Analysis: Libya, Plan B

Kamel Abdallah , Tuesday 24 May 2022

Kamel Abdallah considers the possibilities.

Libya, Plan B
Vehicles destroyed during fighting between forces loyal to Dbeibah and Bashagha (photo: AFP)


The chances that the current UN-sponsored Libyan roadmap will lead to the parliamentary and presidential elections that more than 2.8 Libyan voters have been looking forward grow slimmer by the day. The main Libyan political forces are still unable to reach a consensus on central issues related to the electoral process, and regional and international powers are still at odds over the priorities for a solution. All stakeholders may, therefore, be forced to rethink the situation and to launch an alternative agreement capable of succeeding where all previous attempts to remedy the Libyan crisis in the course of the past decade have failed.

Despite all the complications on the ground, the structural flaws in the UN-sponsored process, and the obdurate impasses between Libyan parties, UN Special Adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams still holds out hope for the success of a roadmap she personally helped to forge during the meetings of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunisia in November 2020. She continues to see elections and the reestablishment of legitimate unified political institutions as the essential key to ending the vicious cycle of interim phases and addressing Libya’s political, security, economic and social problems which have worsened considerably in recent years.

Williams’ plan, which enjoys the support of key Western powers, depends on the ability of existing Libyan institutions, above all the Tobruk based House of Representatives (HoR) and the Tripoli based High Council of State (HCS), to reach the necessary consensuses. Yet these very institutions have consistently evaded commitments and threw any number of spanners into the plan, taking advantage of powers they had acquired by virtue of the UN-led process to forge situations geared to protracting their existence and advancing their particular interests. The UN and world powers that supported these institutions since the Skhirat Accord of 2015 were unable to have a say in the new arrangements.

During the past two weeks, parallel sets of talks have brought Libyan players together in Egypt and Switzerland. Cairo hosted the second round of the constitutional track dialogue, which was attended by representatives of the HoR and HCS and facilitated by Williams. The stated purpose was to agree on a constitutional framework for the elections. In Montreux, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre), an NGO that has been partnering with the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to organise and facilitate talks, hosted a number of Libyan political, security and military figures to discuss the political process and ways to preserve the ceasefire concluded in Geneva on 23 October 2020.

On 20 May, Williams announced that the joint committee of HoR and HCS delegates who were in Cairo to discuss the draft constitution that had been adopted by the Constitutional Drafting Assembly in 2017 had reached an initial consensus on 137 articles. These included Chapter 2 on rights and freedoms and the two chapters on legislative and judicial authorities, with the exception of “a handful” of articles. She urged participants to continue consultations towards reaching a consensus on the remaining articles. A third round is scheduled for June to settle the outstanding differences.

Nevertheless a core problem remains. The UN wants the two parties to agree, first and foremost, on a constitutional basis for elections. The HoR remains determined to pursue the new roadmap it adopted in February 2022 that calls for amending the draft constitution and a referendum on it before elections. The HCS favours completing the constitutional basis first and deferring work on the draft constitutional provisions for the legislature until after the elections. To further complicate this, the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) is a popularly elected body, as opposed to the new drafting committee called for in the February 2022 roadmap. In the end, the court ruled that the Libyan people, through the ballot box, were alone entitled to determine whether or not to accept the current draft version. This means that any amendments to the existing draft constitution could complicate matters instead of solve them.

Williams’ upbeat remarks on the progress attained during the second round of the constitutional track were warmly received by the US and UK, both strong supporters of the UN adviser, but not by the CDA. The assembly called on the HoR, the HCS and UNSMIL to “respect its work and leave it to the Libyan people to have their say in the ballot box as to whether to accept or reject the draft constitution.” The CDA cautioned that “any actions that undo the work of this constituent assembly through amendment will be the subject of legal challenges regardless of how much time passes.”

The talks sponsored by the HD Centre convened on 12 May and were attended by representatives of the main militia factions in eastern and western Libya and a number of political figures with the aim of discussing the political process. Libyan sources present at the meeting reported that participants agreed to work to preserve the calm in Libya and avert a return to war. They also announced that another round of this track would be held in Morocco in a few days. At the same time, some Libyan news sources have reported that the HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh and HCS Speaker Khaled Al-Mishri reached an unpublicised agreement on forming a new cabinet. The agreement is evidently meant to resolve the standoff over the government formed by the HoR-designated Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha.

The parallel Cairo and Montreux meetings are indicative of a dual strategy. On the one hand, they reflect the international community’s determination to build up the momentum of the current political process, regardless of the shortcomings and the uncertainty of the results. On the other hand, it appears that preparations are being laid out for an alternative process in the event the current one collapses due to the intransigence of the main Libyan parties.

Perhaps feeling threatened by these meetings, the HoR designated prime minister secretly entered the capital in the early morning hours of 17 May in the company of his ministers of health and foreign affairs. His arrival, images of which circulated on social media, triggered clashes between the militias that support him and those that support his rival, Government of National Unity Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah, who has refused to step down. Bashagha was forced to leave a few hours after he arrived. The sudden outbreak of violence in the capital, which left one dead and five wounded, stirred widespread alarm in the diplomatic community. Urgent appeals from numerous quarters exhorted the parties to exercise restraint, avert violence and engage in the political process.

Dbeibah and Bashagha blamed each other for the violence and reaffirmed their stated positions with respect to one another. After returning to western Libya, Bashagha said that his government would operate out of Sirte until conditions were such that his government could enter the capital without bloodshed. That Bashagha had entered Tripoli at all was a surprise, since only a few days earlier he had announced that he intended to base his government in Sirte due to Dbeibah’s refusal to hand over power to anyone but an elected official. Whether or not Bashagha had yielded to pressures from supporters who wanted his government to establish itself in Tripoli, that option is clearly out of reach at present in light of the prevailing balance of militia powers in the capital.

With this failure to prove to supporters and allies at home and abroad his influence over the militias in the capital, Bashagha’s prospects of remaining in his post have dwindled. The UN and the Western powers’ determination to avert a backslide into warfare, his local allies’ disinclination to work out Sirte, the difficulties of governing out of Benghazi, and the need to curb tensions may combine to force Bashagha out of the scene in order to prevent further deterioration. Similar concerns must be motivating a possible Plan B should the current UN-sponsored plan falter again.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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