Libya: As Yet Another UN Libya Envoy Quits, His Successor Must Be Bolder


To break through Libya's political stalemate, the UN must be willing to pursue a bolder strategy, despite the risks of failure.

UN Special Representative to Libya Abdoulaye Bathily has resigned after 18 months in post, leaving behind a political process best described as moribund.

Most international policymakers seem to believe Libyan rivals must initiate the deal to break the current impasse. The UN has taken the view that progress is not possible without the approval of key powerbrokers and their international backers.

Bathily leaves behind a political process best described as moribund.

On the other hand, many Libyan actors believe the only realistic chance of breaking the status quo is through an internationally mandated process. After all, the last two 'unity' governments have been created through UN mediation - in 2015-16 and 2020-21 respectively - while an attempt to produce a government through Libyan institutions alone has served only to produce a parallel government and reintroduce administrative division.

The reality is that both Libyan and international buy-in is required to broker change. Despite the mounting challenges faced, the next UN special representative will still be best placed to secure this.

Where next for Libya's interminable transition?

There is a degree of weariness over the recurrent debates of the political process. Nearly 18 months ago, it was suggested that Bathily would need to learn four lessons from Libya's recent history fast: he should avoid being drawn into a discussion of interim agreements; he should acknowledge that the existing group of institutional leaders would not deliver a solution; he would need to carefully manage external states; and, finally, that an agreement between a small group of individuals would not translate into a sustainable process.

Unfortunately, Bathily seemed to conclude he had no option but to rely on existing institutional leaders. He ultimately produced a political process centred on convening five key leaders: Government of National Unity (GNU) Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba, High State Council Chair Mohamed Takala, House of Representatives Speaker Agila Saleh, Presidency Council Chair Mohamed al-Menfi and Libyan Arab Armed Forces Commander Khalifa Haftar.

After initially hoping to move directly to elections, Bathily was swayed by the argument that there needed to be an interim government as elections could not be secured under the GNU. But his proposal was dead on arrival. Saleh rejected the inclusion of the GNU, while Haftar reportedly insisted on the inclusion of Osama Hamad's Government of National Stability (GNS). Dabaiba said he would be happy to participate but on the basis that a new government would only be appointed via elections.

These leaders ultimately calculated that the status quo was preferable to the uncertainty of a new configuration that they might not be able to control. They were thus only open to a pathway forward in which their interests could be guaranteed.

Success in this role will require a more energetic approach and a willingness to proactively mediate.

In his final remarks to the UN Security Council, Bathily criticized Libya's leaders for 'continuing to articulate preconditions for their participation in the dialogue as a way to maintain the status quo' but, by focusing solely on agreement among these five elites, he had allowed them to monopolize the process. Notably, political progress in 2015-16 and 2020-21 was secured when the group of Libyans consulted extended beyond the existing incumbents of office.

Bathily also neglected to directly address economic issues, a critical facet of the conflict. Meanwhile, discussions over the security sector continued in the absence of a meaningful framework and efforts at developing a process of national reconciliation also struggled. These discussions remained siloed, despite their interconnected nature.

A steep challenge for the next UN envoy

All of this creates a very difficult in tray for the next special representative, whoever that may be. Previous experience indicates that their personality will be important. Success in this role will require a more energetic approach and a willingness to proactively mediate rather than solely meet with Libyan parties.

The new envoy must seek to address the situation quickly and will not have the luxury of time to slowly build a new process.

Familiar questions of process will remain on the table. First, issues of sequencing will resurface. Should the focus be on elections first to replace the existing cast of leaders and provide legitimacy? Or should a longer process be crafted that seeks to re-unify institutions under an interim government and move to elections over a longer period? How can constitutional arrangements be established and agreed? Second, who needs to agree these changes? How can a process be structured to empower a constituency for change without the incumbents of power spoiling the process?

While these questions remain relevant, they cannot continue to monopolize the UN's time. The balance of power within Libya has continued to shift while the political process has been frozen. In other words, the new envoy must seek to address the situation quickly and will not have the luxury of time to slowly build a new process. Although there has not been a major outbreak of fighting since 2020, the price of Libya's tenuous stability has been widespread and growing corruption helping to entrench the governing elite.

In recent months, the price of this corruption has begun to hit the pockets of Libyan citizens hard as prices rise rapidly. Armed groups continue to battle for power and influence and are becoming ever more powerful in Libyan society. Meanwhile, the inability of the state to respond effectively to the Derna floods reveal a level of state capacity that is dangerously low. The longer this situation prevails, the harder it gets to achieve a deal.

Related contentSecurity actors in Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan since 2011Against this backdrop, key international players such as Turkey and the UAE are engaging with Libyan stakeholders without committing diplomatic capital to secure a political deal. Others, such as Russia, are using the fractured landscape to their advantage.

Unless the UN pays attention and takes action to address these dynamics, success is hard to envisage for any political process. Addressing the mounting corruption in the state's finances is surely a precondition to meaningful progress in the political sphere.

While some may contend that these challenges are beyond the capacity of the UN Support Mission in Libya, it would be better for the UN to pursue a bold process that risks failure than simply replicate the same elite-centred approach. The latter will inevitably continue Libya's decline into the hands of its increasingly powerful kleptocrats.

AllAfrica publishes around 500 reports a day from more than 100 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.