In my interviews with Libya-focused diplomats and international practitioners based in Tunis in early 2019, there was a widespread, ex-post acknowledgment that the GNA had been one of those ‘fictions the international community has to get into’.
Secondly, the relationship between the legitimacy and effectiveness of the various aspiring Libyan governments is a complex one, and foreign actors have had to balance between these two types of criteria.
In the case of the GNA, after being originally externally enabled, legitimacy became taken for granted and prioritised by the international community, who expected a virtuous circle whereby effectiveness would progressively come to match it. However, from 2016 onwards, the GNA did not become more effective in its rule over Libyan territory and population.
Quite the opposite: its rival Haftar’s LAAF consolidated and expanded its control in the east and the south of the country. This led international interaction with this anti-GNA rebel to gradually shift from informal engagement to increasingly official diplomatic practices, deflating the exclusiveness of the recognition of the GNA in several respects.
Diplomatic practices towards Haftar grew in significance from bilateral visits from regional allies such as Egypt and the UAE to official invitations from Russia in 2016, and to participation on an equal footing with the GNA’s head Fayez al-Sarraj in the Libya-focused multilateral summits organised by France and Italy in 2017 and 2018. Chief among the justifications for such an evolution provided in my fieldwork was that Haftar could ‘not be ignored’ as an effective ‘party on the ground’ and that it was ‘one of the stakeholders’ with most ‘influence on the peace process’.
The non-governmental nature of this actor was helpful because it allowed to claim that dealings with him were not in breach of the international recognition consensus.
In any case, Haftar’s effectiveness-based international recognition worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy in consolidating a diplomatic fait accompli at least until the 2019-20 civil war.
Thirdly, the de facto veto-player role of Haftar’s LAAF and other Libyan armed non-state actors raised the dilemma between coherence and inclusivity in conflict mediation and peacemaking processes.
This applied most notably to the mediation efforts undertaken by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) after the establishment of the GNA, when the UN had thrown all its weight behind this government and was thus considered one-sided by other Libyan players.
From mid-2017 onward, though, concerns about the counterproductive side-effects of this approach led UNSMIL to reconsider and reframe its mandate putting a greater emphasis on engagement with ‘all Libyan political actors’ and ‘bridging the inter-Libyan divide’.
This change of method was influenced by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ghassan Salamé’s preference for bottom-up mediation and grassroots dialogue initiatives involving non-state actors, as part of his roadmap for the Libyan national conference that was supposed to be held in the spring of 2019.
The aim of such a wide-ranging preparatory consultation process was that the national conference endorsed a pre-negotiated transition plan that enjoyed the wide domestic consensus and domestic recognition that the Libyan Political Agreement and the GNA had lacked three years earlier.
A collapsing transition roadmap and yet another authority split (2020-22)
Some lessons from the previous decade’s international government recognition and peacemaking dilemmas seemed to have been learnt at the outset of the new transition stage upon the end of the 2019-20 civil war.
The page was definitely turned regarding coherence on the international recognition of an insufficiently effective GNA. Inclusivity was the name of the game in the LPDF launched by the UN in November 2020, whose 75 participants were supposed to represent ‘the full social and political spectrum of Libyan society’.
The first outcome of this dialogue was what UNSMIL described as a ‘roadmap to credible, inclusive and democratic national elections’.
This comprised both parliamentary and presidential elections, which were supposed to be held jointly on the symbolic date of the 70th anniversary of Libyan independence, 24 December 2021.
In addition, the same LPDF appointed the GNU as a new interim, unified Libyan government for the pre-election period, electing Dabeiba as Prime Minister. Dabeiba’s cabinet stood out as the country’ first single government since 2014. Unlike in the negotiation process leading to the establishment of the GNA in 2015, this time domestic recognition took precedence over international recognition.
Furthermore, the former was fully accomplished in institutional terms, as the GNU won parliamentary confidence from the HoR with a sweeping majority in March 2021 –which also put an end to the existence of the eastern parallel government–.
A different question is whether the LPDF delegates, the HoR members and the Libyan political elite they represented could genuinely embody and provide domestic recognition in the sense of the broader social contract.
UN peacemaking continued to rely on an elite bargain, and internal ‘power dynamics which mirror those that followed the establishment of the GNA in 2016’ could be observed again soon after the inauguration of the GNU.
Also, and putting legitimacy aside, the GNU’s effectiveness in terms of territorial control and monopoly over the use of force remained as partial and patchy as that of the GNA. Areas of limited statehood continued to characterise Libya’s governance.
Indeed, as predicted by several Libya analysts, the LPDF’s roadmap was doomed to crumble in less than a year’s time. Its weaknesses emerged in the first place in relation to the electoral process, for which the LPDF failed to establish a legal framework.
This, compounded with the more fundamental absence of a constitution, made longstanding disagreements resurface over the sequence of elections, ie, the order in which parliamentary and presidential elections should take place, and whether a constitutional referendum should necessarily precede them.
Seizing the opportunity provided by such a legal vacuum, the HoR speaker –and Haftar ally– Aguila Saleh issued a unilateral and skewed ‘presidential electoral law’ in September 2021. Besides not having been approved in a regular parliamentary vote, Saleh’s law was controversial for two main reasons:
(i) first, it reversed the LPDF’s agreement to hold presidential and parliamentary elections jointly by establishing that the former occur ahead of the latter; and
(ii) second, it loosened eligibility criteria in a way that allowed both Haftar and Saleh himself to run for the presidency –while maintaining their existing official positions–.
Two additional problematic developments that concurred with Saleh’s manoeuvring were the announcements of the presidential candidacies of Prime Minister Dabeiba and the son of the former dictator, Saif al-Gaddafi.
The former thereby reneged on an earlier commitment not to do so, while the latter, wanted by the International Criminal Court, provoked an intense backlash in many circles inside and outside Libya. Political tensions were thus running high when, three weeks before the election date of 24 December 2021, the High National Election Commission suspended the whole process.
Just two months later, the GNU also lost its brief status as Libya’s unified government. With the electoral process frozen and the GNU’s interim mandate extended sine die under the leadership of a Dabeiba willing to perpetuate himself in power, in February 2022 the HoR took the initiative to replace this cabinet by a new one headed by Bashagha.
At the end of the 2019-20 war, the GNA’s former Interior Minister had struck a political deal with his hitherto rival Saleh –and thereby with Haftar– which resulted in both Bashagha and Saleh leading what looked like the favourite list for the GNU at the LPDF. The alienation of this duo/trio due to the LPDF’s unexpected election of Dabeiba would culminate with the swearing-in at the HoR of Bashagha’s so-called Government of National Stability (GNS) in March 2022.
Unsurprisingly, Dabeiba’s GNU refused to cede power to this competitor, resisting political pressure and stopping –with some Turkish support– a budding military offensive on Tripoli to dislodge it in the summer.
Clashes in the capital in the summer of 2022 heightened the international community’s fearsthat Libya’s new government split and legitimacy crisis further destabilise the country, provoking a return to civil war.
The international and regional political conjuncture is not pushing in that direction at the moment, though.
The Turkish-Russian entente that greatly contributed to putting an end to the 2019-20 war has been matched by a wave of reconciliations between the regional supporters of Libya’s opposing conflict parties, including the end of the Qatar blockade by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the mending of ties between Egypt and Turkey. Yet, the present stability reflects ‘a stalemate rather than a settlement’.
In this fragile context, in September of 2022 the Senegalese Abdoulaye Bathily was appointed the new Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of UNSMIL.
Bathily called for the organisation of the postponed elections to be sped up so as to avoid putting the country ‘at risk of partition’. Then, following an extensive series of consultations in February 2023, he has proposed to set up a high-level steering panel in charge of agreeing the legal framework as well as a time-bound roadmap for presidential and legislative polls to be held in 2023.
While foreign players have certainly had a crucial role in freezing or unfreezing the Libyan conflict at various points in time, the key to solving it remains first and foremost domestic.
This is no proxy war, and both the Libyan political elite and armed non-state actors seem overall content with the status quo given the currently limited levels of violence and, not least, the rising global prices of energy since the outbreak of Russia’s war on Ukraine. That explains the general lack of a genuine commitment to relaunch the transition and electoral roadmap.
Last summer’s protests by disgruntled Libyan youth in multiple cities from Tobruk to Tripoli were indeed directed against the entire national political elite, revealing more profound domestic recognition and social contract issues that will affect any future conflict settlement and Libyan government.
The international community has learnt only half of the lessons from the past decade of Libyan government splits and international recognition dilemmas (2014-15, 2016-21 and 2022-now).
Upon the end of the 2019-20 civil war, at the time of the establishment of the LPDF, it was already widely assumed that domestic recognition should always take precedence over international recognition, that governance legitimacy cannot thrive by itself without effectiveness, and that coherence around international government recognition positions may stand in the way of the inclusivity –and success– of conflict mediation and peacemaking.
However, the problem of the now-embraced inclusivity –common to both the LPDF and Bathily’s new high-level electoral steering panel– is that it remains partial and vulnerable to hijacking from members of the Libyan political elite who have little interest in a successful transition.
Overcoming this catch-22 situation is certainly not easy, but in any case, the only way ahead hangs on democratic elections. Attempts to form a viable, unified Libyan government by other means have repeatedly failed.
In order to actively support UNSMIL and Bathily’s plan of holding elections by the end of 2023, the EU’s efforts in the coming months should focus on ensuring intra-EU and broader international political unity to deter spoilers.
At the same time, if it materialises, the national reconciliation conference for Libya that the African Union has announced it is preparing to host should also receive strong EU backing.
Finally, complementary dialogue formats should be considered in order to give some international oxygen to an increasingly neglected Libyan youth and civil society.
Irene Fernández-Molina is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Exeter
Elcano Royal Institute