Forces loyal to Dbeibah secure the streets of the capital, Tripoli (photo: AP)
Wednesday, 22 June, marked the end of the transitional period according to the roadmap adopted by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in November 2020. This is the fifth interim phase since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. It ended two days after the conclusion of the third round of negotiations on the Libyan constitutional track hosted by Cairo. After more than a week of talks, the Joint Committee of delegations from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS) were unable to reach an agreement on the constitutional framework for holding elections. The way forward now is unclear, but it is certain to be more complicated than before.
In the statement she released on Monday morning following “the close of the third and final round of consultations of the UN-Facilitated HoR/HCS Joint Committee to Determine the Libyan Constitutional Framework for Elections,” UN Special Adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams stressed that the committee had “achieved a great deal of consensus on the contentious articles in the Libyan Draft Constitution.” However, she added, “differences persist on the measures governing the transitional period leading to elections.” Otherwise put, the impasse persists in the process that has to be completed in order to crown the roadmap with general elections.
On behalf of the UN, Williams expressed her gratitude to the Egyptian government and people “for their kind hospitality during the three rounds of talks here in Cairo.” She also reaffirmed the UN’s continued commitment “to supporting all Libyan efforts to end the country’s long period of transition and instability through inclusive and transparent national elections at the earliest possible date, and to meet the aspirations of the nearly three million who have registered to vote”.
In her statement the UN advisor called on the speakers of the HoR and HCS to meet within ten days at an agreed on location “to bridge outstanding issues.” She had previously invited HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh and HCS head Khaled Al-Mishri to meet and discuss their differences last week, but the two leaders could not even agree on the agenda for the meeting, according to Libyan sources.
HCS member Abdel-Qader Howeili disagreed that the last round in Cairo had failed. In remarks to Libyan news outlets, he said the Joint Committee members had agreed on the constitutional provisions for presidential elections. A crucial requirement, given the experience that was to culminate in elections in December, is that presidential nominees must resign completely from any civil or military positions they hold. They may return to these positions if the elected president agrees to reappoint them. Howeili adds that the only remaining bone of contention concerns the “form of the interim phase leading up to elections”. This question will be discussed by HoR and HCS leaders in their forthcoming meeting.
Nevertheless, with the official end of the roadmap without the required constitutional basis for elections and receding prospects for holding elections as soon as Western forces that backed the UN-sponsored process had planned, Libya may be poised for an alternative process. This is all the more true in the light of added complexities resulting from reverting to the institutional bifurcation that had existed before this last interim phase. Tensions in Libya have mounted since February when the HoR withdrew its confidence from the Government of National Unity (GNU) headed by Abdulhamid Dbeibah and formed a new government headed by Fathi Bashagha. Dbeibah refused to resign and hand over power to Bashagha. The UN and Western powers continued to support his government and refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Bashagha government. To further complicate matters, new patterns of regional and international alliances have arisen, in part because the adversaries - Bashagha and Dbeibah - are both from western Libya where they have significant power bases.
The reason why the UN and Western backers may support a new process is because they have proved unable to implement the articles of the previous one which was initially framed by the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015. They therefore had to try to work with a flawed and inconsistent process which inherently impeded progress. At the same time, regional and international stakeholders were often at odds over the process, generally because of their biases towards or against the various Libyan parties involved. This often fed the intransigent tendencies among local players. As a result the UN-led process was characterised by a constant tug-of-war between factors conducive to instability or stability and to progress or deadlock.
In addition, even though Libya has reverted to parallel governments less than a year after government was unified, the Libyan players on both the eastern and western fronts agree that the recently formed Bashagha government and the Executive Authority elected by the LPDF in its meetings in Geneva in January and February 2021 are both ill equipped to manage the transitional period. This shared feeling was clearly reflected in their declared willingness to reengage in talks over electing a new executive authority. Ultimately, however, such consensus may merely end up reproducing the cycle of interim phases that the country has been unable to escape since 2014 because, at every major impasse, the Libyans and the international community have always rushed to form new governments as a way to resolve the crisis rather than addressing the root problems that hampered the government’s work and the political process.
It remains to be seen whether Western and regional powers will sustain pressure on Libyans to see the current process through to the desired elections or, instead, will opt to support an alternative process. If the latter, which seemed of interest to some foreign diplomats speaking from Tripoli this week, the UN will need to restructure its Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and appoint a new head. This may well be accomplished soon. According to the Italian news agency Nova, Williams will be leaving her post, which she held since December 2021, at the end of June.
In the meantime, delays in addressing the political impasse, not just over government but also over management of the economy and oil, risk aggravating tensions that have risen against the backdrop of the resurgent polarisation. Tripoli and its environs have recently experienced several skirmishes between rival militias backing either Bashagha or Dbeibah. There are frequent news reports of the militia groups’ troop and armoured vehicle movements in and around the capital.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.