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Libya’s ‘five devils’ are ready to frustrate the newly designated UN acting mediator

June 6, 2024 at 8:30 am

Two Libyan flags at Martyrs square in Tripoli, Libya [Getty]

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya (SRSG), Abdoulaye Bathily, resigned his position on 16 April, some 18 months after he took up the near-impossible task of mediating the Libyan crisis.

Mr. Bathily was SRSG number nine since the UN got into the Libyan mess it helped create back in 2011, by first authorising military intervention by any willing state to protect Libyan civilians against the alleged brutality of their own government. The story of what really happened and how it continues to unfold is now well-known history.

In his last briefing, the envoy told the UN Security Council (UNSC) that his attempts to address the concerns of different Libyan power-hungry factions were met with “stubborn resistance, unreasonable expectations and indifference to the interests of the Libyan people. These politicians, he said, have over the years entrenched their positions, thanks to “divided regional and global landscape, perpetuating the status quo”, subjecting Libya to further insecurity.

He accused all involved politicians of hypocrisy and deliberately creating disagreement after they themselves agree to some plan to move forward. He described this behaviour as lack of goodwill on the corrupt politicians’ part.

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Commenting on the situation after tendering his resignation, Mr. Bathily was more candid about the UN’s future role in the country. He said “under the circumstances, there is no way the UN can operate successfully.” Why? Because the Libyan protagonists are selfish and they put their “personal interests above the needs of their country” he said, while predicting that the world body has no “room for a solution in the future.”

This is a very blunt and true statement from a UN diplomat wishing to justify his failure, that of the UN and his own resignation, all at once.

With Bathily gone, his number two in the UN Mission in Libya, Stephanie Koury, took over the difficult task of political mediation of the UN mission—a task exclusively given to the Special Representative which usually requires UNSC decision.  Since the Council is unlikely to agree, in the foreseeable future, to appoint that person, Ms. Koury is likely to remain as Officer-in-Charge of the UN mission, with little prospect of successfully cracking the problem she inherited, mainly forcing Libyan factions to agree to both presidential and legislative elections.

In reality, the UN can do very little when the parties it is mediating between do not want a solution, and this is exactly the case in Libya. The main institutional actors, to use Mr. Bathily’s words, are still there and they are the ones Ms. Koury is supposed to deal with, but none of them has the intention or the goodwill to change the status quo. The five institutional actors who are holding Libya back are: the Parliament in the East, the Higher Council of State, the Government of National Unity and the Presidential Council in Tripoli. All topped by General Khalifa Haftar, the de facto power, in the Eastern and Southern regions.

Since the “five devils” do not want it, elections will not happen. Unless they are gone or, somehow, forced to accept elections, the entire nation will continue to be held hostage to the very few and will not vote to elect its president, representatives and government.

Against this background, it is hard to see what progress, if any, Ms. Koury could make when the very people delaying any progress are still around and she still has to deal with them.

Besides, what kind of initiatives could Ms. Koury bring to the table to satisfy all “five devils”, who are a very wily bunch willing to do whatever it takes to keep their positions and privileges, particularly financial gains they personally make at the expense of the estimated seven million Libyans?

Over the last 13 years, since the country was plunged into an abyss by the NATO bombardment and Western-backed armed rebels, almost every imaginable idea of compromise has been tried but failed. At the same time, over the same period, the “five devils” have perfected very precise tactics and wicked strategies to kill any political idea presented to them. They have been doing so, thanks to their regional, international backers and local armed militias. Since the 2014 elections, for example, foreign meddling in Libya’s internal affairs has been, and continues to be, behind almost all UN failures in the country. But, now, that destructive role is being played by the local proxies, including the decade old Parliament whose legitimacy, like the other four actors, has long since been lost.

Working against Ms. Koury, also, is the regional and international political environment. Russia and the United States, for one, the powers with a significant role in Libya, disagree about almost everything. Both are veto powers and are able to bring the UNSC to a halt, as they have been doing for the last few years. And if, magically, Ms. Koury successfully brokers a universally accepted compromise among the Libyan factions, she still needs the Security Council to endorse it and make it work. The Council is unlikely to agree. On top of that, the US is in election mood now, with little room for Libya to be acted upon.

In terms of geopolitics, Libya is now another potential theatre of confrontation between Moscow and the West, which means solving the Libyan crisis is not a priority at all. Add to that the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza and the war in Ukraine, neither Moscow nor Washington have the luxury of focusing on Libya with the aim of ending its misery.

All this means that elections in Libya, with the potential to end the long transitional period, are still far off, and reaching that point will involve bypassing some major potholes on a road already difficult to navigate.

One day, Ms. Koury will leave her position and move on, but the “five devils” will only further cement their positions, while perfecting the art of delaying and disagreeing.

READ: Libya: Presidential Council calls on Russia to play a ‘positive and constructive role’

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