Elections only will not lead to peace in Libya
The underlying military-political and economic tensions that fueled the civil war in Oil-rich Libya persists and could yet derail what remains a fragile reunification process.
This time last year, the Libyan capital was caught up in a year-old military campaign that had further internationalized the country’s dangerous divisions. Today, there is a new mood of cautious optimism in Tripoli. In October, negotiators from the two main warring sides—the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord and forces led by Khalifa Haftar, a commander based in eastern Libya—reached a cease-fire agreement that allowed for the resumption of a U.N.-led dialogue process. This in turn paved the way for the formation of Libya’s first unified government since the country slid into civil war in 2014.
The new Government of National Unity, or GNU, offers hope that oil-rich Libya can move on from seven years of bloody power struggles. It took office in mid-March and has already made history with the inclusion of the country’s first female foreign minister and justice minister. However, the underlying military-political and economic tensions that fueled the civil war persist and could yet derail what remains a fragile reunification process.
Led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, an influential businessman from Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, the GNU’s mandate is short, but its challenges are many. Its primary task is to steer the country toward national elections that are scheduled to take place on Dec. 24, the anniversary of Libya’s independence, as well as tackling a longstanding electricity crisis and the spread of COVID-19. The GNU got off to a shaky start: Dbeibah’s tenure has already been dogged by allegations of vote-buying at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, where delegates selected the new government.
On April 16, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that aims to bolster Libya’s delicate peace with the deployment of a 60-person cease-fire monitoring mission. But progress on a U.N.-supported security track designed to complement the political process has slowed, largely due to deep distrust between Libyan factions backed by an array of foreign benefactors. This track ultimately aims to unify the country’s military forces, but representatives from both sides have struggled to implement anything beyond a handful of confidence-building measures.
Haftar, the septuagenarian military commander whose unsuccessful attempt to seize Tripoli from the Government of National Accord in April 2019 torpedoed peace efforts and triggered more than a year of fighting, remains ensconced in his stronghold in eastern Libya. Supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt, Haftar has been accused since 2014 of seeking to install himself as a military ruler. Suspicions of his ambitions have been a key driver in the conflict, as have longstanding grievances over how the country’s oil wealth is disbursed. Haftar’s ambiguous stance toward the new administration in Tripoli—he behaves as if the GNU hardly exists—is a concern given his long record of undermining efforts to forge a political solution to Libya’s crisis.
Haftar’s vainglorious bid to capture the capital two years ago left thousands of people dead or displaced, including many civilians. Libyans were horrified last year when mass graves were discovered in the town of Tarhuna, which had been controlled by a Haftar-allied militia and used as a base for the assault on Tripoli. Haftar’s offensive also further complicated an already tangled conflict by drawing in new players from overseas. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy military contractor with ties to the Kremlin, have been fighting for Haftar. Last summer, the U.S. military accused them of sowing land mines in residential areas as they withdrew from the outskirts of Tripoli.
After almost a decade of conflict, the wish for a more optimistic trajectory is understandable, but significant challenges remain in Libya.
Turkey, meanwhile, appears to expect considerable payback for its own military intervention, which came at the request of the besieged government in Tripoli and ultimately thwarted Haftar’s offensive. Central to Ankara’s intervention were Turkish-made armed drones and the deployment of Syrian fighters, most of whom are still in Libya. Rounding out the roster of foreign actors in Libya’s conflict are the Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries that have long been part of Haftar’s forces and participated in his failed 2019 operation. Some of the Chadians—rebels in their own country—recently returned home to fight on the same frontlines where President Idriss Deby was killed, a reminder of how Libya’s conflict has spilled beyond its borders.
In its resolution this month, the Security Council called on all nations to respect and support the October cease-fire, including through the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries. In fact, under the terms of the cease-fire, they were supposed to have left by the end of January. Deadlines often come and go in Libya.
The Security Council also noted that the constitutional framework for the December elections should be in place by the beginning of July, but it remains to be seen whether Libyans can overcome their disagreements over how to implement the polls by then. Some want a presidential election—it would be a first in modern Libyan history—while others fear such a system might tip the country back into authoritarianism. The so-called Greens—supporters of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, who are now more confident than they have been since his ouster and death in 2011—are expected to play a key role in any future election, with figures including Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, rumored as potential candidates.
Many Libyans wonder whether free and fair elections will even be possible given the brittle security situation, a population bitterly polarized by years of war, and the repressive atmosphere in eastern Libya, where Haftar’s critics have been repeatedly persecuted or even assassinated. There is also the worry that treating elections as a panacea in a country that has known nothing but zero-sum politics since 2011 risks not only dashed expectations but also military escalation. Given that, and the fact that Libya’s experiment in democracy is still relatively young—Libyans have voted just three times in the past decade—international support to ensure the elections run smoothly will be crucial.
What’s more, Dbeibah has been acting not so much as the head of an interim administration with a nine-month mandate, but more as someone who expects he might still be in place next year. He is seeking a budget of nearly 100 billion dinars or roughly $22 billion—Libya’s largest since the fall of Gadhafi—for his ambitious policy agenda, but parliament, itself riven by internal splits, rejected it in April.* Nevertheless, the GNU appears keen to convey, particularly to foreign investors, that Libya is open for business. During a recent visit to Turkey, accompanied by several ministers from his unwieldy Cabinet of more than 30 people, Dbeibah signed a number of investment agreements, including for major infrastructure projects.
There are reasons for hope. The cease-fire is holding, and Libya’s oil-dependent economy is expected to rebound from the near-catastrophe caused by Haftar’s monthslong blockade of the country’s energy infrastructure, which he only agreed to lift in September. The GNU has started a COVID-19 vaccination program. Several countries, most recently France, are reopening embassies that had operated out of Tunis after diplomats evacuated from Tripoli in 2014. The United States and China hope their diplomats can also return soon.
After almost a decade of conflict, the wish for a more optimistic trajectory is understandable, but significant challenges remain. Papering over Libya’s multiple fractures in the hope that fresh elections can solve much of what ails the country risks a return to violence and further fragmentation. A more holistic approach, one that also acknowledges the accumulated layers of grievance after years of war, will help prevent another unraveling.