On 2 September, 2022, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, announced the appointment of Abdoulaye Bathily, a former Senegalese Minister, as his Special Envoy to Libya, after almost a year since the previous envoy, Slovak Jan Kubis, resigned. Mr. Bathily’s appointment was approved by the UN Security Council on the same day. He is number nine, so far, and, yet, to ask the UN a simple question – why is Libya proving to be difficult?
Interestingly enough, the Government of National Unity in Tripoli had already rejected Abdoulaye Bethily’s nomination. On 17 August, 2022 its UN representative, Taher Al-Sonni, told the Council’s consultation session that his government, while supporting the next envoy as an African, it preferred someone who” knows the file” and had the “capacity” to hit the ground running, instead of someone who has yet to learn the tricks and understand the twists and turns of the ongoing crisis.
Yet, Mr. Bathily’s appointment went ahead and Mr. Al-Sonni had to swallow his words and welcome Abdoualye Bathily on 29 September, as if nothing had happened. It took nearly a year for the divided UN Security Council to agree on the appointment of Mr. Bathily and the opinion of the country concerned – Libya – in this was not important, since the UN never considered it before while appointing all previous eight envoys who served there.
The UN’s top priority in Libya was – and continues to be – to help the country to organise general concurrent legislative and presidential elections. The only time the international body came close to reaching this goal was in 2021, when former UN Advisor, Stephanie Williams, managed to get Libyan factions to agree on the election framework and even setting a voting date for 24 December 2021. But that failed because of last-minute bickering among rivals.
When Mr. Bathily took over, and prior to his arrival in Tripoli for the first time, he repeatedly said that elections remain his top objective, yet he has failed, so far, to offer a workable alternative to overcome the difference that made elections so elusive.
In his first press briefing in Libya, in March 2023, he not only repeated his hope to succeed in organising elections but he repeatedly said that voting is very likely to take place sometime this year. Analysts predicted that Mr. Bathily might be targeting September or October, at the latest, for voting to take place. Sounding so optimistic, he even predicted that the elusive election laws could be achieved by June. The year is almost over and not much has changed. Elections this year can never happen, unless by some magical hand, which neither Mr. Bathily has nor do the Libyan protagonists ever want.
The big sticking point, among others, has always been election laws and eligibility of contestants, particularly for the position of president. How to solve this issue, paving the way for Libyans to cast their ballots, has been the top task of the UN Envoy, as an impartial mediator.
Mr. Bathily kept pressing the different factions to agree to new elections criteria without offering any alternative, should they disagree. Indeed, he, somehow, polished an already failed idea and pushed it forward as his own plan. The idea is that should the Eastern-based parliament and the Tripoli-based High Council of State fail to agree within a reasonable time-frame, Mr. Bathily would bypass both chambers and call what he termed “High-level Steering Panel for Libya”. The proposed panel is supposed to include some 150 social and political leaders to come together and draft the required election laws. In fact, this idea was first proposed by his predecessor, Ghasan Salame, back in 2019 and taken up, after a few amendments, by Stephanie Williams in 2020 when she worked as UN advisor on Libya. Despite its shortcomings, the idea worked by producing the current Government of National Unity, three-member presidential council and a ceasefire that is still holding. Tested ideas can only be repeated if they have enough factional support to succeed; however, this is not the case with Mr. Bathily. In his most recent speech to the UN, he did not mention his “High Level Steering Panel”, while offering no other alternative to it in order to reach his objective: elections as soon as possible.
Indeed, the Parliament and the High Council of State have formed what is called a “6+6 committee” made up of six members from each chamber and that committee has drafted some kind of laws which Mr. Bathily himself has already rejected as “non workable” in a previous briefing to the UN Security Council.
Now the UN Envoy appears to be making a U-turn and giving up his own idea of solving the elections issue in the country. Instead of proceeding to refine the drafted laws, he is calling for an elections- specific “unified government” to replace the current corrupt government of Abdulhamid Al-Dbeibah, without any mention of how the election laws – still an issue of contention – are to be resolved to enable any government to organise nationwide voting.
While all Libyan factions and politicians call for elections, they continue to fail on the mechanism and the legal framework to realise that call. At the same time, both chambers, the Parliament and the High Council of State, are still unable to put into practice what they have committed themselves to in the outcome of the “6+6 committee”.
While both chambers have agreed on the election laws and, despite their shortcomings, they will not be reinforced as legal framework simply because they are so vulnerable to legal litigations that are likely to start, once a specific election date is agreed—if, and when that happens.
Based on previous experiences, UN envoys in Libya usually serve one year on the job before leaving and, this month, Mr. Bathily has reached that mark and he is, probably, heading towards the exit.
The man lacks any serious vision and has failed to present any reasonably working plan to take Libya forward, helping Libyans realise their dream of voting for their own representatives and their own president.
When the next envoy comes along, he will find that election laws remain one of the sticking issues in the country, as if his predecessors have done nothing to solve the matter in a consensual manner, while Libyan politicians still disagree about almost everything that threatens their status-quo based privileges.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.