Bilal Abdullah

Dilemmas of Intervention and Accumulation

Two dilemmas hinder the political settlement in Libya, making it harder for the UN envoy’s efforts to succeed. The first pertains to foreign pressure on local Libyan actors, while the second concerns the combined effort of successive UN envoys to Libya. When examining Bathily’s initiative, the extent of each dilemma becomes evident, potentially limiting the potential for the success of the current initiative.

The Dilemma of Intervention

The dilemma of intervention revolves around the tension between acknowledging Libyan sensitivity to international interventions and ensuring the settlement process’s effectiveness. To ensure such a settlement’s success, forcing local actors to prioritize the common national interest over their narrow concerns is imperative. Past experiences suggest that the limited milestones achieved in the settlement process were often linked to the UN mediator’s possession of relatively extensive powers.

For instance, the tenure of Stephanie Williams, the acting UN envoy after Ghassan Salamé, witnessed significant progress in the settlement process. A ceasefire agreement was signed, and a new PC of a unified government (at that time) was formed, marking the first such development since 2014. Conversely, the current envoy’s mandate is undermined by continuous Libyan accusations against Bathily of attempting to impose external will on Libyans. This has resulted in sharp-worded criticisms that did not happen with previous envoys.

Following the launch of the current initiative, as per its published text, Bathily was keen to avoid the anticipated accusations of imposing externally dictated solutions while continuing to rely much on international support for his position in the face of traditional accusations by some local players to justify their hardline positions. Initial responses to his initiative indicate that this dilemma may shadow the settlement process in the upcoming period, potentially limiting the initiative’s chances of breaking the current stalemate.

In his interview with Jeune Afrique, Bathily noted that the argument of foreign intervention is a convenient way for Libyan officials to hide their failures. Discussing this dilemma does not detract from the primacy of international influence, and developing an international consensus about Libya will be most critical in forcing the local players to reach some settlement. However, the effects of this dilemma appear in the maneuvering margin that Libyan players seek to expand as much as possible.

These tactics may undo the few gains achieved so far, be it the ceasefire agreement, which may collapse, or the insistence of some players on rejecting the two electoral laws despite being endorsed by a Security Council resolution, to demanding that a new UN envoy be appointed. This demand will mean wasting time building regional and international consensus to choose the new envoy. Furthermore, the new envoy will need time to develop a fresh vision to build upon the gains while addressing the deficiencies of previously employed approaches.

Therefore, acknowledging that international conditions are not ripe for a conclusive settlement, international tolerance for the manipulation by local players of the principle of “rejection of external intervention” may not only result in freezing the conflict or buying time but could also lead to regression and risking the loss of some achieved gains. This, in turn, would complicate matters significantly and increase technical challenges when international conditions for conflict resolution mature. Such a situation might amount to the resurgence of large-scale armed confrontations.

The Accumulation/Interruption Dilemma

This dilemma refers to disruptions in the work of UN envoys, even when common ground exists on which to build toward some achievement. In the context of Bathily’s initiative, particularly the consultative process with non-institutional players, it is relevant to recall the efforts by former envoy Ghassan Salamé within the inclusive national forum process. Over four months in 2018, 77 consultative sessions were conducted in 43 municipalities and the diaspora. These sessions helped bring consensus on ideas covering various aspects of the settlement process, resulting in a comprehensive report still accessible on the mission’s website.

Given its thoroughness and the wide range of Libyan parties involved, the consensus on ideas represents a crucial methodological framework. It can be considered representative of societal components, offering a foundation to limit the ability of the parties to the conflict to engage in more maneuvering and obstruction. Moreover, this can streamline the process, saving time and effort.

Considering the early signs of potential challenges to the success of Bathily’s initiative, whether in convening the five-party meeting or reaching a consensus to resolve outstanding issues, press leaks indicate Bathily’s inclination to propose a form of “General National Congress.” This means activating the consultative process, even if the five-party meeting faces difficulties. Ghassan Salamé’s experience with the inclusive national forum could be repeated.

Once the outcomes of the consultative meetings were solidified into a final report, efforts were made to organize an inclusive national forum in Ghadames around mid-April 2019. This forum would have involved various national-level actors to help resolve the political crisis. However, these preparations did not evolve into something larger and positive because of the rising military tension that led to the Tripoli War.

Presently, the Libyan conflict follows a similar path, with most political dialogue avenues blocked and signs pointing to the potential collapse of the ceasefire agreement. The planned consultative process may prove insufficient to stop the current deterioration, avoid dangerous scenarios, and find a way out of the current political impasse. There is also a need to protect the outcomes of this process through a Security Council resolution, forcing institutional players to act upon these outcomes.


With the growing signs that different players in the Libyan conflict aim to undermine UN envoy Abdoulaye Bathily’s initiative, the most optimistic scenario may be Bathily’s success in bringing together the five leaders around the same table, but with no real possibility that the Libyan crisis can be solved in this single meeting. The more realistic scenario is that the likelihood of convening such a meeting remains slim.

Despite the limited possibility of breaking the current impasse, the ongoing political process, keeping the already achieved gains, and restricting the local players’ ability to manipulate the situation remain worthy priorities. This holds even though current conditions are not ripe for the final settlement of the Libyan crisis.


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