Libya’s political process has suffered a significant setback. The United Nations-backed Libyan Political Dialogue Forum met from June 28 to July 2 in Geneva to try to reach a consensus on how to move forward with holding elections in December, but the 75 delegates were unable to agree on a constitutional basis for elections. In a July 15 press conference, U.N. Special Envoy for Libya Jan Kubis suggested that factions and individuals are trying to delay, or derail, the process. Furthermore, as the political process stalled, General Khalifa Hifter, who leads the eastern-based Libyan National Army, stated in an interview that if a political solution is not found, “the Libyan National Army is ready once again to liberate Tripoli from militias and criminals,” threatening a second military campaign against Tripoli, similar to the offensive he led in April 2019.
These recent developments highlight the interwoven relationship between political and military developments in Libya. Libya’s cease-fire will likely hold only if there is progress in the U.N.-facilitated political process. This was evident not only when Hifter threatened to resume fighting but also when the 5+5 Joint Military Commission of senior military representatives from Libya’s warring parties, who agreed to move forward with a cease-fire in October 2020, recently delayed the reopening of a road along the coast that connects the east and west to protest the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s failure to reach an agreement and the delayed withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.
Entrenched Institutional Divisions
Libya’s political, security, and financial institutions remain intensely divided. Much of the stalling in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum is a result of factions attempting to consolidate or expand their influence in state institutions before elections can be held and potentially limit their access to state coffers and political influence. In his July press conference, Kubis affirmed that:
Institutional, political and individual interests stand in the way of agreeing on the necessary legal framework for holding the elections on 24 December 2021, as agreed by the LPDF in its Roadmap, endorsed by the UN Security Council. Old and new status quo forces are using diverse tactics and often legitimate arguments with only one result – obstructing the holding of the elections. My predecessor who had his own experience with similar approaches called them “spoilers” – a correct description given the impact of their approach and maneuvering.
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum debated a future constitution, elections, and many other questions in their most recent meeting in Geneva. Constitutional frameworks were proposed to advance the election process, but some of them did not meet the timeline agreed to by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in November 2020 to hold elections in December. Some of them included suggested preconditions for holding elections, and others proposed that the interim government remain in power. This could mean that only legislative elections would be held in December. Other points of contention included debate over direct versus indirect voting and the rules governing who can run in the election. This relates to disagreements over whether dual nationals, such as Hifter and Libya’s former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Aref Ali Nayed, should be allowed to run. Nayed is a senior Libyan diplomat, close ally of the UAE, and leader of the Ihya Libya (Reviving Libya) political party. He has had prime ministerial ambitions for many years.
However, the U.N. mission emphasized that proposals that “do not make the elections feasible and possible to hold elections on 24 December will not be entertained.” Christian Buck, the Middle East and North Africa director at the German Foreign Office, warned against delaying elections, cautioning this could “open doors to dangerous scenarios.” The U.S. special envoy for Libya, Richard Norland, asserted that “several members” of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum were using “poison pills” to prevent elections from taking place.
Kubis specifically highlighted the tensions between the interim Government of National Unity and the House of Representatives; the Government of National Unity and the Libyan National Army; and the House of Representatives and the High Council of State. These state institutions have not found compromises on whom to nominate for key positions in the government, including the minister of defense, who will be central to maintaining the cease-fire and unifying the divided military. Kubis also noted that there are disputes over the central bank leadership, as well as claims that the interim government is not paying opposition forces and fighters. This could lead to a rupture in the 5+5 Joint Military Commission. A key necessity for maintaining the cease-fire and advancing the political process will be the slow reunification of Libya’s armed forces. For this reason, if the interim unity government is paying some fighters and not others, it will cause problems.
Foreign Actors Reassess Their Roles in Libya
A second Berlin conference also took place in June ahead of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum meeting. The gathering included Libya’s transitional government; foreign ministers of France, Germany, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria, and Italy; U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken; and top officials from Russia, the UAE, and other countries. The meeting produced a final declaration stressing the transitional government’s commitment to holding elections in December and the importance of withdrawing foreign mercenaries from the country “within days” of the Berlin conference.
Some diplomats from the conference reported that France had shared proposals for a phased withdrawal of foreign forces, which was discussed with the United States and Turkey. Other senior diplomatic sources stated that there was a tentative agreement between Turkey and Russia to begin to pull out small numbers of their foreign fighters, specifically each side pulling out 300 of their Syrian mercenaries. This is a small drop in the bucket of the more than 20,000 foreign fighters based in the country, but the beginning of a serious phased withdrawal would be a step in the right direction. There are concerns that the withdrawal of foreign fighters too quickly could risk the delicate balance of power between security forces that is currently keeping the cease-fire afloat. Commenting on this reported agreement between Turkey and Russia, German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass explained that “when withdrawal begins, it will not be a short period of time when everyone will immediately pull back … but that it will be a step-by-step approach.”
Key countries that have backed different sides in Libya’s war to varying degrees over the years, including Turkey, Russia, the UAE, France, Egypt, Qatar, and others, have all expressed support for the U.N.-backed Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, but there are concerns that some countries are still projecting their influence through Libyan actors and institutions that are acting as spoilers to the political process. This includes influential individuals in the military landscape, such as Hifter and his Libyan National Army, as well as major political personalities, such as the speaker of the House of Representative in Tobruk, Aguila Saleh, who some experts argue is trying to place key allies into leadership positions in some of Libya’s most important political institutions, such as the governor of the central bank, before elections take place. Some reports describe the tensions as an “arm-wrestling match” between Saleh and the Government of National Unity. Both Hifter and Saleh have been supported diplomatically and, at times, militarily by France, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia.
In a virtual U.N. Security Council meeting in January, the United States named Turkey, Russia, and the UAE as the key actors contributing to foreign fighters in Libya. Richard Mills, the head of the U.S. mission to the U.N., said the United States calls “on all external parties, to include Russia, Turkey, and the UAE, to respect Libyan sovereignty and immediately cease all military intervention in Libya.” In response to this, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.N. promised to work with the U.N. to help resolve Libya’s conflict and insisted that, “the UAE firmly believes that diplomatic and political solutions are the sole path to end the Libyan conflict.” In March, The New Arab reported that negotiations between two of Hifter’s sons and the UAE led to an agreement to withdraw around 5,000 Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries from southern and eastern Libya. An advance team of the U.N. observer mission arrived, according to the report, around this time to begin monitoring both the cease-fire and the removal of foreign fighters. But it does not appear that any significant withdrawal of foreign forces has taken place at this point, even though Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush said during the June Berlin conference that she expected the process to begin soon. She relayed to reporters that “We have a progress in terms of mercenaries, so you know hopefully within coming days, mercenaries from both sides … will be withdrawing and I think this is going to be encouraging.”
This shift toward political and diplomatic efforts in Libya signals what seems to be a broader trend for many regional actors, including Gulf states, toward de-escalation in key theaters of conflict in the region, including Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Emirati political science professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla recently argued in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs that the UAE is reassessing its military footprint in conflict zones like Libya and Yemen. He wrote, “While it has not yet reached the point of over using its considerable financial, political, military and diplomatic resources, excessive over-reach is a growing concern.” Other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also continue to express their support for the U.N.-backed process. Libya’s interim prime minister, Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait in April, while Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, held talks with Dbeibeh in Tripoli in May.
Political Developments in Libya Reflect Wider Regional Dynamics
Both new and old divisions among Libya’s political, security, and financial institutions remain a key obstacle to the political transition process; and, after a decade of proxy war, foreign powers still stoke many of these divisions for their own strategic interests. Foreign powers may have publicly agreed to withdraw foreign fighters and support the U.N.-backed political process, but there is not yet much hard evidence that this has started to take place. The U.N. monitoring mission is focused on tracking this issue, as well as cease-fire implementation, which should help. The international pressure for withdrawing foreign fighters and holding elections will continue making it difficult for both Libyan state institutions and foreign actors to overtly sabotage the process, although political tendencies for sabotage remain pronounced.
In addition, even if many of these foreign fighters leave the country, which would be a huge step in the right direction, Libya’s proxy conflict will likely continue through other means. Internal divisions can still be stoked by outside powers worried about losing influence in the strategically significant North African country – one that is not only rich in oil but also is at the center of eastern Mediterranean battles over maritime boundaries and gas exploration as well as regional and great power competition. But this effect shouldn’t be overstated: The internal political divisions in Libya – emblematic of struggles for power and influence as well as tribal, regional, and ideological forces – are deep-seated and, arguably, intractable.
After the recent Geneva meeting ended in deadlock, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya hosted a virtual meeting on July 16 of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s Proposals Bridging Committee to continue to discuss proposals for a draft constitution that could provide the legal basis for holding elections. The hope is that this current deadlock is only a temporary stumbling block.
While Libya’s political process is riddled with divisions and spoilers, it seems to be the only viable way forward at this stage. In many ways, what happens in Libya will signal whether efforts toward diplomacy, dialogue, and de-escalation in the region – by both regional and global actors – represent long-term changes in strategic thinking or short-term opportunism.