While the international community is hyper-focused on Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Libya is on the brink of a slowly brewing civil war, that will be awfully difficult to control this time and its consequences will be suffered by the countries of the Mediterranean and North Africa.
In a scene that is very reminiscent of Warlord Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to seize Tripoli, in 2019, an armed clash between the pro-Bashagha and the pro-Dbeibeh militias was miraculously controlled at last minute, last week on the 10th of March. A number of militias from the cities of Misrata, Tarhuna, and Zliten tried to penetrate into Tripoli by force, attacking from various points at the southern and northwestern borders of the Capital City. Their goal was to force the existent UN-recognized interim Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, to step down and hand power to their master, Fathi Bashagha, who was named by the Tobruk-based parliament, in February, as the head of a new interim government.
Fortunately, the militias’ attack was deterred before it turns into an actual combat, as quick actions were taken from the Tripoli-based government and the representatives of the United Nations and the international community in Libya. First, the GNU’s security forces blocked the roads leading to Tripoli making it difficult for the militias to proceed and thus forced them to split into smaller groups. In parallel, some powerful militias in the cities of Al-Zawiya and Tripoli, who favor the GNU, warned that they would engage if the outsider militias moved further towards Tripoli.
The halted clashes mark a peak point of the political conflict that has been going on for about two months between the GNU and the members of the political elite. Ironically, the two sides of conflict in eastern and western territories, who had been dragging Libya into political crises and civil wars that killed hundreds of innocent civilians, in the past few years, are miraculously cooperating to obliterate the UN-backed political solution process, abusing the fact that the regional and international backers of the contending parties are busy with handling the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Desperate International Mediations
Immediately after this failed attempt of seizing Tripoli, the U.S. Special Envoy to Libya, Richard Norland, contacted Bashagha and other involved politicians to stress the importance of preserving calm and stability in the country. Meanwhile, Stephanie Williams, the Special Adviser on Libya for the UN Secretary-General, made a statement urging restraint and the need to “abstain from provocative actions, in word and deed, including the mobilization of forces.” The quick involvement of Norland and Williams in rejecting the employment of militias, cornered Bashagha, who had to respond with a public statement confirming that he will try once again to enter Tripoli “by law not by force.”
One week before the militias attack Tripoli, Stephanie Williams offered a solution out of the political stalemate created by the Parliament’s insistence on installing a new interim government, parallel to the existent GNU. Williams’ initiative is about forming a supreme committee of twelve members – six from the parliament and six from the High Council of State – to work on preparing the political and legislative contexts for the parliamentary and presidential elections, in June.
Like most domestic and international observers and decision-makers, Williams sees no good reason for installing another interim government, during this narrow window of time between two endeavors to hold the long-awaited elections; stressing that “the solution to Libya's crisis does not lie in forming rival administrations and perennial transitions." Although all the political factions inside Libya welcomed Williams’ initiative, none of them took an actual step towards helping her put it into action, up till this moment. That further complicates the potential of holding the elections as scheduled in June, which is in less than three months from now.
In a public statement, on March 15, Norland joined Williams on pressing for holding elections without further delay, as the only way out of the current political crisis and the tense situation in Libya. “The US supports the efforts of the UN Advisor, Stephanie Williams to hold the elections. The UN is the body that can effectively facilitate this process;” Norland noted. He, also, proposed holding talks between all the involved members of the political elite, and stressed that regional and international allies of the United States, including the most active players in Libya, such as Egypt, Turkey, France, and Italy, have agreed that holding elections should be the top priority right now.
Keeping Power by Recreating the Political Crises
Ironically, the political elite on both sides of the conflict in Libya, are not keen on holding the elections as Stephanie Williams and Richard Norland are. The political rivals, in the eastern and western territories, are cooperating for the first time, not with the purpose to end the misery of the Libyan people, but to abolish the Government of National Unity, which is determined to hold the elections, and the Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, whose popularity is outpacing theirs. They played a clear role in pushing the first endeavor to hold the elections, in December 2021, to failure. Now, through manipulating the outdated constitution and the laws of their own creation, they are trying to cease the new attempt of holding the elections, in June, which is in less than three months from now. Their purpose and top priority out of this is to keep themselves politically powerful for as long as they can.
On the morning of February 10th, a few hours after the GNU Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, survived an assassination attempt, the Libyan parliament announced the installation of a new interim government, to be headed by Fathi Bashagha, who had previously served as a Minister of Interior in the former interim Government of National Accord (GNA). However, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh insisted on holding on to his position until the political solution process is accomplished by convening the presidential and parliamentary elections in June.
Dbeibeh, also, attacked the parliament for solely making the decision to dissolve the GNU, without a public referendum or even consulting with the United Nations Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). In fact, the parliament’s uninvited and unwelcome decision dropped as a surprise to almost all concerned parties, on the local, regional, and international levels. The GNU’s term of eighteen months has not ended, yet, and the country is already preparing for a presidential and parliamentary elections in June, in compliance with the political solution process, which was endorsed by the 75 members of the LPDF under the UN supervision, in late 2020.
The parliament speaker, Aguila Saleh, justified the decision by holding Dbeibeh, exclusively, guilty for the country’s failure to hold public elections in December. That is despite the fact that, all the active players inside Libya, including the parliament itself, participated in making the decision of postponing the elections under the claim of “force majeure.” Even more, Aguila Saleh claimed that Dbeibeh lost his legitimacy by running for president, in the postponed elections. However, in fact, Dbeibeh was not the only state official, on duty, to run in these elections. Fathi Bashagah, and Aguila Saleh himself, are competing over the presidential seat, too.
Despite the lack of political logic or legal justification to designating another interim government at this time, the parliament proceeded with the process of approving Bashagha’s government. On the first week of March, while all eyes were directed to the Ukraine, the Libyan parliament swore in Bashagha and endorsed his government. Some local politicians, including members of parliament, accused Aguila Saleh of manipulating their votes. Some of them tried to leave Tobruk, one night before the voting, but Haftar militia stopped their planes and forced them to stay to attend the voting session. A few days before that the parliament tried to endorse the Bashagha government, but most members of parliament declined to attend the voting session.
The question of legitimacy
The biases of Aguila Saleh and some members of the parliament that he leads, since 2014, should make us question the true intentions behind such a decision. Aguila Saleh is a strong supporter of warlord Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces in the eastern territories of Libya. He has always been using his power, as the parliament speaker, to push the parliament to make decisions that enhances Haftar’s escalation against the legitimate UN-recognized governments that work from Tripoli. He even endorsed Haftar’s attempts to raid on Tripoli by force, in 2019, until the Turkish military intervened on the side of GNA to deter him away.
When the GNU took power, via the LPDF, in March 2021, Haftar and Saleh congratulated the move; especially Haftar who had high hopes to be appointed as Minister of Defense in the GNU, and then as a president of state later. Wisely, the GNU Prime Minister, Dbeibeh, decided to keep the seat of the defense minister empty until the Military Committee (5+5) comes to an agreement about unifying the armed forces in Tripoli and Benghazi under one national flag.
To avenge, Haftar and his ally Saleh started to level economic and security pressures on Dbeibeh and the GNU to make them appear as a failure government in the eyes of the Libyan people and the international community. For example, the parliament has been declining to approve the government budget, since last June, and Haftar launched more than one military action in the south, including closing Libyan borders with Algeria, against the will of the legitimate government and the Presidential Council in Tripoli.
Despite that, Dbeibeh was able to navigate through all the hardships thrown on his way by the eastern rivals and bring the country to a state of relative stability, that allowed organizing for holding elections in December. However, only three days before the voting is due, the High National Elections Commission (HNEC), announced its inability to proceed with holding the elections due to a persistent state of “force majeure.”
On the morning of the same day when the decision was made to postpone the elections, Fathi Bashagha and Ahmed Maiteeq, two officials from the former GNA, visited Benghazi and held reconciliation meetings with Haftar and Saleh. It was surprising to see them together, at that particular day because, for years, the animosity between the GNA officials and eastern politicians had been very intense; it was not only limited to political rivalry but also reached the verge of a violent civil war. Apparently, in this particular meeting some deal was made between Bashagha and Haftar to ouster Dbeibeh and seize Tripoli through a game of political manipulation by the parliament.
That is exactly what manifested, one month later, in the form of a flawed decision by Aguila Saleh’s parliament to dissolve the GNU and put Bashagha in the Prime Minister’s seat. Both Bashagha and Haftar has an interest of pushing Dbeibeh out of the political scene, as his popularity among the public has been increasing to a level that threatens their power. His potential to win the postponed presidential elections was very high, compared to Haftar, Bashagha, Saleh, or any other members of the political elite, either from the east or the west. In a local television interview, two days after the parliamentary decision, Dbeibeh said that Aguila Saleh sent him an indirect message that “if he wants to remain in power for another year or so, he should withdraw from running in the presidential elections,” but he refused.
All these facts should put the legitimacy of the decisions of the parliament in question. In fact, the legitimacy of the parliament itself as a representative to the will of the Libyan people is also in question. This is an expired parliament, that should have been re-elected, since eight years ago. In other words, Aguila Saleh’s parliament in Tobruk does not represent the Libyan people, and thus is not a legitimate body, and should be regarded as such by the United Nations and the interested members of the international community, when dealing with the Libyan crisis.
Survival and Wasted Opportunities
It is hard to predict what could happen with Libya, next. That is not only because Libyan politics is highly unpredictable, but mainly because the interest of the international community and the active regional powers is shrinking, while the world is busy with the war in eastern Europe. As grieve and miserable as it is, the Russia-Ukraine war holds a lot of opportunities for Libya. But, the unending conflicts between the political elite are hindering Libya’s potential to seize the momentum.
On one hand, Russia has been moving its affiliated mercenaries, including those working with the Wagner Group, outside of Libya to fight in Ukraine. This should give Libya a huge security relief and encourages the government to control local militias and focus on unifying the military forces. However, this is not even a possibility right now, as the growing conflicts among the political elite feed the arms and pockets of the militia.
On the other hand, Europe is looking for Libya as one of the best alternative resources for crude oil and natural gas, due to its high volumes of proven reserves of both products and its geographic proximity to the southern shores of Europe. Yet, the political instability resulting from having two interim governments, at the moment, is minimizing the possibility of Libya being the main energy supplier to thirsty Europe. The energy sector in Libya is struggling due to a lack of budget and disturbed decision-making.
In the middle of this gloomy scene, the Libyan people are hopelessly trying to get their voices heard through protesting and rallies that usually ends with undesired clashes. As the U.S. Special Envoy previously noted, holding the elections is the best way out of the current political stalemate in Libya. However, holding parliamentary and presidential elections, under the current conflicts, sounds like a miracle.
Can the UN Advisor, Stephanie Williams, create another miracle, similar to the one she created in 2020 when she brought all the conflicting Libyan factions in one room to design a political solution and choose a new government? I believe she can.
* Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.