, Libya can’t get good governance until it has good government, and that is going to require elections at some point. “Elections solve nothing on their own; instead, they are the key that unlocks the door so problem-solvers can get to work,” Hill said.
One sticking point over election negotiations for both rival governments underscores the problem: Neither side wants to move forward with a vote unless current members of the legislatures are given immunity from prosecution for crimes they may have committed while in office. Al-Lafi said negotiations over that point are still being conducted.
But that sticking point is turning into a sticky wicket. A decade of war has entrenched de facto leaders who have enjoyed immunity and impunity, a lack of accountability that has helped lead to the current crisis and could preclude elections, said Hanan Salah, a Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The prospects are rather dim,” she said, primarily because “the different groups that are currently vying for control have absolutely no interest in changing the status quo.” A decade of fighting and division has left scars on more than bodies.
“We have seen interim governments come and go, but nobody was held to account over the unlawful killings, over the disappearances and mass arbitrary detentions,” Salah said. “This gave people the idea that you can commit a crime at zero cost. What’s the incentive to now come together and actually agree on a plan, on a roadmap, to hold elections in a free and fair way, to bring the country onto a democratic path?”
For the entrenched elite, the tenuous present is more profitable than a renewed war, especially without the prospect of large-scale foreign support, Gazzini suggested. “They’re—cynically speaking—happier now doing business than war.”
But for the bulk of ordinary Libyans, the political stasis is hardly an oasis, Salah said. Electricity is unreliable at best. Libyans wait hours in line to fill their cars up with gasoline. And parents fear that their children may face shellings while at school.
“The loser here really is ordinary Libyans who just want to go about their daily lives and have a normal life,” Salah said. “People really want the situation to normalize. People want to have a dignified existence.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, covering the State Department. Before he joined FP in 2016, he managed the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, for three years. He’s a graduate of American University, where he studied international relations and European affairs.
Liam Scott is an intern at Foreign Policy.