Editor’s Note: This article was drafted before the reshuffling of authorities in the Government of National Stability (GNS) in eastern Libya, which may have implications for the work of the international community to support democratic elections.

Since 2012, multiple failed political transitions have taken their toll on the Libyan people. The continued and increasingly complex internal divisions and external vectors affecting Libya threaten to send it into another spiral of crisis and violence. Local and national leaders working in good faith to stabilize the country have inevitably grown cynical as ruling elites and their international partners fail to deliver local security and good governance.

Rebel groups based out of Tripoli and Misurata from the start of the uprising in Libya on April 8, 2011, near Ajdabiyeh. Twelve years later, Libya’s conflict remains stuck in political deadlock, with rival governments in the country’s East and West. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Rebel groups based out of Tripoli and Misurata from the start of the uprising in Libya on April 8, 2011, near Ajdabiyeh. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)]

The convoluted divisions and alliances between Libya’s “political dinosaurs” block progress toward reunifying the rival eastern and western governments. Also, the continued marginalization and instrumentalization of the people and resources of the Fezzan — in Libya’s southwest — keep it the most depressed region of the country, vulnerable to transnational criminal networks and violent extremists. The social and political landscape remains fraught at a time when the U.N. has announced new plans to support Libya to move toward democratic national elections before the end of the year.

Internal and External Challenges

The recent Eid al-Fitr holiday exposed how social tensions in Libya can be intertwined with toxic identity politics. The general religious authority for Awqaf in the East and the Dar al Iftaa in the West, which are aligned respectively with the Parliament in Tobruk and the Government of National Unity in Tripoli, disagreed on the day of the official Eid celebration, marking the first time such a division has taken place in Libya. This is just one highly visible example of how the disjointed politics are impacting civil society.

As part of work that started in 2020 under the Berlin Process, Libya’s Presidential Council is working with the U.N. and African Union on comprehensive reconciliation initiatives, designed to rebuild trust between all segments of society. While progress has been made, extensive resources will be required to advance many of the transitional justice arrangements necessary to fully heal from conflicts like the 2011-2012 battles between Bani Walid and Misrata; the internal fighting, slayings and expulsions (including of known extremists) in Benghazi in 2014; and the more recent 2019 battles and atrocities in Tarhuna (southeast of Tripoli).

Regional dynamics are also worrying. Putting aside complicated political ties, the porous borders with Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan continue to be genuine security threats. Libya is likely to be greatly impacted by the raging conflict in Sudan, as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which have been responsible for securing the Sudanese side of the border, may increase illicit trafficking into Libya to help fund the war. For years, Sudanese Janjaweed militias, many of which are now integrated into the RSF, have fought and harassed civilians in the Fezzan. They have been accused of kidnapping, torture and other human rights abuses. The collapse into civil war in Sudan now may make the problems worse.

In March, the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Libya (FFM) released its final report (A/HRC/RES/43/39), which is likely to put pressure on high-ranking officials and powerful armed group leaders. The report accuses individuals linked to groups, such as the Rada Special Deterrence Force, based in Mitiga Airport; the Tripoli-based Internal Security Agency; and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) of committing a multitude of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, enslavement and extrajudicial killings. The FFM predicts that things will only get worse in the near term.

These are just a few of the intensifying factors putting pressure on, and complicating, the political transition that the U.N. and the international community have now reinvested in.

Another Effort Toward Political Transition

At a recent gathering in Washington, Western and regional special envoys reiterated their unified support to the United Nations plans to help break the current political impasse in Libya. Much more importantly, the United Nations is the only body that can implement dividends at scale for the Libyan people in a way that ensures enough momentum for democratic elections, effective security and good governance.

Therefore, when Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) for Libya Abdoulaye Bathily announced his plan to support a pathway to elections in 2023, it was met, however cautiously, with optimism by many Libyans and international stakeholders. His stated goal is to broaden the negotiation process and establish an electoral roadmap with clear timelines, ensuring inclusive, free and fair elections.

Under the auspices of the Libyan Political Dialogue provisions of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, SRSG Bathily is forming a “high-level panel” to support Libyan-led efforts of the High National Election Commission (HNEC) and the parliamentary and executive bodies working on national reconciliation and an agreed constitutional basis for national elections, but if the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) builds on past progress, accesses the breadth of its resources, and draws from strong partnerships, then much can be done this year.

So far, some analysts have described UNSMIL’s ongoing efforts as a two-track process. Track one is a “leadership track”, involving influential Libyan political actors helping to broker a deal that ensures that elections can proceed. UNSMIL is eager to collaborate with the Presidential Council in Tripoli to help facilitate track one. They believe a Presidential Council, unified among its three geographic representatives (East, West and South), is crucial for this Libyan-led initiative to gain credibility and international support.

Track two of UNSMIL’s initiative involves engaging political parties, civil society, women, youth, and minority groups to identify stakeholders who can actively promote national reconciliation and public support for the political process. Track two should aim to go even further than dialogue and outreach to broad constituencies. This has been done before — during the National Dialogue Process preparations from 2016-2019, and then quite successfully as part of the work of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in 2020 and 2021.

Upon successful completion of both tracks, a high-level panel composed of stakeholders from both tracks will be established, with its responsibilities to be determined based on clear action points from the two tracks.

Track one undoubtedly garners the most attention. The U.N. and international community have LAAF leader Khalifa Haftar to accept parliamentary elections without insisting on presidential elections and eligibility for his own candidacy. Some have been trying to work through members of his inner circle to try to get crucial eastern buy-in for the UNSMIL’s discussions. To effectively execute a two-track strategy, SRSG Bathily will need to lead a strong UNSMIL team, with the mediation skills necessary to draw out a consensus from the famously obstinate Libyan elites.

Since 2012, there have been many national, regional and international efforts to broker interim power sharing arrangements, transitional government and constitutional parameters for elections. These efforts tend to rely on various models of elite bargaining, oscillating from one model to another depending on the political economy and the military/paramilitary capacities of the opposing parties in Libya.

But while many continue to argue about what models best describe the situation, the answer is too often narrowly focused on who should be empowered to usher Libya out of crisis. What these conversations do not address is how Libya will sustain peace.

Alongside any political progress supported by the SRSG’s high-level panel, there must be a way to provide all Libyans with incremental peace dividends to ensure their enduring support for political negotiations. When the fighting stops, and agreements are made for transitional arrangements, many Libyan people are infused with hope. Indeed, they hope for a clear pathway to democratic elections — but they also hope for the good governance required to address their long-held grievances related to security and rule of law, basic services, devolution of authority to subnational bodies, local economic development and more. In addition to the disappointment from missed election deadlines, when political deals fail to deliver any change in people’s daily lives, the hope fades to cynicism. To stop these cycles of hope and cynicism, the political deals must be accompanied by meaningful reforms and development activities — starting with the security sector.

Normalizing Security in Libya Is a Must

Nothing can be done unless the political tracks are tightly connected to improving security. Both will require great investment from the international community to transfer negotiated arrangements between elites into real change for people’s everyday lives.

At the national level, there has been much success in maintaining a general cessation of hostilities since the October 2020 cease-fire brokered by the U.N. As part of the cease-fire agreement, the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) was established with the mandate to monitor and enforce the cease-fire. The work of the JMC, alongside UNSMIL and within the Berlin Process has successfully upheld the cease-fire and kept the peace between the major security actors.

This progress has continued into April of this year, when military units and security formations from the East, West, and South met and agreed on several confidence-building measures, including the LAAF release of six detainees from western Libya. Additionally, the two chiefs of staff of the Libyan armies, General Haddad and General Naduri, met in Benghazi on April 13 and affirmed their commitments to reconciliation and supporting the electoral process.

Maintaining the cease-fire and agreeing on productive confidence-building mechanisms are critical, but comprehensive security sector reform as well as disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and integration (DDR/I) of the armed groups is also essential for providing basic security throughout the country. Specifically, former U.N. Special Adviser to the Secretary General on Libya Stephanie Williams recently noted that DDR/I programs should focus on devolution of the processes to local communities, individual vetting, and human rights training, among other efforts.

Unfortunately, in Libya, this is a daunting task. There are numerous illegitimate armed groups aligned with the GNU, the LAAF and other smaller non-state actors. Alliances among government officials and non-state actors make it hard to fully understand the depth of the integration of illegitimate non-state armed groups and the state.

Earlier this year, the JMC endorsed terms of reference for its Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Joint Technical Sub-Committee, which is mandated, among other things, to categorize the armed groups. This is a great start, but much more should be done in parallel with the political process.

The real work of security sector reform (SSR) and DDR/I will be difficult, but not impossible. It will require substantial programming resources from international donors on a number of fronts, but it is precisely because of this breadth and expense that SSR and DDR/I have been regularly discussed by policymakers since 2014, but rarely prioritized and never properly resourced.

In recent years, part of the problem has been a failure to adequately fund and activate programming jointly implemented by UNSMIL and the U.N. agencies. When the U.N. missions and agencies work together, they can establish a clear division of labor and complementary roles that allow for political and security agreements to materialize into tangible gains for people’s everyday lives. Missions can provide strategic direction and national buy-in at the highest levels, and they can provide political guidance and oversight. The agencies, meanwhile, can take the lead in program implementation, manage local partnerships, and ensure that resources are allocated effectively. In terms of resource mobilization, the U.N. missions and agencies can work together to identify funding sources and channel them to specific programs and initiatives that most suitably progress the political process.

In Libya, joint programs like this, including those in support of the security sector, have had success in the past. But over the last two to three years, many have been abandoned or vastly under-funded.

Despite the challenges, the JMC and UNSMIL have continued to work toward implementing DDR/I and SSR programs in Libya. This includes conducting consultations with local communities and armed groups, providing training and support to security sector institutions, and promoting dialogue and reconciliation between different groups. Now, they will need to garner support from generous donors to launch comprehensive, joint UNSMIL and U.N. agency programs.

Going forward, this is the only way a negotiated security agreement can transform into material gains for people on the ground. Without these tangible achievements, public support will also be absent. Any path toward sustained peace and stability for Libya will require leaders to deliver dividends to the Libyan people for their confidence and support—first and foremost in the form of basic security, and beyond that, in overall governance reforms and economic development.

This analysis was originally published by Manara Magazine.

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