Libyans and the United Nations advanced their current effort to end almost a decade of instability and war this month when a U.N.-backed forum nominated an interim government to prepare nationwide elections by the end of 2021. The new transitional government brings hope that this process—the third major U.N. peace effort in Libya—might lead to stability. Still, achieving lasting peace will require that the process address the main underlying driver of conflict: the divisions among Libya’s three main regions, notably over how to organize the government. It also will need the United States and other countries to support the transitional government and hold Libya’s contesting sides accountable.

War-damaged buildings in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in early 2020. A year later, a peace process faces dangers rooted largely in divisions among Libya’s three main regions as Libyans seek to elect a government in 2021. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
War-damaged buildings in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in early 2020. A year later, a peace process faces dangers rooted largely in divisions among Libya’s three main regions as Libyans seek to elect a government in 2021. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

The U.N.-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, a 74-member body, selected the transitional interim government, which must win support from military and political elites—and be seen as legitimate by Libyans more broadly—if it is to advance the peace process. A critical element in seeking this support has been the government’s inclusion of leaders from Libya’s three historical regions. The prime minister-designate, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, is from the western region (Tripolitania). The designated head of a three-person Presidency Council is Mohamed Mnefi, from the eastern region (Cyrenaica). The other designated members of that council are Musa Koni from the southern region (Fezzan) and Abdullah al-Lafi, who is from the west. That shared representation is vital as the new government seeks the endorsement of Libya’s divided parliament for a proposed cabinet, scheduled to be formed by February 26 and approved within 21 days.

Winning that endorsement will be a daunting task. Some power brokers—including Agila Saleh, a narrow runner-up in the selection of the interim government—have questioned its legitimacy and set conditions for endorsing the new government. Saleh heads one of Libya’s two rival legislative bodies, the House of Representatives, based in the east. For now, the newly appointed U.N. envoy for Libya, Ján Kubiš, has managed to secure Saleh’s commitment to support a vote of confidence in the interim government. Surprisingly, Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya and who led a 2019 assault on the capital, Tripoli, also issued a statement of support. Haftar has been the main spoiler of past political initiatives.

Aiming to prevent spoilers from derailing the political transition before it had properly begun, international stakeholders—including France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, who issued a joint statement of support—have rallied behind the new interim government. Turkey and Egypt, which support opposing sides in the conflict, also endorsed the government’s selection. The international community must hold potential spoilers accountable, as well as the interim government and its leaders, insisting that they uphold their commitment to facilitate elections and transfer power peacefully.  

Most important is that Libyans support these political developments. Polling by a Libyan firm, Diwan Research, suggests that Libyans commend the selection process and efforts made to promote its transparency. Eighty percent of 1,000 people polled this month said they expect the interim government to unite the country, and 70 percent said they expect it will succeed in holding the planned presidential and parliamentary elections in December. This creates space, for now, for the new interim government to begin that task.

Setting a Legal Basis for Elections

Yet major obstacles remain—most critically, the need to devise a constitutional basis for these elections. A constituent assembly drafted a constitutional proposal that was approved in July 2017, but that document has not been ratified through a popular referendum.

At a meeting last month among representatives of Libya’s rival legislative bodies and members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, an agreement was reached to put the constitutional proposal to a referendum. If approved, that constitution could provide the basis for the elections in December.

At least three hurdles must be overcome. First, it is unclear how the envisioned referendum fits into the roadmap for a peace process set out by the United Nations and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. Libyans are disputing who holds the authority—whether the U.N.-backed dialogue forum or the rival legislative bodies—to make decisions about the constitutional basis. According to one interpretation the two legislative bodies have missed a deadline envisaged in the roadmap to implement the agreement on the popular referendum, which puts the issue of the constitutional basis back into the hands of the U.N.-backed forum. Second, Libya’s law governing the constitutional referendum faces legal challenges over the way it was adopted. Moreover, it is unclear whether last month’s agreement would alter the current stringent requirement for a referendum to pass—a majority of voters in each of the three main regions. That requirement, higher than was set by earlier legal instruments, is a significant change in light of the deep regional divisions. Third, Libya’s election commission has signaled that it lacks the time and resources to hold a national referendum as well as the planned parliamentary and presidential elections this year.

Even if a referendum can be held, the 2017 constitutional proposal is unlikely to be approved—especially if the current requirement for separate majorities in each region is retained. That is because the proposal provides for a strong presidential system of government with weak provisions for the decentralization of power. With demands, especially by communities in the east and the south, for more power to be allocated to regional and local governments, the draft falls seriously short of reflecting the aspirations of a significant share of Libya’s society.

A rejection of the draft constitution would stall the transitional process, which in turn could raise political tensions and re-ignite conflict. With support from the international community, Libyans must work to avert, or at least prepare for, such an outcome.

One option would be to consider re-opening the 2017 constitutional proposal to amendments that would address shortcomings. However, the constituent assembly that negotiated and approved the proposal is reluctant to re-convene. Given that its members were unable to reach agreement on a more decentralized governance structure in the past, a reconvened assembly is unlikely to achieve that in a short time frame. An alternative could be the implementation of a decentralization law to solidify the relatively vague provisions for decentralized governance of the constitutional proposal. That step, taken prior to a referendum, might improve the chances that Libyans would ratify the constitution.

A second option would be to task the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum to lead consultations for the preparation of an alternative legal framework as a basis for the upcoming elections and to delegate the responsibilities for the adoption of a permanent constitution to the authorities emerging from the December elections.

None of these options is free of pitfalls. All would require consensus among Libya’s contending parties and support from the international community.

Overcoming Regional Divisions

If 2021 is to be a year of peaceful transition for Libya, the international community must unite in supporting the interim government and must provide the resources to accomplish its essential tasks—holding elections and starting a process of national reconciliation. Prior peace efforts have been scuttled by the rise of domestic spoilers operating with international support—and in 2021, international diplomacy will be vital to quash any repetition of that old pattern. Governments and other foreign actors that have backed factions in the conflict must be persuaded to halt that practice for good.

Libya’s regional divisions—so evident in the formation of the interim government and the unresolved conflicts over the referendum law and constitution—have only deepened in the decade since Libya’s 2011 uprising ousted the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. While it will not be possible to resolve the regional conflicts in the 10 months before the scheduled elections, the new government needs at least to begin fostering national reconciliation.

Significant steps have been achieved to bridge regional divides and move toward unifying institutions. The 5+5 Joint Military Commission convenes representatives from the rival armed forces. The opposing sides also have moved to unify the national budget and agree on monetary policy. Critically for the endorsement of the transitional government and for approval of legislation to facilitate elections, efforts are underway to unify the country’s divided legislature.

Once the transitional government has been endorsed, it must build on this momentum, notably with efforts to address grievances of local communities. This is particularly important for the south, which has long been neglected and is more forcefully demanding greater influence, for example in a current bid to have a southerner chosen as speaker of the House of Representatives. Here, greater outreach by national level officials and improved service delivery would be an important signal by the transitional government of its commitment to correcting past injustices.

Agreement on a constitutional basis for elections and fostering national unity will be key in the lead-up to elections and for ending the transitional period. Sustainable peace in Libya, however, will ultimately depend on tackling regional fragmentation through a comprehensive reform of its subnational governance system that can accommodate the three regions' divergent aspirations within a viable Libyan state. Even if Libya completes a transition to elected government in 2021, establishing a well-functioning democracy will require years of work, including support of the international community.

Simona Ross is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, England. Stefan Wolff is professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, England. He co-leads a research project funded by a USIP grant to the University of Birmingham. The project is investigating the problem of peace processes that fail, allowing civil wars to recur—and ways that policy practitioners can shape and manage those processes to better prevent such failures.

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