Tarek Megerisi

A diplomatic disasterclass

As these powers have dysfunctionally risen and destabilisingly fallen, the international community’s own lethargy, unilateralism and opportunism were captured in the office of the UN’s SRSG Abdoulaye Bathily. Having been appointed in late 2022 during a period of growing international momentum behind a new electoral process, he eschewed the prepared plan, partially due to pressure from predatory powers fearing change may disrupt their plunder and partially due to a myopic interest in his own pet projects.

These projects include a security-sector dialogue, a national reconciliation process, and eventually his own political process; they were substantively light, involving little expertise, no process and no clear goals, thus only undermining all the efforts which preceded him.

The lack of a cohering UN vehicle empowered unilateralism in a familiar way. Ankara stepped up efforts to mould Libya into a useful tool to enhance its energy, financial, and geopolitical needs. Italy helped deepen Libyan fragmentation through its desperation to manage migration and profit from Libyan energy. Almost everybody looked to profit from Libya’s vulnerable oil industry, general lawlessness, and the flood of capital exiting its shores.

In an eerie example of how Libyan history rhymes, for the second time in five years, the UN envoy has departed to be replaced by a US deputy named Stephanie whose nationality is weaponised by American rivals to denigrate her but not leveraged by DC or its allies to enhance any process.

The weeks preceding and following Bathily’s resignation have been forebodingly marked by stepped-up Turkish and Russian weapons deliveries. Meanwhile, Washington seems to be mimicking Bathily, squandering its geopolitical gravity to fixate on futile, hyper-focused, yet poorly thought-through policies like joint patrols between eastern and western forces—essentially trialling new deck chair arrangements aboard a sinking Titanic.

These changes have shaken the broader international community out of its disinterest in Libyan politics, only for them to relapse back into familiar camps. Those ineffectually trying to maintain the status quo and those seduced by Haftar’s military dictatorship and hoping to see it implemented nationwide. The former seeks to re-invigorate UN-sanctioned relics of their past processes, like the Joint Military Committee, which was supposed to maintain a ceasefire, evacuate foreign forces, and unify Libya’s military or the GNU itself.

These efforts range from dialogue processes that live and die completely detached from on-the-ground realities to cynical displays of realpolitik. Here, diplomats surreptitiously attempt to create the environment needed for elite bargains, like another Haftar and Dbeibeh deal, or for Dbeibeh and key allies-turned-enemies like the central bank governor to repair ties.

This is the geopolitical equivalent of trying to mate pandas. The latter camp is those either predisposed to desire dictatorships in the Arab world or diplomats who became enamoured during their guided tours through Haftar’s Potemkin villages, showcasing reconstruction and his new order. Regardless of what triggered their love for the frumpy field marshal, they believe that his style of military dictatorship is the best route to stabilising Libya.

The wheel turns 

The end of Libya’s cycles always looks suspiciously like their start. Against the backdrop of escalating skirmishes between armed groups and military buildups by intervening powers, Libya’s politicians play out a familiar pantomime as they promote a new government from amongst themselves to replace the incumbent. 

This time, they say, the government will lead to elections, though they never have a roadmap to a vote. This time, they say, the new government will unify the country while all actors tie themselves ever tighter to outside powers, and Haftar never looks any closer to genuine cooperation. This time, they say, they will fight corruption and restore governance as they prepare mock cabinets of over thirty ministers but never any actual policies.

The previous cycles have ended in war and financial meltdown, and if the diplomats do not now try something new, things will surely end the same way this time around. The only way to drag Libya out of its spiral is to begin reversing it.

To return to the planning that preceded Bathily, a medium-term political process that goes through elections is needed to restore popular Libyan sovereignty over Libya’s economics and politics. This process is backed by and involves key legitimising states from the US to Europe, key interventionists like Turkey, and regional actors.

For diplomats, this seems daunting and like a lot of hard work. But, if Libya’s elite capture is not broken, we know where it will lead. The city of Derna, destroyed last September through accumulated political negligence and now suffering the ignominious corruption of a pretend reconstruction, hovers over the country as the ghost of Libya’s future. This future can only be averted if the international community choose to push for change rather than vouchsafe another cycle.


Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His work mainly addresses how European policymaking towards the Maghreb and Mediterranean regions can become more strategic, harmonious, and incisive – with a long-term focus on Libya.


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