Creating new perspectives since 2009

UN envoy to Libya resigns, further complicating already complicated reconciliation

April 25, 2024 at 9:00 am

Abdoulaye Bathily, UN Special Representative for Libya and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), gives a press conference in Tripoli on 11 March, 2023 [MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images]

On 16 April, the United Nations envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, tendered his resignation to his boss, Secretary-General António Guterres, shortly after briefing the UN Security Council, for the last time, on the situation in Libya. Mr. Bathily, whose account on X, formerly Twitter, still says he is the UN envoy days after resigning, took over the post in September 2022 after his predecessor Stephanie Williams’ tenure ended—she was appointed as an advisor for only six months.

Mr. Bathily’s rather sudden departure came 19 months after his appointment which is not bad compared to his nine predecessors who usually stayed for an average of 13 months. However, his tenure is noted for more than how long he stayed on the job. Under him at the helm of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), hardly anything has changed on the ground.

When he came in, the main sticking issue paralyzing Libya’s transition into a multi-party system was agreeing on a legal framework and eligibility criteria for elections. He has left and the same issues still hold free elections hostage to bickering politicians, dashing the hopes of the majority of Libyans who want elections now.

READ: UN Special Envoy to Libya announces resignation

Many critics would go further by saying Abdoulaye Bathily not only failed to achieve his main goal of organising elections in the fractured country, but he has made the situation worse. Some Libya watchers saw him as weak, lacking understanding of the country and, above all, lacking the creativity to furnish initiatives to solve Libya’s complicated political struggle and security instability. He is also accused of being “unthankful” to his predecessors who have led UNSMIL before him and achieved certain milestones, despite failing to end the conflict and organise elections.

Many see his resignation with a sigh of relief, as a new envoy, whenever appointed, might be able to move forward. Election laws were agreed upon last October and went on to be codified into laws by the country’s Parliament, after consultation with the Higher Council of State, but laws do not automatically lead to elections. They have to be consensually accepted and properly implemented. This has been the big hurdle plaguing the country since 2021, when the last attempt to organise the ballot failed at the last minute. The last time Libyans voted for parliament was in 2014 but never voted for president, so far.

Mr. Bathihly told reporters that he resigned because, among other reasons, the UN as mediator, has “little room for manoeuvre” simply because the Libyan leaders keep feuding while putting their “own interests above that of the people”. He also accused Libyan politicians of meeting his initiatives with “stubborn resistance, unreasonable expectations and indifference to the interests of the Libyan people”. He blamed foreign countries, too, both regional and international, of playing divisive roles within Libya, hampering his ability to conclude the transition in the country.

There is nothing new in bringing to the open the real reasons behind the lack of progress in Libya under the auspices of the UN. Foreign interference has always been part of the equation in Libya’s murky politics. In fact, foreign meddling has been the very fundamental divisive role in dividing the country along tribal and regional lines.

Back in 2011, the military intervention by NATO and others helped topple the government of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, leading to his brutal murder and plunging the country into the ungovernable situation it is still in today. Yet, notably, Mr. Bathily refrained from even mentioning that fact while, at the same time, partly blaming foreign meddling without naming a single meddler.

But Bathily’s failure can also be attributed to the bunch of selfish Libyan politicians who have been, for the last decade, perfecting the art of clinging to power and privileges, particularly financial gains, that come with it. He rightly described them as lacking “goodwill” required to reach compromise in negotiations. Almost all politicians littering the political scene now do not want elections and if, for some reason, have to accept the inevitability of free elections they will do whatever possible to delay that eventuality as long as possible—this is exactly what they did with Mr. Bathily.

Now the ball is back at the UN court, where political wrangling is already underway to find a replacement for Mr. Bathily to lead UNSMIL. This is not a straightforward process since it requires the consensuses among the UN Security Council members, particularly the veto powers. But the Council is already divided over matters, not related to Libya, including the war in Ukraine and the Israeli genocide in Gaza. Besides, Libya is not an urgent matter to be prioritised by the United States, for example, while President Biden is in re-election mood. After all, Libyans are not killing each other now, so anything else can wait.

OPINION: Will mercenary Gulf armies signal a new Western colonial security order?

This means elections this year or even next year are unlikely, forcing Libyans to endure, at least, another year, if not more, of the status quo which has been anything but easy. Occasional militia fighting, corruption, the high cost of living and deteriorating public services will continue to make the lives of ordinary people more difficult than they already are.

By the time a new envoy is agreed upon and appointed, the world would have moved on and the Libyan conflict is likely to become more complicated. Libya is increasingly being transformed into a potential battleground between Russia and the West. This scenario is not a farfetched idea at all. Russia, recently, has been sending arms and military equipment to its Eastern based ally, General Khallifa Haftar, while Turkiye is deepening its ties with the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity.

The US is doing its part, too. Reports have it that the Biden Administration has contracted with a private military company called Amentum to start training Tripoli-based government-loyal militias. The US embassy in Libya, however, posted on X to say that the matter has been “mischaracterised”. Instead, it said what is happening is not training inside Libya but rather in “class [room] training” aimed at “law enforcement” and it is taking place outside the country—effectively confirming the basic idea of training. The embassy also said that the project is part of US Worldwide “Antiterrorism Program”, run by the State Department rather than by the Pentagon. All this did not deny the existence of some kind of military activities.

Whoever will replace Mr. Bathily will find as if the last two years have been wasted for nothing and Libya is still where it was over a decade ago.

OPINION: NATO’s never-ending war: The 75-year-old bully is faltering

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