Libya Brief

Summary: in Libya current events, peace processes and diplomats all seem to be caught in a cyclical game and the country appears to have now gone the full circle, returning to the environment which existed just before the start of the war on Tripoli in 2019.

We thank Tarek Megerisi for today’s newsletter. Tarek is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the ECFR, the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is a political analyst and researcher who specialises in North African affairs and politics, governance and development in the Arab world. In addition to contributing to the newsletter, Tarek is a regular contributor to our Arab Digest podcast. You can find his most recent podcast, Putin and the precipice here.

Politically, Libya is re-divided between two administrations. The Government of National Unity (GNU), inaugurated in early 2021 to oversee an electoral process that never happened, rules from the capital Tripoli. Meanwhile, opposing political forces headquartered in Libya’s eastern province of Cyrenaica, nominally control most of Libya’s vast expanse including key oil installations. The military dictator who rules from the East, Field Marshal Haftar, has been making ever more aggressive noises threatening to restart the war as he grows increasingly frustrated by his inability to gain control of the levers of Libya’s state and economy through other means.

Regarding a path to peace, the failure of the UN process to hold elections in 2021 supercharged Libya’s destructive zero-sum competition which has driven the state towards re-division. Without an overarching internationally led policy, Libya’s elites and their international sponsors were guided by an opportunistic urge to take absolute control over the state. Their respective political incompetence, inability to compromise, and the military stalemate in place since the end of the war, meant that re-division was an inevitable outcome. The impact on Libya and Libyans has been painful. Following ten years of absent services, followed by tremendous corruption under the GNU, the quality of life for Libyans has hit all-time lows. Cash remains difficult to access due to a long-running liquidity crisis, price inflation of basic goods has had a withering effect, and twelve-hour plus power cuts have become common place. It was those power cuts which triggered a wave of national protests over the summer, leading to the parliament building in Tobruk being set alight, but little political movement resulted from the protests. The stalemate of the current moment makes war or popular unrest an increasingly likely possibility; however the military superiority exercised by Türkiye through proxies in Tripoli and western Libya puts a dampener on the possibility of a conflict comparable to 2019.

Tobruk House of Reps fire
Protesters stormed Libya’s parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk and set fire to part of the building, 2 July 2022 [photo credit; Twitter]
Diplomatically, Libya has a new UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), veteran Senegalese diplomat and politician Abdoulaye Bathily. Much like those who came before him, he is embarking on his new role with a stubborn ambition to ignore international actors and a focus on the Libyans he believes he will have to mediate between to come to a solution. Infamously, one of his predecessors Dr. Ghassan Salame made the same calculation only to eventually implore Germany to launch the Berlin process, after international interference not only scuppered his plans for a national dialogue but drove one of his interlocuters – Field Marshal Haftar – to try to conquer Tripoli, an effort he was stymied in by the intervention of Türkiye. Whilst the approach of mediating between Libya’s political leadership appears logically sound on paper, it ignores much of the Libyan context and sets Bathily up to fail at similar junctures to his predecessors. Libya’s political bodies – the GNU and its two chambers of parliament, the House of Representatives and High Council of State – are all defunct. Their legal legitimacy has long expired, and their popular support is at an all-time low. So collectively loathed have Libya’s political elite become that no political actor can credibly claim to be representing any constituency beyond their own personal interest. Moreover, following eight years of failed processes, the elites have developed an expertise in manipulating special envoys, engaging with them in drawn out negotiations which they eventually scupper.

One thing that is shifting are some of the international positions on Libya. Whilst the UN special representative Bathily may be ignoring them, Western actors are trying to find the common ground needed to build a new electoral process. They have created an informal grouping dubbed the P3+2+2, an evolution of the preceding Berlin process that was purposefully evolved to exclude the Russians. Amongst the USA, UK, France (P3) the penny has finally dropped that Libya’s political elite will not honestly engage with any political process, and if left alone will drive Libya to ruin with disastrous consequences for the entire Mediterranean region. They are now trying to flesh out a credible process with Italy and Germany (the first +2) which can be eventually be brought under UN oversight as the SRSG’s mediation platform. While the SRSG’s disdain for western actors is one problem, the rivalry between Egypt and Türkiye (the final +2) is perhaps the bigger one.

In a final example of how repetitive Libya’s malaise is, peace and progress in Libya is once again being held-up by the disputes of other states. Once it was France and Italy, then Russia and the USA, and now it is the recrudescent regional actors Türkiye and Egypt. Egypt has long had an unrealistic ambition to effectively exert enough influence over its oil wealthy neighbour to render it a vassal state, and has tried to co-opt numerous political processes towards that goal. Most recently was the electoral process, and attempts to mend it under the former SRSG Stephanie Williams whose own track of talks ended up being hosted in Cairo by the notorious military intelligence services.

Meanwhile Türkiye, as the actor which defeated Haftar and won the war, is doing its utmost to profit off the victory. This not only means maximising the corruption of the GNU where it involves Turkish companies, and opportunities to move Libyan foreign exchange reserves and oil proceeds through Türkiye, but also the political leverage it offers. This was most recently seen through the signing of two new memoranda of understanding with the GNU, offering Türkiye the right to explore for gas off the eastern coast of Libya – in waters which Greece also claims. This can be read as an act of domestic politicking, triumphalising Türkiye’s successful foreign policy and antagonising the Greeks to allow an embattled President Erdoğan to appeal to an increasingly disenchanted electorate. Nevertheless it has resulted in a quick deterioration of Turkish-Egyptian ties, followed by an announcement by Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry that they would no longer work with Türkiye on Libyan issues.

So, again, everything in Libya is changing only for it to remain eerily familiar. What lies next is probably another oil blockade, increased friction between Libyan armed groups and political actors and aimless meetings between the UN and these same actors. All the while, the Libyan people watch in a state of despair and helplessness as their savings evaporate and their hardships accumulate.

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