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How the UN failed Libya 

April 27, 2022 at 1:03 pm

Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Political Affairs in Libya Stephanie Williams on March 26, 2022 [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

In the decade since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, Libya has had two civil wars, and seen worsening living conditions and increased foreign interference. The UN has sponsored numerous discussions, dialogues, panels and other peace initiatives that have been increasingly ineffective. Its latest efforts focused on holding presidential and parliamentary elections that were meant to take place by the end of last year, believing that this was the only way to resolve the country’s tumultuous political transition. However, as long as militias control vast territories and rival factions view elections as a zero-sum game, it is impossible to ensure that they are free and fair or that the results will be respected. With no elections in sight, the provisional government’s legitimacy has been weakened, and eastern forces have set up a rival government headed by Fathi Bashagha.

In the aftermath of the first civil war, militias who were instrumental in toppling Gaddafi became more powerful and the interim government appeared unwilling to curtail their influence. The increased lawlessness resulted in the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in a parliamentary election held in 2014. Meanwhile, General Khalifa Haftar launched a military campaign, called Operation Dignity, against Islamist militias, winning him the support of many eastern tribes, secularists and Gaddafi loyalists. In response, Islamist movements led by Misrata in north-west Libya, launched Operation Dawn and consolidated control of Tripoli, forcing the newly-elected House of Representatives to flee to Tobruk. Under pressure from Islamist militia groups, the Libyan Constitutional Court ruled in November 2014 that the election was unconstitutional and therefore illegitimate.

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The events of 2014 reignited tensions between rival tribes and highlighted the conflict between Islamists and secularists. Libya found itself with two opposing legislative bodies, which accentuated divisions between two of Libya’s historic regions, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Throughout 2015, the UN pursued negotiations in order to create a unified government, known as the Skhirat Agreement. Not only did the agreement exclude several key actors, but it was also deeply unpopular and left several issues unresolved. The security provisions were vague and failed to specify how militias would be contained and disarmed.

In early 2016 the UN implemented the agreement, despite it not being ratified by the House of Representatives, and recognised the new government in Tripoli as the only legitimate authority. The appointment of Islamist hardliners in the new government and the continued presence of militias, especially those affiliated to Misrata, further disillusioned secularists and tribes in eastern Libya. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE continued to back Haftar and the east in order to fight the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist groups. Turkey and Qatar share the brotherhood’s ideology and have supported the efforts to defeat Haftar.

Many nations are trying to interfere in Libya's affairs- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Many nations are interfering in Libya’s affairs – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The UN’s one-sided peace agreement resulted in a political impasse and the conflict turned into a proxy war between regional powers. The second civil war further undermined Libya’s institutions, and forces on both sides have been accused of human rights abuses and war crimes. While political negotiations were able to resume following Haftar’s failed offensive on Tripoli in 2019, the causes of the civil war have yet to be resolved. The UN’s naive belief that elections will lead to national reconciliation could jeopardise the shred of stability that has been achieved over the past two years.

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However, Bashagha’s surprising alliance with the east could be an opportunity to achieve meaningful reforms that could stabilise the country in the long run. Bashagha is a powerful figure from Misrata, with close ties to other western tribes, and he was also the Interior Minister of the Tripoli-based government. Foreign powers involved do not appear hostile to him and he could be an acceptable compromise for both sides. With Libya once again torn between two rival governments, the UN should be careful to not repeat the same mistakes as 2015.

Instead of focusing stubbornly on creating a centralised government and holding elections as soon as possible, the UN should focus on limiting the influence of foreign powers and militias, creating a federal state and improving living standards. Federalism would provide greater autonomy to Libya’s three historical regions and could help mend sectarian divisions. If elections are no longer viewed as a zero-sum game, it would be easier for rival factions to respect the results. Libya is also a resource-rich country with a relatively small population of just under seven million. Facilitating greater cooperation between the east and west regarding oil production could drastically improve living standards. Restoring the economy will be the most efficient way to strengthen institutions and ensure stability in the long-run.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.