The latest meeting of ambassadors of the countries with stakes in Libya, sometimes known as the Libya Contact Group, ended with a call for both presidential and legislative elections in the country this year and support for UN envoy Abdoulaye Bathily. The meeting in Washington on 23 February was attended by representatives from the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey and Egypt. While they appear publicly to agree on the way forward, each country is pushing its own agenda regardless of whether it helps Libya or not. These are the foreign “bogeymen” who are hampering any progress towards a solution to the protracted Libya crisis, which is now in its second decade.
Many Libyans are suspicious of the Contact Group’s intentions. Thousands, including parliamentarians, have signed an online petition calling for elections, while warning the UK and US not to impose their will on Libya. They believe that those countries in particular want only a legislative election without a presidential vote simply because London and Washington fear that Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi could win. Their respective ambassadors to Libya have, on more than one occasion, expressed their opposition to Gaddafi Junior running for president. However, only holding the legislative election could lead to actual partition of the already divided country and damage oil production, as well as alienate the public further.
Bathily briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in Libya on 27 February. He explained that he is establishing a “High-level Steering Panel for Libya”. The proposed panel will consist of all “relevant Libyan stakeholders”, including tribal and civil society leaders, political figures, security actors and representatives of political institutions, presumably political parties.
It will, said Bathily, facilitate the adoption of “the legal framework and time-bound roadmap” to hold elections in 2023. It will also act as a “platform” to help reach a consensus on all issues related to elections, including security. The proposal, as it stands, is still vague at best; it is difficult to see how it will actually work on the ground.
According to Said Rashawn, a Benghazi-based political activist, such a panel “will fail” simply because it lacks the power to reinforce any decisions it might make. The legitimacy of a panel like this is also an issue when it comes to how members are chosen. Moreover, it is not clear if the UN Security Council has the consensus to adopt such a proposal given its own divisions. Moscow, which was not represented at the Washington summit, is likely to veto any resolution it does not like.
The UN envoy’s initiative appears to be another version of what has already tried and failed to solve the issue of elections. In October 2020, the then acting UN envoy, Stephanie Williams, created what was known as the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). It elected the current Government of National Unity and the current Presidential Council. The idea then was to bypass the constantly arguing House of Representatives and Higher Council of State which failed to agree on election laws and still do. In the end, the LPDF was marred by a bribery scandal and never convened again. Its 75 members were handpicked by Williams herself to avoid quarrels, but even that, in the end, did not work and the initiative quietly died.
The panel that Bathily is talking about seems to be very similar to the LPDF in both structure and proposed agenda, except that it includes more participants to make it, supposedly, more inclusive. In this it is an expanded version of what former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame proposed back in 2019, only to be halted when General Khalifa Haftar decided to invade Tripoli in April of that year.
What the majority of Libyans want is clear but has, for years, eluded them: they want simultaneous presidential and legislative elections. They have expressed this wish many times, particularly when 2.8 million of them registered and received their election card to vote in the aborted December 2021 poll. Elections are not only a popular demand, but also the only way for all institutions to renew their legitimacy. All institutions, including parliament, have overstayed their mandate and lost any legitimacy to operate in the divided country.
In his statement to the UN Security Council, Bathily confirmed that Libya is suffering from a “legitimacy crisis” and all its institutions “lost their legitimacy years ago.” Rightly, he believes that the pressing priority for him and all political actors is to “change the status quo” through open, fair and transparent elections. However, reaching that point is the toughest obstacle to tackle, as it has been for all of his predecessors.
Deeper analysis of the envoy’s initiative that he appeared to have sold to the Security Council reveals that it is nothing of substance and will not solve the deadlock over the very issue it is supposed to sort out: simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. While it attempts to copy previous failed UN initiatives it is not only unclear, but also lacks practicality. The “High-level Steering Panel”, according to Bathily, will not decide anything vis-à-vis elections; it will help to build a consensus among the different domestic and international protagonists. This means that it will only be making recommendations which must be turned into binding and implementable laws. However, those who have the sort of power to do that are the ones who are not interested in elections; the very same institutions that never agreed on anything, namely parliament and the Higher Council of State. According to Rashawn, parliament will “never agree to such an arrangement.”
Many observers think what is being cooked up behind the scenes is not what is being said publicly and that will not help the UN mediation efforts in Libya. As long as the UN Security Council resolutions on Libya are not reinforced by all “stakeholders”, including those who met in Washington last week, the UN will fail. Ironically the Washington summit participants are among the biggest violators of such resolutions.
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