Over 11 years after the death of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s conflict is seemingly stuck in place. Rival governments in the country’s East and West, factionalism, militia warfare and foreign interference have all contributed to a complex conflict that still has no resolution in sight. In a bid to advance the peace process, the United Nations convened the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in late 2020 with 75 Libyans from across the country’s diverse social and political spectrum. Among other things, participants agreed on a roadmap for national elections to be held on December 24, 2021.

A destroyed building in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, May 27, 2022. (Laura Boushnak/The New York Times)
A destroyed building in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, May 27, 2022. (Laura Boushnak/The New York Times)

Those elections — aimed at finally establishing a unified government to rule the country — never happened, as disagreements over the electoral framework, among other issues, led to a postponement, with no new date yet set. In the absence of credible, transparent and inclusive polls, Libya continues to remain divided with no clear path toward peace, as foreign powers pursue their own interests at the expense of the country’s stability.

Ahmed Alsharkasi, a Libya analyst and member of the LPDF, looks at how the electoral process can be put back on track, how foreign interference has hampered peace efforts and what the international community can do to play a constructive role in building peace in war-torn Libya.

What can be done to get the electoral process back on track?

Political activists in Libya had previously warned that meddling with the electoral process will lead to another legitimacy crisis and put the hard-won cease-fire at risk.

It’s a vicious cycle that has become all too foreseeable: Political stagnation and division is followed by an escalation in violence, which leads to another elite-sustaining political agreement that fails to address corruption and excludes some parties from access to state resources — which leads us right back to political stagnation and division. Libya has been hostage to this cycle for over eight years, and the only way to break it is a credible and fair electoral process.

In order to move ahead with the elections and work toward de-escalation, we must go back to negotiations and dialogue. However, drawing from the previous dialogue processes, we must focus on three major sticking points.

First is the need to reform Libya’s executive governance structure and tackle the causes that lead to the re-emergence of parallel governments. The presence of two rival governments is not conducive to election. Among other things, this rivalry makes them both vulnerable to foreign interference.

Second is the need for clear electoral dates that are fixed, unchangeable and constitutionally based. This process should be promulgated jointly by the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) and western-based High Council of State (HCS) with the leadership and guidance of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Working with any of these legislative and semi-legislative bodies separately will only give them more room to obstruct and sabotage the process. And if one or both bodies are obstructive or not responsive, Article 64 of the Libyan Political Agreement offers an avenue for re-convening the members of the LPDF and in accordance with Article 4 (3) of the roadmap, the LPDF is then tasked with passing the needed laws. There is room to reform the LPDF and empower its mandate to be more focused on elections.

The third sticking point is revamping how political leaders handle sovereign positions and ensuring that they are put on the table in any upcoming dialogue process. The non-renewal of the heads of sovereign institutions has allowed for their politization and monopolization of resources, undermining their credibility and effectiveness and opening doors to corruption. The governor of the Central Bank of Libya, whose mandate technically expired four years ago, is a salient example, as some of his actions and decisions have been perceived by some rival parties on the ground as politicizing the bank and using its resources for the interest of their rivals.

Tackling the constitutional crisis in Libya has become paramount. The latest amendment to the 2013 Constitutional Declaration was contested at court and left an uncertain and conflicting constitutional basis. The need for a unified constitutional basis for elections that responds to the challenges and needs of the post-2014 Libyan political reality was discussed heavily at the LPDF and recently at meetings in Cairo.

However, the unwillingness of the HoR and HSC to agree on a constitutional basis for elections and the inability of the LPDF to reach a satisfactory draft accepted by all parties, has hindered any progress toward elections. There is a need to look for alternative bodies to pass a constitutional basis through. Lately, some proposals — with varying levels of support from the international community — call for the Presidential Council, which is made up of three representatives, one from each region, to declare a state of emergency and issue a constitutional basis through presidential decree. However, given the complex political dynamics in Libya currently, such action won’t resonate with officials in Libya and would likely not be implemented by the relevant bodies. Therefore, this option will further complicate the situation.

If elections were held in Libya today, they would be far from perfectly administered — however, ensuring that all parties are actively engaged in the electoral process will guarantee a wide monitoring and acceptance of the process and the results. Ensuring the active engagement of all rival parties in the electoral process is the only way to move beyond the current state of lawlessness and corruption. We have to convince all parties involved, including foreign powers, that it is important to design a process that leads to credible, transparent and inclusive elections and to not interfere in the results.

It is also important to recognize that in a country like Libya, which has been plagued by civil war and intense political polarization, a winner-take-all solution is not feasible. Therefore, other electoral mechanisms must be put on the table. A possible mechanism is to run presidential elections based on lists (president, deputy and prime minister) or a presidential council with three members. This would ensure that all parties are engaged in governance at the highest levels and that no party is unrepresented, reducing the likelihood and incentive for powerful actors to undermine the election results.

What role have foreign power played in Libya’s conflict?

As a result of the coalitions between local actors and foreign armed groups, Libya houses 10 foreign military bases and over 20,000 mercenaries of Russian, Syrian, Turkish and Sudanese origin.

Foreign powers had previously used proxies to conduct war in Libya. But as of late, they are increasingly using their own troops or associated mercenaries on the ground, moving from mere political interference to semi-occupation of the country.

Russia’s Wagner Group has increased control over different parts of Libya, which has become a hub for their expanded operations in Africa. On the other hand, Turkey uses its heavy military presence in western Libya to influence the political landscape. They were directly involved in the latest civil conflict around Tripoli, using drones to prevent forces loyal to HoR-appointed Prime Minister Fathi Bashaga from entering the capital. This signals that no prime minister can rule from Tripoli without the green light of Turkey.

In the absence of a united stance from the U.N. Security Council and a strong U.S. position on Libya, foreign powers will continue to act unilaterally in Libya in accordance with their own national interests. Libya is often used as a negotiating card to gain leverage over other regional and global issues, in particular the energy crisis. In fact, the UAE-brokered agreement between western-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah and eastern-based warlord Khalifa Haftar to resume the oil and gas production allowed for a larger UAE role in the energy sector in Libya, including influencing the naming of a new head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation. In light of this, it might be difficult to see stability and unity in Libya in the near future.

Foreign interference has also negatively affected the electoral process. At the LPDF, discussions of creating a constitutional consensus for the electoral process were overridden by some countries’ interest in engineering the electoral results to ensure victory for certain figures.

To some extent, these countries have contributed to the failure to reach a consensus within the LPDF despite the fact that the LPDF constitutional committee had developed a reasonable draft with only four points of contention — points that could have been solved, had it not been for such interference and UNSMIL’s poor management of the LPDF sessions.

How can the international community play a constructive role in building peace in Libya?

The international community cannot play a constructive role while allowing some countries to interfere only to advance their own interests in Libya. Countries such as Russia, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, France, Italy and Qatar have consistently fueled the conflict with money and weapons, sustaining the state of chaos and instability. Therefore, the first step to building peace is to put pressure on these countries to refrain from unilateral interventions in Libyan domestic affairs.

This can only be achieved if the United States plays a greater role in Libya, especially as Russia has  expanded its influence. After sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine left Europe looking for alternative sources of energy, Russia used this influence to block Libyan energy reserves as an option.

Libya’s stabilization must be actively supported by the United States through strong and swift action stemming from a holistic and clear Libya policy — one that engages U.S. allies in the region and prevents them from unilateral interventions. Only this will halt the Russian growing influence in Libya and the region.

The international community should support the new U.N. special envoy for Libya in designing an inclusive dialogue process, which should aim to produce a realistic roadmap that can be implemented. The roadmap must call for urgent presidential and parliamentary elections to avoid repeating the same mistakes of previous political agreements. The international community must rally behind this roadmap sincerely and avoid unilateral action.

Related Publications

Ask the Experts: What Drives Libya’s Fragility?

Ask the Experts: What Drives Libya’s Fragility?

Monday, October 31, 2022

By: Andrew Cheatham

Libya has been trapped in cycles of violence and political instability since the 2011 revolution. Competing factions within Libya’s political, business and military elite have spent the last decade alternating between violent conflict and ineffective power-sharing agreements. Meanwhile, foreign powers have interfered in pursuit of their own geopolitical agendas, undermining international mediation efforts by the United Nations and others. USIP’s Andrew Cheatham spoke with two Libya experts to discuss what’s behind the country’s protracted fragility crisis and how Libya can move toward peace and democratic governance.

Type: Blog

Fragility & Resilience

What’s Next for Libya’s Protracted Conflict?

What’s Next for Libya’s Protracted Conflict?

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

By: Thomas M. Hill

This week in Cairo, the United Nations will host the final round of scheduled talks between representatives from Libya’s two opposing governments: the House of Representatives (HoR) based in the eastern city of Tobruk and the High Council of State (HCS) based in the western city of Tripoli. The talks which began in April are intended to yield a “solid constitutional basis and electoral framework” for ending the country’s longstanding political stalemate.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionPeace Processes

The New U.S. Plan to Stabilize Conflicts: The Case of Libya

The New U.S. Plan to Stabilize Conflicts: The Case of Libya

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun;  Thomas M. Hill

Almost 11 years after ousting the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya remains a largely ungoverned land divided among warlord-led factions that fight with support from rival foreign countries. Libya’s instability resonates widely, permitting the trafficking of weapons to the Sahel and migrants to Europe. Repeated peace efforts have failed to help Libyans form a unified national government, yet Libyans continue to show the capacity to overcome communal divisions and build peace at local levels. That demonstrated capacity offers an opportunity that can be expanded by the U.S. government’s decision, under its Global Fragility Strategy, to direct a new peacebuilding effort toward Libya.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience

Elie Abouaoun on Libya’s Elections

Elie Abouaoun on Libya’s Elections

Friday, December 17, 2021

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun

With the vote likely to be postponed, USIP’s Elie Abouaoun says frustrations are high over Libya’s political and economic stagnation as the international community tries to “generate a new political agreement … just to make sure the elections can happen without a major outbreak of violence.”

Type: Podcast

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications