Ufuk Necat Tasci

Analysis: The UN has failed to instigate meaningful change in Libya, allowing status quo actors to strengthen their entrenched positions in the divided country. Amid a sharp international shift in attention towards active wars in Ukraine and Gaza, frozen conflicts in the Middle East have become overshadowed. In Libya, one of the places most affected by the Arab Spring, the fighting has subsided but the country remains mired in uncertainty and division.

This political instability was reinforced last week as the UN Special Envoy to Libya Abdoulaye Bathily resigned after just 18 months in his post. Accusing rival Libyan leaders of putting their own interests above finding a solution, Bathily, in his final words, said the UN support mission in Libya (UNSMIL) “made a lot of efforts under my leadership over the last 18 months,” but the situation has deteriorated. “The status quo actors in Libya persist, not due to their invincibility but because of a UN strategy that opts for appeasement over action”

“Under the circumstances, there is no way the UN can operate successfully,” he concluded. “There is no room for a solution in the future.” Bathily’s remarks confirm both the UN’s failure in Libya and the chaotic environment in which it operated, accusing Libya’s rival governments of perpetuating national divisions.

The country is currently divided between the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) in the west, led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, and the rival Benghazi-based House of Representatives in the east. The UN envoy’s resignation, and condemnation, raise questions about what could come next in Libya’s frozen conflict.

Anas El Gomati, founder and director of the Libya-based think tank Sadeq Institute, told The New Arab that Bathily’s departure is part of a carousel of UN envoys, underscoring a deeper, more systemic issue. According to him, a major impediment to progress in Libya has been the absence of political will among major powers within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to instigate meaningful change via elections. “The status quo actors in Libya persist, not due to their invincibility but because of a UN strategy that opts for appeasement over action,” El Gomati told TNA.

“This approach has favoured the creation of interim governments that serve as placeholders rather than problem-solvers, allowing those entrenched in power to fortify their positions further.” Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told TNA that even before Bathily became the UN Special Envoy external actors had played a key, and often damaging, role in exacerbating Libya’s stalemate.

“Cairo has maintained for several years that in order to conduct elections in Libya, it is necessary first to dismantle the current Dbeibeh government in Tripoli and replace it with a smaller caretaker government tasked with overseeing fair elections,” Harchaoui said “This tactic by the Egyptians is perfectly dishonest, and they have promoted it both directly in NYC and Washington but also through their support for the speaker of the eastern Libyan Parliament, Aguila Saleh.”

Harchaoui claims that Egypt had consistently contradicted Bathily, a tactic that Washington and others have largely tolerated. “Throughout his tenure, Bathily responded by making small concessions to Egypt, one after another, until his roadmap lost much of its most basic logic, to the point where, for the latest several months, the Bathily process had become devoid of realism and coherence,” he said.

“From this perspective, it is not surprising that the 76-year-old Bathily ultimately gave up and left. What’s important now is that in early March 2024, the Americans had taken the step of appointing a US diplomat as the deputy head of the UN mission in Libya. In practice, this means that Stephanie Khoury will now lead the UN mission in Libya on an interim basis. It’s entirely possible that her new direction may shift focus away from the issue of elections.”

There has also been a failure to pressure Aguila Saleh, the chief of the Tobruk parliament and the longest-standing member of the status quo, alongside the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS), to call for simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections. “The UN has preferred to perpetuate an approach that recycles the old guard into seemingly new but fundamentally unchanged interim unity governments. This strategy maintains a facade of progress while ensuring that there is no real threat to the entrenched power structures and, therefore, no real change for Libyans. It’s old wine, in new bottles,” analyst Anas El Gomati said.

Bathily’s resignation stems from the unsatisfactory results of a prolonged period of experimentation. Although the most topical issue now concerning Libya is what the UN, the US, Russia, and other actors will do following the UN envoy’s resignation, some think that war is only a matter of time. In this context, Harchaoui says that as the UN seeks to address its own failures, the main Tripoli decision-makers are leaving little room for dialogue or pragmatic arrangements among themselves that would prolong the current malaise without resorting to violence.

“The Central Bank of Libya continues to block the financial channels that Dbeibeh needs to function and survive as Prime Minister. For this reason, the plan to overthrow the governor has become increasingly tempting for Kabir’s enemies,” Harchaoui argues. “Dbeibeh does not have the luxury of waiting. Therefore, the risk of clashes erupting in Tripoli keeps inching higher and higher,” he added, saying that in the meantime Russia is implementing a bold and rapid military expansion of its presence in eastern and southern Libya.

While a new conflict is always possible, the circumstances now are very different to 2019, when Libyan National Army (LNA) leader General Khalifa Haftar launched a months-long offensive to capture Tripoli. “The prospect of war, while always possible, seems unlikely to manifest in the form of a direct invasion akin to Haftar’s 2019 power grab,” Gomati told TNA. He argued instead that the dynamics within Tripoli might evolve more subtly, with figures like Haftar possibly agitating from the sidelines to manoeuvre strategically into power within Tripoli’s militia landscape rather than through overt military aggression.

“External backers are also critical. Haftar’s backers in the UAE and Russia would not back another conflict. These players have a vested interest in maintaining Libya’s current divided and paralysed state, which serves as a logistics hub, and allowing them to leverage Libya to support the war in Sudan and their interests in the Sahel. Initiating another war in Libya would risk destabilising this advantageous balance, potentially undermining their broader regional strategy,” Gomati said.

“As for the UN’s new envoy in Libya, they are entering an arena where geopolitical interests favour paralysis and internal divisions have created a revenue-sharing mix for the elites like the Haftar and Dbeibeh families,” he added. “Nothing changes that game, apart from the insatiable greed on their respective parts. Without significant changes in the UN strategy towards Libya and a genuine commitment to enforce peace, security sector reform, and hold free and fair elections, the new envoy’s efforts are a different chapter in the same story of the last decade.”


Dr Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, academic, and journalist. His research areas and interests include Libya, the foreign policy of Turkey, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict and history.


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