In its May 2022 meeting on Libya, the UN Security Council (UNSC) lamented how the standoff to determine Libya’s leadership has continued. The dispute is between incumbent Prime Minster Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah and former Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga. Dbeibah was elected in February 2021 to head the interim Government of National Unity (GNU) by the Libyan Political Dialogue Front (LPDF), a body responsible for charting the way towards elections. Bashaga meanwhile was elected interim prime minister by the House of Representatives (HoR) on 10th February. This is all part of a broader power struggle between the Tripoli-based GNU and the Tobruk-based HoR, which is aligned with the former General of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar. Haftar stepped down from his position to run in presidential elections scheduled for December 2021 that is now postponed indefinitely. The HoR blames the GNU for failing to hold elections as planned. The GNU is, however, recognized by the UN where the HoR is not, while General Haftar attacked Tripoli in April 2019 when peace talks seemed like they were progressing. In 2022, Tripoli could again find itself beset with clashes and destructive violence to the detriment of its civilian population.
Although a hard ceasefire was achieved for the Second Libyan civil war in October 2020, fears are mounting that renewed conflict could break out in Tripoli. Where efforts to hold a planned election have failed, the HoR and other eastern factions want to replace the GNU, which has refused to step aside. The UNSC reports that there has already been a build-up of arms and troops supporting both sides in Tripoli and elsewhere. Moreover, Libyan Oil facilities have been blockaded by protestors demanding that Dbeibah step down in favor of Bashaga, with western officials accusing Khalifa Haftar of being behind the blockade. Pro Bashaga factions accuse Dbeibah of misusing public funds via the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Central Bank of Libya (CBL). Dbeibah has denied this, while the CBL and NOC claim to be politically neutral and independent. A US-led effort to ensure transparent oversight and revenue collection has not yet been agreed upon. The trouble here is that oil blockades have been a hallmark of civil unrest since 2011 NATO-backed ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. Large blockades tied to major political forces have often taken months to resolve, boding perilously for the peace process.
International actors also have a stake in Libya. The GNU forces, based on what remains of Libya’s Gaddafi-era troops and private militias, are supported by the UN, Turkey, Italy, and Qatar. Turkey supports the GNU mainly to secure drilling rights for oil and gas in the Mediterranean. Turkey has often sent troops into Libya to shore up the GNU. Italy also has oil interests in Libya that it wishes to protect via the GNU. The HoR, Haftar, and the LNA are meanwhile supported by Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, and Egypt. The UAE supports the LNA most of all, committing drones, munitions, and troops on their side. Egypt and UAE take issue with the GNU’s links to political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, as both nations see this ideology as a threat to regional stability. Despite there being an arms embargo on Libya since 2011, allied nations on both sides of the conflict have continued to pour weapons into the country, violating International Law. By 2020, fighting in Tripoli had displaced thousands of people and killed 200 civilians. A return to civil war will reproduce these consequences.
The effect of this on migrants and internally displaced people has been catastrophic. Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have been arbitrarily detained in facilities run by the GNU’s Interior Ministry and in “warehouses” run by smugglers and traffickers. There, they were subjected to forced labour, torture, extortion, and sexual assault. According to the Institute of Migration (IOM) at least 5,000 were held in official detention centres in Libya as of August 2021. With tensions rising, it is unlikely that these conditions will improve. Moving forward, a key concern for the international community is whether instability may further accelerate migration from and through Libya, and toward Europe. Forming a stable, peaceful Libya could allow it to harness its oil wealth in a fair and transparent way. For this to be achieved, both sides must commit to dialogue, re-commit to a joint Military convention and build towards a constitutional settlement for Libya. The country’s leadership must then be decided under free and fair elections, while the international community must allow Libya to resolve its own disputes and curb the inflow of arms that only exacerbate conflict. How Libya navigates this tense period will affect millions of lives across North Africa and the Mediterranean basin.
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