Jennifer Holleis

After “stubborn resistance” by Libya’s major political stakeholders, Abdoulaye Bathily, the UN special envoy for Libya, has resigned. Analysts say his replacement will need to disrupt the “dangerous” status quo.

This week, another United Nations special envoy for Libya was frustrated enough with the political situation in the fractured country to quit his job.

After 18 months in the post, the Senegalese diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily said he had done his best to get the five key political actors in Libya to resolve contested issues over electoral laws, form a unified government and set the country on a path towards long-delayed elections.

“But my attempts were met with stubborn resistance, unreasonable expectations and indifference to the interests of the Libyan people,” Bathily told reporters on Tuesday.

In the history of the UN Support Mission in Libya — launched in 2011 to help facilitate a political process that would lead to national and parliamentary elections after the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar Ghaddafi — Bathily’s resignation is a repetition of what happened in 2020 and 2021.

In 2020, Ghassan Salame resigned, saying that “for two years, I tried to re-unite Libyans and restrain foreign interference…but for health reasons, I can no longer continue with this level of stress.”

Salame was succeeded by Jan Kubis, who resigned in November 2021, also citing health reasons.

Jalel Harchaoui, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, said that it was quite likely that Stephanie Koury from the United States, currently serving as deputy head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, would emerge as interim special envoy.

“But without the council’s full backing, Koury — if made the interim envoy — may be hamstrung in what she can achieve,” he told the AFP news agency.

Despite the full backing of the council, the special envoy’s impact has been limited for years, given that the country remains split between two rival governments — the UN-recognized government under President Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in Tripoli and an administration in the east led by General Khalifa Hiftar, the commander of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces.

Political vacuum

“I don’t think Mr. Bathily’s resignation is going to have any major impact on the ground,” Virginie Collombier, professor at Rome’s Luiss School of Government and co-editor of the book ‘Violence and Social Transformation in Libya’, told DW.

“Over the past year, Mr. Bathily has been focusing on a kind of shuttle diplomacy, trying to convince the main parties to come together for high level talks,” she said, adding that “he never really managed to bring them together.”

In her view, his resignation will likely deepen the current diplomatic vacuum, in a context where there has not been any real political initiative on the table for the past 12 months. It’s a view echoed by Tim Eaton, a senior research fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“Abdoulaye Bathily’s political process was very much stuck, and there didn’t seem to be much prospect for progress, given that he was seeking agreement among what he called the Big Five,” he told DW.

In Libya’s case, the Big Five refers to Khalifa Hiftar, Mohammed Takala, the chairman of the High Council of State, Mohamed Yunus al-Menfi, the president of the Libyan Presidential Council, Aguila Saleh, an influential speaker of the House of Representatives in Benghazi, which is considered to be the counterpart of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli under Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the last on the list.

“Three of those five individuals effectively rejected the basis of Bathily’s engagement, and there wasn’t really an obvious way round this,” Eaton said.

In March, al-Menfi, Takala and Saleh met in the Egyptian capital Cairo at a meeting organized by the Arab League. Only afterwards did the group consult with the UN Support Mission in Libya. At the time, observers informed DW that they didn’t believe there was any real intention to change.

No incentives to compromise

For Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst for Libya at the International Crisis Group and once a policy advisor to Ghassan Salame, the former UNSMIL’s envoy to Libya, it is not only the lack of goodwill by Libyan actors that has hampered negotiations until now.

“It is rather the fact that the political and economic landscape in the country gives the current actors very little incentive to compromise,” she told DW.

“The dysfunctional state, the control over the resources and the fact that money from oil sales is going across the country reaching the Eastern side make incentives for a democratic political solution very low,” Gazzini said. She also, however, levied some responsibility for the stalled progress at Bathily.

“He designed a negotiation process that was entirely in the hands of those in power,” she said. “This was a contradiction. He said that it would be impossible to have any process as long as the Libyan leaders were in charge.”

‘Still room for the UN in Libya’

It will take some time until Libya’s next UN envoy is appointed by the 15-member UN Security Council, which operates by consensus.

“What we have seen over time and among the many special envoys is that the personality and the country of origin of the special envoy is important,” Tim Eaton told DW.

The next UN envoy will have to be much more engaged, vocal and proactive in seeking resolutions to Libya’s problems, Eaton said.

In his view, the approach can no longer be about getting the same cast of characters to agree on something that isn’t in their interests.

“The successor is going to have to be willing to disrupt what is a very dangerous status quo, where those in charge of the country are increasingly looting its assets,” Eaton said, “This will necessitate a more inclusive political process, something Bathily failed to deliver.”

Jennifer Holleis – Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa


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