Hit by war, the North African nation is entering a decisive phase in the process of ending a decade of conflict.
After four decades under the dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Libya became the third autocratic regime, after Tunisia and Egypt, to give in to the revolutionary avalanche unleashed in its western neighbour following the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor who set himself on fire in the face of the precariousness and lack of opportunities in his country. This event triggered a wave of protests in the Arab world, whose demands revolved around democratic openness, respect for human rights and the equitable distribution of wealth.
Inspired by the mass mobilisations in Tunisia, Libyan society took to the streets to demand an improvement in living conditions and the resignation of the dictator. However, the Libyan case would not follow in the 'a priori' successful footsteps of Tunisia and Egypt, where autocrats Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak would eventually fall as a result of external pressure and growing domestic discontent. Not so in Libya, where Gaddafi never gave up the idea of perpetuating himself in power and deployed a violent response that degenerated into a bloody civil war in February 2011.
The rebels settled in Benghazi, in the northwest of the country, to fight the forces loyal to the government, leading to fierce clashes that killed hundreds of civilians at the hands of the Gaddafi factions. These events were denounced by the international community and prompted NATO's subsequent intervention. The United States was reluctant to get involved in the conflict, but the Paris initiative dragged Washington and London along with it as they backed the insurgents and bombed Gaddafi's positions.
After months of stalemate, a rebel breakthrough resulted in the capture of the capital. And the fugitive dictator, on his return to his hometown of Sirte, was eventually captured and killed by revolutionaries in October 2011, in appalling images that would remain for posterity.
With the country broken and in ruins, the rebels took over Libya to the detriment of the weak National Transitional Council (NTC) and successive governments unable to take control. The North African nation, hitherto one of the most stable and developed regional players, would become a failed state without solid institutional structures and a proliferation of armed groups that took the law into their own hands.
Before being overthrown, Gaddafi also released hundreds of Islamists imprisoned during his more or less secular regime, known as the Jamahiriya, in an attempt to appease the uprising against him. A decision that, far from fulfilling his expectations, favoured the emergence of Islamist formations and jihadist-Salafist groups.
The recurrent outbreaks of violence, the historical territorial tensions between the regions of Tripolitania, Fezhan and Cyrenaica, and the political and military fracture dragged Libya into a new fratricidal conflict only three years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Before the conflict began, the country witnessed an exponential increase in insecurity, caused by deep ethnic and ideological divisions, as well as the emergence of two antagonistic tendencies that would later vie for power. On the one hand, the forces of General Khalifa Haftar and, on the other, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The division of the country into two centres of influence, based in Tripoli and Tobruk, vying for control of Libya, was also conditioned by the emergence of a third actor: Daesh, which conquered key enclaves and consolidated its emirate, harassing the other forces present in the country.
This event definitively internationalised the conflict, forcing both the new Egypt under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the United Arab Emirates to intervene on behalf of General Haftar and the government in Tobruk, located in the east of the country. Russia also became part of this alliance as part of a large-scale fight against the terrorist threat. In the west, the so-called General Congress of the Nation, a substitute body for the National Transitional Council, is made up of moderate Islamists and democrats who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
At odds with each other, the parties plunged Libya into another spiral of violence that led to a new armed conflict.
It was then that the international community stepped in again to tackle the crisis. In 2015, the United Nations and the European Union brought together the governments of Tobruk and Tripoli in the Moroccan city of Sjirat. They managed to reach a minimal agreement that resulted in the creation of the Government of National Accord (GNA), whose objective was to unify the duplicated institutions.
The pact turns out to be a failure and, far from resolving the conflict, it merely recalibrates the dynamics of alliances. The war progresses and becomes entrenched. Countries such as France and Saudi Arabia renew their support for General Haftar in Tobruk; others such as Italy, Turkey and Qatar do the same for the new government in Tripoli under Fayez al-Sarraj.
Haftar's pre-eminent position pushes him to carry out an ambitious offensive on Tripoli in 2019. The so-called Operation Flood of Dignity, which aimed to take the capital, failed to subdue the Government of National Accord, with devastating consequences for the civilian population.
This attack only strengthened Turkey's military support for the GNA. As a result, neither side had superiority over the other and the confrontation was frozen.
After a new upsurge in violence, the Libyan conflict entered a stage of apparent détente following the announcement of the lifting by Haftar's forces of the blockade of shipping ports and oil terminals. And, above all, with the signing of an interim ceasefire sponsored by the UN through the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in October 2020. An agreement negotiated in Geneva by five military representatives of the parties involved, by what is known as the Libyan Joint Military Committee 5+5.
The head of the UN mission in the country and current UN special envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams, called for the complete withdrawal of the mercenaries deployed in Libya. As a sine qua non condition, the ceasefire could not take effect. Both Turkey and Russia, rival players on the Libyan chessboard due to their respective support for the Government of National Accord and the Tobruk parliament, had begun to send batches of military troops to the field months earlier.
Moscow used the Wagner Group, a private military company linked to the Kremlin, while Ankara used soldiers from the Free Syrian Army, opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime. Despite the difficulties, a month after the ceasefire, in November 2020, talks for an effective resolution of the conflict began. The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LDPF) was born.
It took three months of negotiations to reach a transitional agreement. At least 74 representatives of all factions - including supporters of Muammar Gaddafi's regime - and UN-appointed delegates agreed to hold "credible, inclusive and democratic" parliamentary and presidential elections on 24 December 2021. A date with obvious historical reminiscences, as on the same day, but in 1951, King Idris I proclaimed the country's independence.
Until then, executive power would be in the hands of an interim government, headed by an independent prime minister, and a Presidential Council, itself composed of three people - one incumbent and two deputies - from Libya's three main regions, in an attempt to put territorial rivalries behind them. Eligibility criteria and a 30 % quota for women's representation in parliament were also defined. However, it was not until February 2021 that the profiles that would go on to occupy the new institutional architecture were chosen.
After a quick vote marked by disagreements over the voting mechanism, Abdul Hamid Dbeibé and Mohamed Menfi won with 39 votes out of the 74 votes cast. One from the West and the other from the East. Symbolism for reconciliation.
For the December electoral process, an 'ad hoc' legal framework would be necessary, so the parties agreed to draft a Marga Charter to replace the 2017 Charter and include an electoral law.
However, the new constitutional structure would never come into force before the scheduled election date. Failing that, House Speaker Aguila Saleh issued a presidential election law by decree without a formal vote in the full parliament.
The agreement recognised national sovereignty over all Libyan territory and called for an end to the presence of foreign troops and mercenaries. Among the objectives were to secure peace, unify institutions, improve the material conditions of Libyans and revive the economy, combat corruption and promote the observance of human rights. But the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum made major mistakes that were to weigh down the transition process.
The UN substituted consensus-building for majority voting to speed up the process, which rehabilitated the old dynamics of inter-community support and power alliances. The legitimacy of elected political figures is limited. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank reports, Dbeibé and his fellow candidates did not win because they attracted strong support among the 74, but because many in the negotiating forum "sought to ensure the defeat of their competitors".
The agreement also failed to reverse the institutional fracture despite the backing of all actors. No one was willing to give up their share of power pending the viability of the elections.
The Eastern faction, a sort of bi-cephaly represented by the figures of General Haftar and Speaker Aguila Saleh, has maintained its influence unshakable ever since. This fact makes national reconciliation impossible and hampers the agenda for a meeting of minds. It is precisely this territorial division that is blocking the drafting of a new constitution, a legal framework that would activate the process.
Moreover, the lack of renewed profiles at the negotiating table nipped in the bud the participation of new figures and left the transition process in the hands of the "old guard" present during the war.
On 16 March 2021, the Government of National Unity (GNU) got off the ground after winning a majority in an unprecedented parliamentary seat composed of MPs from both factions and meeting in Sirte. Although the choice of wealthy businessman Abdul Hamid Dbeibé as candidate was not uncontroversial, the incumbent government was approved by Tripoli and Tobruk.
Early criticism focused on the timid representation of the country's different ethnic groups and peoples, as well as the vast size of his government, with more than 30 ministers. Some voices at the national and international level demanded instead a minimalist cabinet with a strong technocratic profile.
The ideological affiliation of the new prime minister, a recognised figure but with no previous experience in politics, was associated from the outset with the conservative Islamism championed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, mixed with a defence of economic liberalism.
Given its composition and track record, the government as a whole lacks a clear political orientation. In addition to having a heterogeneous composition that includes personalities from the Gaddafi era, academics and inexperienced members, it has not explicitly made any explicit signatures with any international actor with a presence in the Libyan conflict. In fact, Dbeibé himself has travelled to both Ankara and Cairo, in a sort of two-sided game aimed at preserving his impartiality and gaining the trust of his interlocutors.
At the same time, the head of government prioritised the country's economic recovery, weighed down by the civil war and aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis, with the elections on the horizon.
The UN's main task for Tripoli was to guarantee the voting process so that it could be held on the date initially planned, 24 December 2021. This mandate has not been fulfilled.
The High National Electoral Commission (HNEC), the independent body in charge of establishing the mechanisms for the nomination of candidates created in 2012 by the National Transitional Council after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, is responsible for the registration of candidates and voters, the accreditation of media and international observers, the counting of votes and the announcement of the results. And it originally scheduled the parliamentary elections for the second round of the presidential elections.
Despite sporadic incidents and constant disagreements between the Tobruk House of Representatives and the Tripoli Presidential Council, the electoral process seemed to be more or less on track. So much so that the Electoral Commission opened the deadline for the registration of presidential candidacies a month and a half in advance.
But growing insecurity and rumours that the interim prime minister was trying to delay the election date shook the situation. And it was not until a month before the elections that the process suffered a major setback: the UN Special Envoy for Libya, Ján Kubiš, abruptly resigned just 10 months after taking office due to ongoing disagreements with UN Secretary-General António Guterres. A coup that set off alarm bells about the viability of the elections.
The question of candidates quickly became the first obstacle to the holding of the elections. Of the long list of presidential candidates, three names stood out whose mere presence in the campaign provoked a backlash from the international community and a domestic opposition movement.
The emergence of these candidates also posed a legal challenge due to the duplication of legal bodies and the activity of the Electoral Commission, a weak body that did not have the backing of all factions in Libya. The three candidates were the current prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibé; the strongman from the east, Khalifa Haftar; and the favourite son of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. A controversial triad that polarised the pre-election climate.
Abdul Hamid Dbeibé, upon taking office as acting prime minister, had renounced his intention to run for the presidential campaign. As if that were not enough, the 63-year-old businessman was barred by the current rules from participating in the elections, as he would have had to resign from office at least three months before the polls. A requirement that, of course, he did not meet.
Despite several appeals against his candidacy, the various courts of justice dismissed the cases, and Dbeibé became the front-runner in the polls. In addition, rumours spread that the interim head of government had committed regularities by using public funds to influence the vote in his favour.
General Khalifa Haftar presented his candidacy two days after Gaddafi's son. To do so, he renounced his military titles. His ballot was initially rejected, but hours later it was accepted after an appeal was lodged. His candidacy for head of state has been met with growing disenchantment by much of the country for his offensive against Tripoli in 2019, as well as for his profile of dubious democratic credentials.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, once the 'number two' and possible heir to his father's dictatorial regime, reappeared in public a decade after experiencing an odyssey and staying alive in bizarre ways. The courts suspended his participation in the elections, only to later accept his candidacy. The same route as Haftar. However, his image evokes the infamous period of Muammar Gaddafi, discredited by much of the country. And his mere presence further inflamed the pre-election scene.
The legal viability of these candidacies has yet to be determined in the absence of a solid legal framework accepted by the parties. The Presidential Council has demanded that the Tobruk Parliament unify criteria and definitively establish joint electoral legislation. A meeting in which the UN acts as the necessary moderator to unblock the political transition in Libya.
The Paris summit, organised by the Elysée in November, put pressure on the international community to hold elections, but neither Putin nor Erdoğan attended. Both are obstructing the transitional period by sending mercenaries, whose factious presence threatens Libya's national security. In recent weeks, numerous foreign troops have been leaving the country, and the North African country is gradually moving away from outside interference. But there are still remnants.
A decade after the overthrow of one of the continent's longest-ruling regimes, Libya faces a decisive period to put an end to the territorial fracture and rebuild a solid state structure capable of covering the whole country and affecting the lives of the population. This last point is crucial. Libyan citizens must see themselves as part of the process and recognise their own future in the country's future.
According to the performance of the interim government, Libya is making progress in terms of instability and is gradually regaining its activity. However, Prime Minister Dbeibé is running out of credit and has not fulfilled the established roadmap, without even laying the foundations for elections in the short term.
His task is extremely difficult and time is against him. If he is unable to build a strong alliance internally, the transition in Libya may be paralysed sine die, which could lead to a further escalation of tensions and the imposition of an agenda that lacks consensus and democratic procedures. The threat of Daesh remains latent.
There is no shortage of candidates to impose a new regime, and in the worst-case scenario the country could once again experience a new war. The consensus has had more to do with strategy than real conviction, but only the future will tell whether Libya regains the longed-for stability.