Ongoing political fragility in Libya

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 7 Jun 2023

While progress has been made in untangling the political and security situation in Libya, there is no guarantee that there will now be a clear path to the country’s elections.

Saleh and Al-Mechri in Morocco for the signing of the conclusions of the  6 6  joint commission
Saleh and Al-Mechri in Morocco for the signing of the conclusions of the 6 6 joint commission


Attention turned to the Moroccan resort town of Bouznika on Monday, where Libyan stakeholders signed an agreement worked out by the country’s 6+6 Joint Committee on the electoral laws to complement the constitutional basis for forthcoming elections. 

But while Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) Speaker Aguila Saleh and Chair of the High Council of State (HCS) Khaled Al-Mishri flew to Morocco to take part in the signing ceremony, there remained questions as to the solidity of the consensus over the agreed-on laws and whether this will endure when they are submitted to the HoR for ratification and then to the Libyan Higher National Elections Commission (HNEC), responsible for translating the laws into measures regulating the conduct of elections. 

The international powers involved in Libya are pushing for the elections to be carried out by the end of this year, but many Libyans believe that the process should be given more time. 

The question of the electoral laws is also far from straightforward. They refer not just to questions of whether military figures or dual nationals should be eligible to run for office, subjects that have occasioned heated debate, but also to the conduct of unprecedented elections. 

Libyan voters will be voting for representatives in a parliament that for the first time will contain two houses (the National Assembly and Senate), and there remain outstanding differences over the number of seats there should be in the former. 

Another question is the role each of the two houses should play in forming an interim government tasked with overseeing the elections. On each of these issues, some Libyan MPs have objected that the Joint Committee has overstepped its remit by deciding on details regarding the new parliament and interim government. 

According to Libyan news reports, over half the members of the current House of Representatives disapprove of the new laws, which means that if they do not get through parliament the whole issue will return to square one.

Meanwhile, controversy continues over the security operations being undertaken by the Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) in the Zawiya region of western Libya.

GNU Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah insists that the operations target organised crime in the mountainous western region. However, many HoR members have charged that they are a cover for eliminating the GNU’s opponents and settling political scores. 

The HoR, which withdrew its confidence from the GNU in February and no longer recognises Dbeibah as prime minister, holds the GNU responsible for the attack on the home of an HoR MP from the area where the security operations are being carried out. 

The eastern-based government in Tobruk has also criticised the operations on similar grounds. Video footage circulated by activists from Zawiya showing GNU Defence Ministry drones striking boats off the coast of the country have raised further doubts about the nature as well as the efficacy of the operations. The victims included members of the Libyan Coast Guard and civilians.

Such controversies epitomise the ongoing polarisation and east-west political and security bifurcation in Libya and lend weight to the view that it will be difficult to generate a sufficiently normal and stable climate to hold elections. 

This is all the more the case given the unabated influence of the western-based militias. It has been nearly two years since the 5+5 Joint Military Committee (JMC) was formed to review this issue, yet there has been no tangible progress on this crucial security issue. 

The JMC is not the agency responsible for dismantling the militias allied with the GNU, and it is not responsible for running the military operations against organised crime gangs. However, given its aims, as stipulated in the October 2020 ceasefire agreement, neither the militias nor the crime gangs should still be in operation.

The JMC is tasked with eliminating the causes of the Civil War that has gripped Libya for over a decade and with ending the division of the military establishment. It is not there to manage the division. Its authority also includes working to remove foreign mercenaries from the country, yet there is evidence that some foreign mercenaries have been incorporated into the security agencies. 

Perhaps one of the reasons that the JMC has not been focused on its domestic tasks is that foreign powers, in this case the US, have been working to repurpose and steer it in another direction. Washington has been pushing the JMC to form a joint force (between military forces from the east and west of Libya), ostensibly to create secure conditions preparatory to elections. 

However, it appears that the real aim is to undermine the role of the Russian Wagner Group in Libya. In April 2023, US Ambassador Richard Norland reportedly discussed this with Chadian President Mohamed Idriss Deby, suggesting that the main theatre of deployment for the joint force under formation would be southern Libya.  

Political fragility and security volatility are two sides of the same coin in Libya. If the various political and security powers have been able to adjust to the situation in ways that serve their interests, the political and security committees that have arisen from the Berlin Process on Libya may more clearly embody a management approach. 

The JMC still reflects the outlooks of two adversarial teams, one from the east and the other from the west. These may agree on some issues and differ on others, but the sum product is that they have so far failed to achieve a significant breakthrough on their main tasks. 

The same thing applies to the 6+6 Joint Committee consisting of representatives from the Tobruk-based HoR and the Tripoli-based HCS. It is virtually impossible to separate the political from the military in the work of the JMC, just as it is impossible for the 6+6 Committee to leave politics at the door when trying to work on the electoral laws. 

So even if some progress has been made, such as the agreement in Bouznika, the next stage is unlikely to be easier. Moreover, there is no guarantee that even if Libya makes it all the way up to elections, military/security conditions in the country will support the political progress. 

In Libya, complications have a way of accumulating and becoming ever more difficult to untangle. Perhaps the only way out of the tunnel is for the rules to change. 

The rules in question refer to the series of arrangements created from the 2015 Skhirat Accord that entrenched the east-west power balance and from the Berlin Process that ushered in a more complicated arrangement based on a quota system. 

The result has been that crisis management mechanisms have been put in place, as opposed to problem solving mechanisms, and interim regional arrangements have evolved into centres of power that have developed their own interests that will resist any change that threatens the interests of their respective components. 

These interests revolve around power and influence, whether economic, political or military. This means that the only way to change the rules and break the cycle is to shift the sources and means of wealth and power from vying clientelist networks to a centralised state that should monopolise the legitimate recourse to force, sovereign authority, and the avenues to power.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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