Libya’s Transitional Government and the Lead-Up to December Elections

[These are my notes from the National Interest Foundation discussion on Libya’s transitional government and the prospects for December’s elections. These notes summarize my impression of selected highlights of the presentations and are not an attempted transcription. I have paraphrased in the first-person for convenience.]

Federica Saini Fasanotti, Brookings Institution.

We have good movement on the political level but big problems on the security and social level. Insurgency usually comes from a huge sense of injustice.  Four men (the members of the Presidency Counsel, Mohamed Younis Ahmed Al-Manfi, Abdullah al-Lafi and Musa Al-Koni, and the new Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dabaib) are tasked with finding the new government. It is too early to tell, but many signs are good.  Everyone congratulated the winning ticket, including Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Internationally, not only Tukey, but even Egypt has congratulated the winning ticket. After the names of the new government are announced the House of Representatives (HOR) will have the option to approve. The PM could in theory unilaterally approve the new government, but that could cause problems.

Dr. Esam Omeish, Libyan American Alliance.

Things are happening hour by hour in Libya. We have yet to reach a stable, let alone successful, state.  The General National Congress (GNC) did a pretty good job of initiating a hopeful process, but they were unable to finish the job and the parliamentary election was challenged in the Supreme Court as well as by poor turnout (less than 25%). In the midst of this mess a warlord arrived and militarized the conflict with his so-called “war on terror,” as did foreign intervention from Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE. Once again we are on the brink of a failed state.  The Presidential Council of nine people was given international recognition to resolve the matter. International envoy Salama managed to bring people together and then came Haftar’s attack, and the setback of casualties and human suffering. In January 2020 a number of international actors rallied to the national government. After a cease fire the political track was restarted and Stephanie Williams rose to the challenge leading to the Tunisian and Moroccan meeting and in turn to the 74 member meeting (a 75th died of Covid) that has successfully elected a Presidential Council of three people and a PM. After the rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt, the UAE remains as the most difficult proxy to deal with. Any failure of Libyans to deliver a legitimate government that speaks for all Libyans leaves an unstable situation with a threat of war.

Dr. William Lawrence, American University.

I completely agree with both Federica’s cautious optimism and Esam’s catalog of cautions. It is amazing that this process has remained on track. A lot of people thought Libya would change after the revolution, but the problems of 2011 have not bee solved at all. The fundamental possibilities and aspirations of Libya are the same as those in Tunisia and the rest of the region. Any Libyan under forty will offer the same set of values offered by American or European activists. Libya was derailed not by elections but by Haftar’s three-year effort to take Benghazi. Haftar was the opponent of democratization. Oil money is important.  There is a domestic spoils system and an international spoil system, and promises made behind the scenes about distributions of benefits and contracts to keep the political track moving forward.  If anyone who received promises by this system is cut out, the progress will unravel. The power brokers are the people behind these spoils. That doesn’t mean that we must resign ourselves to Libya being a corrupt system, but we need to put into place safeguards to reduce the corruption in the future. Even many of the soldiers who supported Haftar share the sentiment of throw the bums out. The U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative Stephanie Williams understands this and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) that she launched is making important decisions about governance and about these financial commitments.  For 220 years the U.S. has either been fighting with Libya, saving Libya, or ignoring Libya.  The U.S. has been critical not only on the ground in Libya but at the U.N. which is why Libyans have a lot of confidence in the U.S. as deus ex machina. No one, even the Turks, has shown as much leadership.

Federica Saini Fasanotti. I certainly agree about the militarization of the problem by Haftar being a blow to the process. I would not be surprised if Haftar is awarded a ministry, such as defense, since if he is left on the sidelines he remains a danger, even though he does not want to be a politician and sees Libya as unready for democracy. I remain skeptical about the security issue: you have 20 million weapons and six million people and no private sector for the young people.

Doug Bandow. What are your thoughts on Saif al-Gadhafi?

Dr. Esam Omeish, Gadhafi’s people are still a force in Libya and they must be brought into the political process, although those who participated in atrocities must be excluded. They were allied with Haftar until recent developments split them.

Dr. William Lawrence. Libya is subject to an enormous amount of propaganda from Russia and others pushing for Saif, but Libyans are well aware of this. We know Haftar was promised the defense ministry. We don’t know if he was promised the Finance Ministry. There may be another delay in the election, but Libyans will not tolerate another five-year delay. All the Libyans who sold their weapons in 2014 in anticipation of peace had to buy them back at higher prices to fight against Haftar.  They will not make the same mistake again. That means we have to save an armed Libya. That will be tricky, but it is necessary. Since 2015 there have been sanctions against some persons but others equally deserving sanction have been spared because they were “needed” for the process. Sanctions are necessary but they are useless unless they are consistent.

Federica Saini Fasanott. In my opinion sanctions are the weapon of the weak. I don’t understand the strategy of the United States. The U.S. could have a wonderful role in dissuading foreign intervention into Libya.

Dr. Esam Omeish, When the administration was looking for things to do in March, they had meetings at Treasury that found that it would cost $37 billion just to deal with players they had already identified. Biden has automatically renewed a process that sadly has gotten nowhere over ten years.

Dr. William Lawrence. Most countries want access to oil and gas. The Russians also want a port or two and a military base in Libya. The first job of the new parliament will be to kick the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group out. The UAE is the most confusing.  It goes back to a geopolitical, geo-economic strategy of creating commercial opportunities and spaces throughout the region while also fighting the Muslim Brotherhood at all costs. I don’t think they know how to get what they want in Libya.

Dr. Esam Omeish. I think there are some positive interests in the cases of Italy and Egypt.  The French interests have always been one sided, but maybe they could learn. With Russia, it is important to refuse a base, but when it comes to contracts, the Libyans are willing to negotiate, even as regards unpaid debts. Tripoli is the next Dubai as a gateway to Africa.

Doug Bandow. Concluding remarks?

Dr. William Lawrence. The spoils system will either keep it on track or derail it.  I think it will probably stay on track, but the Turks and the Italians and others have to step up. I think Haftar will try to spoil it, although I don’t know when. Everyone has to be ready for that. In my opinion we need to look at Libya and Tunisia as a package. I know its hard to justify aiding a rich country, but there is too much at stake.

Dr. Esam Omeish.  I am not pessimistic. We have no option but to remain hopeful. There are too many ways to fail and too few to succeed. I agree that Haftar is the biggest threat. We need to find a way to remove him from the scene. I don’t think the international community can afford to leave a geographical area the size of Libya as unstable.

Federica Saini Fasanott. All the signs are good and Haftar is silent, but I see so many problems in front of this future government. In addition there is Covid.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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