Libya is still mired in a political standstill that has been going on for over a year despite the international consensus reached in September to appoint a new UN special representative to head the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), restructure the organisation, and invite local parties to present new initiatives to break the stalemate.
Under the UN-sponsored political process that began in the spring of 2021, the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) and the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS) were supposed to agree on a constitutional basis for general elections to be held in December that year.
However, they failed to reach a consensus, as did the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) that then took over the responsibility of holding the elections. Tensions rose again when the HoR attempted to withdraw confidence from the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) headed by Abdel-Hamid Al-Dbeibah with the result that the elections due to be held on 24 December 2021 were called off.
In February 2022, the HoR formed a new government headed by former interior minister Fathi Bashagha, but Al-Dbeibah refused to step down. Tripoli has since experienced three clashes between rival militia groups backing Al-Dbeibah and Bashagha.
The first clash occurred when Bashagha entered the capital Tripoli with an armed entourage, triggering a skirmish in which one person died and dozens were injured. Political sparring has continued between various local stakeholders over the priorities of the ongoing interim phase, while rivals have traded accusations of corruption.
But recent weeks brought the first significant convergence of views between HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh and HCS Chairman Khaled Al-Mishri since the rounds of constitutional track talks that took place between them in May-June 2021.
The two sides agreed that GNU Prime Minister Al-Dbeibah had to go. They also reaffirmed the need to agree on a constitutional basis for the elections that would usher in an end to Libya’s fifth interim phase and which more than 2.8 million Libyan voters have been looking forward to since December last year.
However, the areas of disagreement between Saleh and Al-Mishri are still considerable. Saleh favours the idea that military officers can run for political office, while Al-Mishri is opposed, but perhaps more crucially, Saleh maintains that the presidential elections should be held first, while Al-Mishri believes that the parliamentary elections should be held before the presidential ones.
Under the original UN-sponsored plan for the elections in December last year, the parliamentary and presidential elections were to be held concurrently.
The rapprochement between the heads of the HoR and HCS, as fragile as it may be, is at least partially motivated by a convergence of self-interest. Saleh, it appears, has his eyes on a key post in the executive and particularly on the Presidency Council after it is reshuffled.
According to Libyan sources, he has also had secret communications with Al-Dbeibah in order to secure government appointments and prerogatives for close associates. For Al-Mishri, the motive for agreeing on Al-Dbeibah’s ouster appears more personal. Relations between him and the GNU prime minister are fraught due to the latter’s deliberate sidelining of the HCS. Al-Mishri has accused Al-Dbeibah of corruption, nepotism, and conspiring to remain in office indefinitely.
Saleh and Al-Mishri have come under intense Western pressure to come to terms on a constitutional basis for the elections. So far, they have managed to sidestep this by broadening the agenda of their talks to include nominations to the seven sovereign posts, as called for in the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015.
The main adversaries in the Libyan conflict have not come near an agreement on these points in the seven years since the agreement was signed.
Meanwhile, Al-Dbeibah has remained in continuous backchannel contact, not just with Saleh, but also with Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army. Last summer, Haftar and Al-Dbeibah agreed to dismiss the former board of directors of the National Oil Company (NOC) and appoint a new one. According to the deal, brokered by regional powers, Farhat Bengdara was appointed chairman of the board.
Dbeibah, who still has no intention of standing down, is also taking advantage of the Western powers’ impatience at attempts by local stakeholders in Libya to evade their commitments with regard to the elections. He has reiterated his commitment to holding them and averting a sixth interim phase. Like Al-Mishri and unlike Saleh and Haftar, Al-Dbeibah supports holding the parliamentary elections first.
Meanwhile, the newly appointed head of the UNSMIL, Abdoulaye Bathily of Senegal, has presented two briefings to the UN Security Council since his arrival in October. In the last, on 15 November, he reported that he had pursued consultations with Libyan stakeholders from all regions of the country in the interest of meeting the popular aspiration to hold elections as soon as possible.
He cautioned that “further prolonging the interim period will make the country even more vulnerable to political, economic, and security instability and could put it at risk of partition.”
Bathily reported some progress on the military and security track of negotiations. He convened a meeting of the 5+5 Joint Military Committee (5+5 JMC) on 27 October in Sirte, the first in many months, at which two sides “agreed to establish a Sub-Committee for the Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration of Armed Groups, which is expected to focus on the mapping and classification of the armed groups in Libya.”
But Bathily did not present a specific plan on the resumption of the political process that ground to a halt after his predecessor, UN special adviser Stephanie Williams, left the post. This probably had something to do with the main Libyan players responsible for bringing the process back on track, namely the HoR and HCS.
Although Bathily did not name them specifically, he undoubtedly had these bodies in mind when he told the UN Security Council that “there is an increasing recognition that some institutional players are actively hindering progress towards elections. The genuine political will of these actors needs to be tested against reality, as we approach December 24th, the first anniversary of the postponement of elections and the 7th anniversary of the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA)... I urge this council to send an unequivocal message to the obstructionists that their actions will not remain without consequences.”
The ongoing disputes between the international powers over the Libyan political process were also evident in the UN Security Council meeting on Libya last week. A main bone of contention is whether to proceed towards the elections or to put arrangements in place to form a new government first. The US and UK favour the former course, whereas France and Russia support the latter.
Their stances reflect the east-west divide in Libya over this and other questions. Like Saleh, most political actors in eastern Libya favour holding presidential elections first or presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously. In the West, the political actors are pushing for holding the parliamentary elections first, arguing that holding the presidential elections first and accepting their results would be difficult to achieve in the absence of an effective settlement to the Libyan crisis.
The parliamentary elections, on the other hand, would ensure the equitable representation of all the parties in government and generate a consensus that would renew the legitimacy of national institutions, creating a solid footing to move forward.
Local stakeholders have come forward with some initiatives to end the stalemate. Some have proposed legislative articles that could serve as the constitutional basis for new elections. They have urged the UN and the Libyan Presidency Council to adopt them, bypassing the HoR and HCS which they accuse of obstructing the political process.
Others have urged the Presidency Council to suspend the HoR and HCS and take it upon itself to promulgate the necessary constitutional basis and electoral laws by presidential decree. This proposal seems over-ambitious given the absence of any official authority with the ability to assert its influence and control over the entire country, let alone the constitutional authority to exercise sovereign power under a state of emergency.
However, the most significant recent initiative was launched on Saturday by 120 prominent Libyan figures, including members of the HoR, the HCS, municipal councils, the judiciary, tribal and other social leaders, and political activists.
The “120 Initiative”, as it has been dubbed, calls on the UN to devise a formula for the equitable representation of municipalities, political parties, and dignitaries in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which would then be charged with four tasks.
These are to adopt the Constitutional Declaration and electoral law of 2012 as the constitutional basis and law for the elections; to request international assistance for supervising the elections, in accordance with UN policies and principles for providing such assistance; to furnish guarantees for the independence and efficacy of the Higher National Electoral Commission to ensure it remains free from the influence of any of the current authorities; and to put in place measures to prevent the current authorities, whether in the executive or legislative branches, from intervening in the elections and to penalise all who attempt to obstruct the elections.
None of the local initiatives in Libya have yet elicited a response from the UN or international stakeholders.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.