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Why do Libyans keep failing to settle their differences?

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]
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 a statement issued in the earlier hours of 20 June, Stephanie Williams, the United Nations Special Advisor on Libya, drew the curtain on the Cairo talks between Libyan rivals as they failed to reach an agreement on the constitutional framework for any future elections. The statement said "differences persist on the measures governing the transitional period leading to elections". It ended by calling on chairmen of the Libyan Parliament (HoR) and Tripoli's Higher Council of State (HCS) to meet within ten days to solve the impasse. No news so far on whether the two men, Aguila Saleh of HoR and Khaled Mishri of HCS, will actually meet.

The Cairo marathon talks, under Williams' auspices, between Libya's Eastern region-based HoR and Tripoli-based HCS, lasted for a whole week but produced nothing. Williams was hoping that representatives of the two institutions would agree on a few controversial articles of Libya's draft constitution to end the never-ending transitional period by organising elections in the country "as soon as possible".

By now, Libyans were supposed to have elected their president and new legislative, but the planned 24 December, 2021 elections were cancelled at the last minute because of HoR and HCS differences over issues like contestants' eligibility to run for president, among other trivial details.

No realistic Libya observer, including foreign diplomats, expected the Cairo talks to succeed since the HoR and HCS do not support elections in the near future because it means the end of their political careers.

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Both institutions have overstayed their mandates: HoR was elected in 2014 for a four year term, while HCS was created in 2015 as a political compromise and given a dubious legislative role in that year's Libyan Political Agreement signed in December 2015.  Since then, until today, both camps have failed miserably and, at one point, were written off by the UN's Stephanie Williams who created a 75-strong dialogue committee in 2020. The idea was that a smaller group is easy to manage to achieve political process leading to elections.

That committee appeared successful at first, as it managed to elect Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh as a Prime Minister and a three-member strong Presidential Council with the approval of both HoR and HCS. However, Mr. Dbeibeh's government failed to achieve its main objective: national presidential and legislative elections in December 2021. It is now overstaying its mandate, too!

The mandate of Dbeibeh's government, according to the Geneva agreement signed in February 2021, ended two days ago. Even before that, HoR elected Fathi Bashaga as new Prime Minister after stripping Dbeibeh of parliamentary confidence in September 2021. But Dbeibeh refused to hand over power, vowing to do so only to an elected government. But when that will be, no one really knows.

This brought back the divisions of 2014, as Libya today, like then, has two separate administrations. Now Bashaga's government has set itself up in Sirte, while Dbeibeh is still in Tripoli.

Over the past year, Libyan politicians and foreign diplomats have been repeating one single sentence:  "elections in Libya as soon as possible", without any one giving any specific date when such magical and elusive elections could take place. This "as soon as possible" seems to be eternal.

The failure in Cairo last week was nothing new, and the majority of Libyans have long since lost any hope that anything good is coming from the current political and factional leaders now in power. The UN mediations, over the years, appear to have lost credibility and momentum, particularly recently, as it failed to enforce any agreement it facilitated among the different protagonists.

In the meantime, foreign meddling in the country's internal affairs continues to make things worse, as different countries have their own Libyan proxies capable of derailing any agreement that is not to their liking. While armed confrontations, similar to the 2019-2020 war, is very unlikely a solution and a firm election date appears, also, a farfetched idea at this stage – none of the politicians is interested.

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Most influential foreign powers backing different Libyan sides like Turkey, Russia and Egypt are now busy with their own priorities, while the United States and the entire UN are consumed by the war in Ukraine, putting Libya on the back burner.

Even if the Cairo talks reach an agreement on a constitutional framework for elections, it will be difficult to implement. The talks were not focused on drafting a new legal document to govern and organise elections but debating a few controversial articles of Libya's draft constitution. The irony here is that the draft constitution, written years ago, was the work of an elected constitutional assembly. This means any amendments should be made by the same elected body and approved by Libyans in a referendum.

This has not happened in what appear to be a pattern of repeated UN failures, in which the cart is put before the horse. Since the 2011 war in Libya, not a single UN mediation initiative has had any plan B to solve any unanticipated shortcomings. This happened in 2011, when NATO destroyed the Gaddafi government, without any idea as how to proceed after that. It was repeated in the first major political agreement between different factions in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and, again, in the 2021 agreement described as a "historic moment" by the UN.

By 2020, the UN became less effective as it lost the initiative to regional and international powers, working with their local Libyan proxies serving their own interests and not necessarily that of the Libyan people. By now, what could have been solvable political internal quarrels that happen in every country, have become an international and regional conflict being driven by foreign powers at the expense of Libyans.

While an all out war is unlikely and even if Mr. Saleh and Mr. Mishri meet, it is very unlikely they will find a solution, not because of lack of it but simply because they do not want to, since any compromise leading to elections means the end of their political lives and that of almost all of their colleagues.

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

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