Dr Mustafa Fetouri

The United Nations Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was established in 2011 as Libya descended into chaos and lawlessness, starting in February 2011 when hundreds of young Libyans took to the streets demanding reform, jobs, housing and better living conditions.

Before the end of the first week of protests, what could have been ordinary small legitimate demonstrations were, deliberately, turned into an armed rebellion. By 20 February, 2011, the entire country went up in flames and, eight months later, Muammer Gaddafi was murdered, ushering in more chaos and lawlessness.

Throughout the past 13 years, Libya’s reconciliation maze – the top UN goal in the country – has eluded nine envoys, and counting. The list of envoys include some of the wisest and most experienced diplomats, like Ghassan Salame, who resigned from the job due to bad health to the current mediator, Abdoulaye Bathily, who lacks thorough understanding of the country compared to his predecessor. Mr. Bathily is a former Senegalese minister with a significant Francophone background and an aristocratic streak. He has, however, beaten Salame in one measure: to manage and prolong the crisis, instead of solving it—something the UN is very good at.

Last 18 December, just days before Libya’s 72 Independence anniversary, Mr. Bathily told the UNSC that he had been working day and night since taking over – in September 2022 – to get Libyan protagonists to come together and “be nice to each other”, as he once remarked when he first arrived in Tripoli in March 2022, supposedly to save Libya.

However, since he took over the UN mission, the gap between the disagreeable Libyan parties has widened, while they have grown less nice to each other. Mr. Bathily found consolation in telling his audience, the UNSC, that there is a little dim light at the end of the tunnel. He said that Libya, for the first time, “has” the necessary laws for “elections” – a highly contentious issue among different parties vying for power. He told the Gaza-preoccupied Council that the country’s election commission finds the newly passed election laws “technically implementable” and technically, also, the commission is ready to organise both presidential and legislative ballots. However, the UN envoy did not say when the elusive elections could take place because, deep down, he knows it is unlikely to happen in 2024.

A few sentences down his sombre speech, Mr. Bathily appeared unsure if the dim flicker of light he saw earlier was still blinking at the end of tunnel or had completely gone out. He reiterated that his new idea, which he proposed last November as a plan to fix Libya, is the way to go. This idea calls for the meeting of the five “institutional stake holders”, as he called them, to agree on the way forward. The five “institutions” which the UN envoy believes are capable of sorting out the mess are: the Parliament and the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar from Eastern Libya and, sitting opposite them, from Western region are: the overly corrupt, yet UN recognised Government of National Unity, the Higher Council of State and the paralysed Presidential Council.

While Mr. Bathily refrained from admitting that his idea is unlikely to see the light of day, he seemed to be telling the UNSC that the plan could work, where everything else has failed to deliver elections in a country where everyone wants voting, except his “five institutional stakeholders”. He said that he has already invited the “key” stakeholders and that none of them have rejected the proposed meeting, but all of them made their participation conditional on issues that make the entire initiative dead, even if he did not yet pronounce it.

The man appears to be confused, to say the least. In early March, when he first arrived at UNSMIL headquarter in Palm City west of Tripoli, he was clearer and appeared a little more decisive. He told all Libyan power-hungry and corrupt “key institutions” – the Parliament and its rival Higher Council of State, in this particular instance, that if they did not agree on elections laws by June 2023, he would convene a parallel dialogue group that includes all Libyan players to draft and enact elections laws. He called the proposed group as the High Level Steering Committee.

Come October, both houses failed to produce the required documents. The final documents of the two elections laws – for presidential and another for legislative elections, respectively – were full of shortcomings, according to Mr. Bathily himself. In November, he commented that both laws, drafted jointly by both houses, were “[un]implementable” at which moment, his High Level Steering Committee should have taken over the process of law drafting, but that never happened.

By late summer of 2023, the entire idea of the Committee lost momentum and Mr. Bathily himself allowed it, discreetly, to join other shelved UN envoys’ initiatives. A while later, he came back with another more disagreeable idea – the initiative of the “key institutional” stakeholders – to quote his own description.

By the time he briefed the UNSC last December, many were already convinced that he had moved to the stage of “managing” the Libyan mess, instead of ending it.Mr. Bathily has already been at the helm of UNSMIL for more than 13 months; the average time each former envoy has spent on the job. Many Libya observers believe that, at this stage, Mr. Bathily is dabbling with the extra time, during which no new initiatives will get drafted, let alone debated. And the outcome? Nothing of substance is likely to happen about important issues like elections, unification of state institutions and reconciliation.

The experience of the UN in Libya confirms one thing: the world body’s old reputation of being a clumsy manager of crises but definitely not a problem solver in any way – examples of the UN’s historical deficiencies are littering the world political stage, from Somali to Bosnia-Herzegovina all the way to North Korea and Ukraine, in between.

However the UN’s return to Libya, this time to pull it out of the UN-helped mess, is no surprise to many, including some Libyan politicians who usually agree with what the organisation proposes, only to reject it, once they get into the details.

The repeated failures of the UN offer politicians enough ammunition to shoot at the UN, blaming it for almost everything, after they finish blaming each other. But, overall, this kind of status quo serves them better and they love to see it prolonged for ever, since it preserves their privileges, including high pay and a comfortable life compared to the average Libyan.

For the UN to be back trying to fix Libya, 72 years later, might be a good thing, if only the organisation is prepared to effectively lead – which is not the case, unfortunately.


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