For the first time since the 2014 civil war, Libyans have reached a political compromise, and the new unity government is off to a promising start. However, stiff challenges remain, and critical issues remain unsolved.
In a nutshell
- Political dialogue in Libya has produced its first results
- The interim government has the backing of key actors and interest groups
- Doubts remain whether democratic elections will be possible as planned in December
Progress has been made in recent months toward solving Libya’s internationalized domestic conflicts. However, the civil war-torn North African country is not there yet. The European governments rushing to sign agreements with the new Libyan leadership seem not to have thoroughly evaluated the situation on the ground; that government is bound – at least on paper – to be dismissed on December 24, 2021.
On March 10, 2021, the House of Representatives (HoR), which has operated from Tobruk since the Second Libyan Civil War in 2014, approved the new Government of National Unity (GNU) born through the efforts of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). The body consists of 74 members who represent all the country’s legitimate political actors: its tribes, ethnicities and political parties.
The HoR faction has 13 votes in the LPDF, the same number as its competitor, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The remaining 48 representatives come from civil society. On March 15, the new cabinet took the oath of office, after which the two rival governments smoothly handed over power. Libya’s first united executive since 2014 emerged.
The winning ticket has been a surprise for many. Old faces were outclassed by a group led by a businessman from Misrata, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. The name may not be familiar to those outside Libyan circles. However, he comes from an influential business clan that made its riches under Muammar Qaddafi’s regime (1969-2011), mainly operating in the construction sector. Now the head of the Libyan executive authority as the prime minister, he is flanked by three members of the Presidency Council: Mohamed Al-Menfi from Tobruk as the council’s president, and Musa Al-Koni of the Tuareg and Abdullah Hussein Al-Lafi from Zawiya, Tripolitania.
Many aspects have changed for the better, at least on the surface.
Together, they formed the country’s new executive with 27 ministers, six undersecretaries of state and two deputy prime ministers.
One year ago, Tripoli was exhausted after a protracted siege by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Tobruk-based warlord Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and backed by foreign interests. By now, many aspects on the ground have changed for the better, at least on the surface.
The conflict’s protagonists signed a cease-fire in October 2020. The deal included a demand for withdrawing the estimated 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries from the country by late January 2021. A joint military commission made up of senior officers from the Libyan armies, five from the GNA and five from the LNA, formulated the request.
Unfortunately, it has been ignored, and the United Nations estimates that thousands of mercenaries remain in Libya’s three regions. The Turks consider their presence legitimized by the many official agreements signed by Ankara with the expired GNA and restored with the new GNU. Members of Russia’s Wagner Group (a private company of mercenaries very active in Africa), have merely repositioned themselves in a strategic corridor between the Sirte area and Fezzan.
Foreign forces’ presence is a huge problem. So are the thousands of local militias that have no intention of laying down their arms, especially ahead of a potential general election in December. However, there is still no clarity on whether this is supposed to be parliamentary or presidential balloting, a direct or indirect vote.
Another doubt regards the election’s legal basis, given that Libya does not have a constitution yet. (In July 2017, a controversial draft was presented by the elected Constitutional Drafting Assembly to the HoR, which failed to implement the prescribed public referendum. Moreover, the project was not approved by the Amazigh minority, which makes it liable to be rejected in court.)
Security is also a challenge. Will the political environment in Libya in the next few months allow a free election campaign? Will the streets be safe on election day? How will the militias be prevented from sabotaging the process with intimidation and violence? Who will guarantee that voting results are respected? All these are critical issues that need to be addressed by the transitional executive tasked with guiding the country toward democracy.
Prime Minister Dbeibeh is still struggling to have the 2021 budget accepted (the HoR reduced the first draft by a fifth). Another volatile issue is how to stem rampant corruption and illicit financial flows. The country urgently needs more hospitals, schools, police and job opportunities, and investment in infrastructure rehabilitation.
A busy agenda
On June 1, the head of the Libyan executive met in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Ministerial-level talks were held weeks earlier, highlighting the strategic potential of the two countries’ relationship, above all in the economic field. Under the framework of the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation (signed in 2008 by Muammar Qaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi), the Libyan Investment Forum was organized on June 9, 2021, with the participation of leading Libyan enterprises, most of them connected to the oil industry.
Mercenaries remain on Libyan soil and disarming the countless local militias had not even begun.
Prime Minister Dbeibeh also went to Cairo, and the Algerian-Libyan Economic Forum was held at the end of May. Across the Mediterranean Sea, France and Germany have also been anxious to help, as attested by the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by Berlin and eight Cyrenaican municipalities; the project is meant to promote decentralization and economic development. Mr. Dbeibeh also talked to French President Emmanuel Macron and the heads of the country’s defense and foreign ministries; Spain, too, signed an MoU with Tripoli.
On June 3, on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Libya’s ministers met Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian deputy foreign minister and President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for the Middle East and North Africa. Officially, the conversation was on restoring training opportunities for Libyans in Russia, a program that functioned during the Qaddafi era. In the meantime, the security situation on the ground remains volatile. Mercenaries remain on Libyan soil and disarming the countless local militias had not even begun.
Moreover, on June 6, the Islamic State in Libya terror group claimed its first attack in a year. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device hit a police checkpoint in Sebha in southwestern Libya, killing two police officers and injuring four others. The target was Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which controls Sebha. In response, the LNA moved hundreds of its vehicles from the east toward Sebha and Fezzan, sparking the ire of the Presidential Council, which had barred any military movement not authorized by the government of Tripoli. At this point, the new government is planning to dispatch security forces to Libya’s southern border, lest Libyan politicians use instability there to delegitimize their opponents before the planned elections.
Dramatic social needs
The country also has severe social issues to tackle. Most of the facilities functioning in 2019 were closed in 2020, as the WHO’s 2020 Libya report pointed out. That had a particularly destructive impact on the rural areas, where security threats and underfunding of health services are pervasive. Frequent electricity outages are accompanied by a lack of fuel for generators and depleted stocks of essential medications: antibiotics, painkillers, insulin or blood pressure drugs. Medical staff often wait for months to receive salaries. These are just examples of the Libyan war’s tragic fallout; the conditions are making the civilians’ daily life an unending, desperate struggle.
At the end of 2020, the number of displaced people had fallen below 4,00,000, but land mines and unexploded ordnance have posed a significant threat to people coming back to their homes.
On the political side, the second Berlin Conference (which followed the first one in 2020) took place on June 23. UNSMIL and the internal and external heavyweights were in attendance, including the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The interim Libyan government was also present. The focus of the proceedings was on the elections, the withdrawal of foreign fighters and the creation of a unified Libyan security force.
Libya remains deeply divided, torn apart by factions with different goals.
However, there was an undeniable chasm between the frantic activity in high politics and with European countries’ moves on trade and financial arrangements, and the stagnation on the ground in Libya. Essentially, things in the country seem to have remained as before the creation of the GNU.
This script is unlikely to materialize, even if the global actors want to believe in it. European capitals’ lofty visions fail to appreciate the reality of a failed state overrun by armed groups and unable to deliver services to its citizens. This situation does not leave much room for optimism.
This scenario is less improbable than the last. Libya remains deeply divided, torn apart by a constellation of factions with different goals. The only common denominator is that all its actors desire political power and economic benefits. On the ground, given the prodigious amount of armaments and the continuing presence of mercenary bands, an ambiguous or contested result could lead to renewed fighting.
At this point, this is the most likely outcome. Libyan leaders – and their foreign sponsors – stand to gain plenty from this momentary economic enthusiasm. A resumption of the war, on the other hand, would throw the country in an even more dramatic condition. The agreements signed with foreign governments, especially those linked to the infrastructure network, could bring extraordinary benefits to Libya, with minimal costs for the Libyans themselves. In his political maneuvering, Mr. Dbeibeh could leverage this attractive opportunity versus the risk of a contested election to keep his rivals and the usual spoilers at bay.