European and transatlantic security would suffer a big loss if in spite of all international efforts Libya were to descend into armed chaos and instability 11 troubled years after the fall of Ghadafi in 2011 and then prevailing Arab spring conditions. National elections were and are seen to be a necessary condition for the establishment of national unification and legitimate all-Libyan governance, but here – as in all or most peace processes – the dilemma of elections is a hard nut to crack: meaningful, non-disruptive elections require pre-agreed constitutional arrangements, but for such arrangements to be brought about there must be functioning. legitimate/respected decision-making mechanisms – hence a classical Catch 22 situation. If partition remains unacceptable as a model for solution, then peace and stability requires fusion. But in the current state of affairs, Libya is divided between two de facto governments, in Tripoli and Tobruk respectively, denying each other legitimacy and being supported by different international players, including militarily, such as the cases of Turkish regulars and mercenaries and Russia’s Wagner Group, The situation is complicated, and ominous. The Ukraine crisis distracts necessary international attention.

Time for a perfect storm warning about developments (or in oil-rich and strategically important Libya, in Europe’s near abroad south of the Mediterranean. A reminder: there was supposed to be held UN-sponsored parliamentary elections on Christmas Eve last year, in turn a product of a sequence of events ever since the fall of dictator Ghadafi back in 2011, with more recent highlights being the episode of resumed civil war 2019, the achieved ceasefire as from autumn 2020 (after Turkey intervened militarily), the UN-sponsored peace process thereafter, the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU, replacing the earlier Tripoli-based GNA), with general elections planned for December 24 last year.

These elections never took place; the various conflictual parties in the countries could never, for all the sponsorship of the UN and its special representative Stephanie Williams, agree on the constitutional basis for meaningful elections. So now, early May 2022, huge questions persist concerning the political and constitutional future of this strategically important north-African country, with the biggest oil reserves in Africa, some eleven troubled years after the fall of Ghadafi. In spite of all attempts at stabilization and unification, Libya remains divided (mainly east-west, with instability and fragility easily spilling over into renewed violence.

Clearly, international attention on the Ukraine crisis has helped create and cement this situation, at least in the sense of reducing and diffusing necessary international attention. However, a Libya again descending into violent chaos would be extremely bad news for many actors, and from many points of view.

The peace plan, conceived and sponsored by the UN and promoted by German, French and Egyptian diplomacy, aimed at establishing a legitimate and unified Libyan government after all the years of division and conflict. So it established an interim unified government GNU), led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and tasked to lead the country to national elections (24 December 2021, the line of thought being that only national elections could be the vehicle for establishing a stable and legitimate all-Libyan government, even though elections if insufficiently prepared can be dangerously destabilizing (a classical dilemma in any peace process). As required under the peace plan Dbeibah had solemnly declared that he would not be a candidate for the premiership in the elections – an important part of the arrangement

The failure of the crucial December 24 elections has since led to a rapid return to the notorious Libyan pattern of division and polarization. Contrary to his pledge not to remain as GNU head as from the elections, Dbeibah has simply refused to resign, supported in this by the Tripolil-based High Council of State and (temporarily, for want of available alternatives) by the UN and Western lead nations, while being denied legitimacy by the country’s eastern half, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and its champion, the warlord Khalifa Haftar, with some international sponsorship. The Eastern House has since appointed its own de facto Prime Minister, Fahti Bashagha, and has expanded its territorial control to coastal Bengazi and southern Sebha.

So the country is de facto divided between two competing governments, with varying degrees of control over Libya’s myriad of post-Ghadafi era militias. And contrary to agreements under the peace plan foreign military – or armed – presence continues to complicate the equation, including Turkish armed forces (supporting the GNU in Tripoli) and the Russian Wagner Group (supporting Tobruk-based actors). In the ensuing atmosphere of instability and potential violence the economy has been hit by Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) having – mainly under pressure from Bashagha and Haftar – to shut down a sizeable part of the country’s oil production, a huge loss to the ailing Libyan economy and to Western needs for alternatives to continued energy dependence on Russian oil – as the Ukraine crisis has driven global oil price to a level of some 110 dollars per barrel.

A stable, unified and independent Libya remains vital to European – and transatlantic – security, also from a migration policy point of view. A permanently divided Libya remains a permanently unstable country in North Africa’s midst, territorially covering a vast Sahel area. So promoting Libyan stabilization and unification is, or should be, a high priority for countries such as France, Italy, Germany and the US, even in times of necessary preoccupation with Russia over Ukraine. The same obviously applies to Libya’s North African and Arab neighbors, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, UAE, and others. And then there is Turkey and its earlier economic investments and current political and military investments in the country, notably the maritime agreement with the earlier GNA government in Tripoli.

So there is, or should be, huge international interest in Libya sorting out its divisions and differences. But at the same time, ominously huge difficulties in preventing Libya from sliding (back) into a state of violent instability. The potential for the latter is almost overwhelming. But attempts, against very difficult odds, to bring about unification and legitimate all-Libyan governance nonetheless continue under the auspices of the UN and leadership of the brave envoy, Stephanie Williams. Talks between the two sides, Tripoli and Tobruk, were held recently in Cairo, and these talks are said to be continued in mid-May.

The problem remains that elections are (seen to be)  necessary for the establishment of a legitimate government but (a BIG but)  that for meaningful elections to be held, or holdable, there must be pre-agreed constitutional arrangements in place (on criteria of eligibility and other basic rules) which in turn requires functioning and legitimate decision mechanisms – a real Catch 22 situation. So Dbeibah can comfortably rule on, refusing to leave until free and fair elections have ruled otherwise, and team Bashagha-Hafter makes every effort to undermine Dbeibah’s legitimacy, including by means of oil economy blackmail – both sides needing the money and the international support in order to boy loyalties on the Hobbesian market of armed militias.

A final throught: could partition in the end be a, or the, solution to the Libyan quagmire – that hated and feared concept in African peace making?  In the UN General Assembly debate on Ukraine at the beginning of the crisis, the Kenyan representative reminded the assembly of the way Africans and the African Union had once decided as a matter of principle that colonial borders should be kept intact, in order to avoid endless disputes and armed conflicts over borders. The exception to that general rule had been the partition of Sudan into two, but the difficulties of that recognized exception had been there for the world to see. The same reluctance to partition as a model for peace and stability is seen in Europe as regards the Balkans, notably the cases of Kosovo and Bosnia.  And then there is the Koreas, and Vietnam. And others.

But if not partition (fission), for a host of experience-based reasons plus fear of the unknown, then there has to be unification/fusion, somehow. Or constant chaos.

The author is ambassador, holds a Ph d and is a fellow of RSAWS.


[1] This article is earlier published in Consilio International.