The country’s conflict is far too complicated to be resolved by elections — a comprehensive strategy is needed to bring peace.
Last week, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss its Libya mission and its new plan to end the country’s political impasse through elections. While credible polls will be a critical step in forging a path to peace, they are not a panacea for addressing this byzantine conflict’s deeply rooted drivers and the intense, bitter rivalries and factionalism that have surfaced since 2011. Indeed, previous efforts to hold elections have buckled under the weight of the intricate dynamics at play. Over a decade after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, resolving Libya’s complex conflict will require a multifaceted approach that prioritizes building trust among Libyans.
With the U.N.’s special representative of the secretary-general for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, recently announcing a new initiative to hold elections, it is critical to consider the undercurrents — beyond electoral processes — that must be navigated, the roles of national Libyan institutions in mitigating the country’s intense polarization, and how the international community can help.
Underlying Drivers of Conflict
The complexity of Libya’s conflict — with rival governments in the east and west, various players jockeying for power and a host of foreign actors interfering — has resulted in everchanging fault lines and flash points for violence. The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli (the west) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (the east) both grapple with the limits of power in a country with divided governance and struggle to execute the basic functions of a state.
These broader national tensions are exacerbated by regional and local conflicts among various tribes and armed groups and narratives of marginalization — especially in the country’s southern Fezzan region — that foster grievances and resentment. This convoluted interplay generates a self-perpetuating cycle of conflict and violence.
What makes this worse is the role of the numerous foreign powers who interfere in Libya to advance their own interests. The relentless involvement of countries like Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France in supporting various factions has transformed the conflict into a convoluted proxy war. These powers — driven by strategic, economic and geopolitical motivations — exacerbate the situation by supplying weapons, financial aid and even mercenaries to their respective Libyan allies. As a result, the quest for peace and stability has become ever more elusive, eaving the Libyan people to bear the brunt of a conflict that seems to have no end in sight.
These are issues that elections — no matter how credible and transparent — cannot overcome alone. Libya’s rival factions need to come together and agree on a political settlement that addresses the root causes of the conflict. This settlement should provide a framework for the division of power and resources — and a plan for decentralizing power. Promoting reconciliation to redress grievances and injustices is also imperative. These are processes that will take time, concerted effort and political will. To even begin to set Libya on a path to a peaceful and stable future, it is vital to build trust among Libyans and enhance the legitimacy of national institutions.
Reconciliation and the Role of Libya’s National Institutions
The U.N.-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum — which was launched in 2020 and brings together key Libyan representatives from across Libyan society — mandated in February 2021 that Libya’s Presidential Council oversee vital national reconciliation efforts. Established under the Libyan Political Agreement in 2015, the Presidential Council serves as Libya’s head of state, led by a chairman and two vice-chairmen representing Libya’s three historical regions.
In February 2023, the Presidential Council convened a national dialogue with over 80 representatives from diverse Libyan factions. They identified five issues that must be addressed to achieve national reconciliation: identity, security, transitional justice, decentralization and local governance. The deputy head of Libya’s Presidential Council, Abdullah Al-Lafi, has said that this effort can complement the U.N.’s latest elections plan and U.N. Special Representative Bathily has expressed his support for the Libyan-led endeavor.
At the request of the Presidential Council, Libya’s National Planning Council (NPC) has played an instrumental role in designing the national dialogue. Beginning in 2018, the NPC spearheaded reunification efforts for state institutions divided since 2014 between the east and west. Its achievements include the reunification of the Audit Bureau and Libyan Airlines, among other national institutions.
These efforts to reunite divided institutions emphasized that reunification hinges on reform and a substantial conversation about decentralization. Decentralization-focused discussions are especially critical to the national reconciliation process, and their importance to the reunification efforts offers a window into how Libya’s governance system can be reformed to align institutions with international norms and adapt their mandates to satisfy Libyan expectations.
Given the technical complexities of decentralizing governance and devolving it to subnational bodies, national institutions that understand the intricacies and necessary mechanisms should be entrusted with this process. These institutions will create and refine a national vision, which will subsequently be presented to the Libyan people for their input and evaluation. In this way, both reconciliation and decentralization work together in a complementary fashion, with the NPC playing a pivotal role in bridging the two tracks.
International Community Support
While the Presidential Council’s and the NPC’s initiatives are promising, they reveal structural weaknesses that require international support. The primary shortcomings stem from inadequacies in the design of the procedures. For instance, it is imperative to devote more attention to establishing a strong participant selection criterion, promoting inclusiveness for local communities and effectively connecting local and national processes. Additionally, there are areas for improvement in strategic communications and related aspects.
To bolster these efforts and the capacities of the Presidential Council and the NPC, the international community must marshal expertise and provide technical assistance, without compromising the Libyan-owned processes. This support should aim to strengthen national institutions, foster dialogue and cooperation among rival factions, and advance initiatives that tackle the conflict’s root causes.
Ending Libya’s political impasse requires a holistic strategy, of which elections are only one component. Tackling underlying conflict drivers and bolstering the Presidential Council’s and the NPC’s efforts to overcome polarization are critical steps toward achieving a durable peace. The international community can play a pivotal role by providing resources and expertise. In the end, though, Libyans themselves will have to forge a path to peace.
Mehdi Bchir is the country director for the U.S. Institute of Peace in Libya.