Less than three years after the end of Libya’s harrowing civil war, Tripoli came under attack once again. This city of more than 1.5 million people was again torn by the shriek of artillery and the terror of people who were trapped at home as arbitrary death rained down around them.
The confrontation has been a long time coming, but it was eminently avoidable. And, unless Libya finds a way to escape its cycle of destruction, it will sink into a conflict that is far more bloody, protracted, and wide-ranging than any in its recent history.
For those who have watched Libya’s sad tale of faltering revolution, the story seems awfully familiar. A man claiming to be prime minister, fuelled by nothing but a cocktail of opportunism and delusion, tries to seize power from a rival who has international recognition but no footprint in Libya beyond a long record of corruption. The fighting itself is carried out by militias that adeptly play on politicians’ insecurity, illegitimacy, and general ineptitude to enrich themselves and entrench their positions within Libya’s institutions. The people, meanwhile, suffer the effects of a collapsing state, die in the crossfire of endless skirmishes, and yearn for a change that continues to elude them.
It is in this way that Libya cycles through war to ceasefire, political process to rampant corruption, and back to war again. But, with every cycle, the environment deteriorates as services and infrastructure rot from neglect, citizens’ quality of life diminishes, malicious foreign actors gain more influence, and the hope of salvation dims.
Yet, following the civil war earlier this decade, there was a genuine prospect of change. After a military stalemate that forced a ceasefire combined with nationwide protests calling for political change, Libya gained the momentum needed for a political process that could bring about real change. The United Nations promised to complete that process, to mediate between the international actors trying to exploit a beleaguered state, and to manage the technicalities needed to bring about a constructive change.
So, how did Libya end up back here so rapidly? In short, the UN could not achieve any of these things. Although it was empowered by the Libyan public, the organisation quickly struck a devil’s bargain that involved continuous trade-offs between integrity and expediency. The UN was so desperate to maintain its progress that it ignored warnings to pause and change its methods even as the electoral process fell apart. Meanwhile, the international community was divided between those who prioritised stability but were too afraid of failure to substantively engage with the country and those who saw an opportunity in the chaos.
The UN process – which was designed to protect the collective interests of the international community and pursue the aims of the Libyan people – gradually descended into an attempt to pander to a few influential countries and their Libyan lackeys. The launch of the final phase of the process in Cairo by Abbas Kamel, head of Egypt’s notorious intelligence services, is a symbol of this decline.
There should be a lesson in this story. To many observers, Libya’s plight may seem to be just one more piece of the diorama of suffering in the European Union’s neighbourhood that stretches from Armenia to Mali. But the chaos in Libya will not stay there. Instead, it will destabilise an ever-growing group of states around it and continue to fuel geopolitical crises ranging from the collapse of Tunisia’s democracy to the multinational standoff in the eastern Mediterranean.
Libya’s first civil war contributed to a migration crisis that empowered right-wing parties across Europe. Libya’s continuing collapse could have a similar effect on Italy’s upcoming elections. The lawlessness in Libya has made it an attractive hub for fighters, arms smugglers, and now drug gangs that operate across Africa. The country has become a beachhead for Russia in its campaign to gain influence on the continent, allowing Moscow to control another energy route into Europe and to establish multiple military bases just hundreds of miles from NATO’s Sicily headquarters.
After a decade of slow-motion collapse that involved far too many countries, Libya is widely viewed as a daunting challenge. This perception has been reinforced by a UN mission that has lost all credibility with the Libyan citizens and elites it is supposed to be mediating between. The likely appointment of Abdoulaye Bathily as the next UN special representative to Libya looks set to deepen divides both within the country and between foreign powers that have interests there. The Libyan ambassador to the UN lodged a formal objection to his appointment, lamenting that – after sending nine other envoys to Libya – the UN should appoint someone of higher quality. While that statement may have been unkind, it reflects deep anxiety in Tripoli – and likely Ankara – that Bathily would be beholden to the Egyptian regime and would replicate the disastrous tenure of his predecessor, Jan Kubis.
Nevertheless, as in 2020, the return to a stalemate after a day of destruction in Tripoli provides another opportunity for Libya to escape the vicious cycle it is in. The country is divided between two governments that have no interest in governing or public support, and that are beholden to militias that feed on their myopic, unwinnable struggle for absolute power. While Libya may appear to present an intractable diplomatic problem, Western states that are concerned about the consequences of its collapse can learn from the UN’s failures. They have the policy tools and constituencies they need to restart Libya’s electoral process.
In doing so, they should use the P3+2 model – comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy – as a kind of Western contact group on Libya. This would be the ideal forum in which to agree on a plan to help restart elections and to gain support for the process from their regional allies. By building out from the P3+2, they could gradually gain enough support to ensure that the new special representative had the backing of all states involved in Libya – which has often not been the case – and could implement a pre-agreed plan to help him make the most of this fleeting opportunity. If any such process is to succeed, it will need to focus on separating Libya’s elites from the technical activities involved in the conduct of elections. This could be done by empowering Libyan legal and constitutional experts to draft an electoral law and a constitutional basis that outlined a mandate for the new government.
In the meantime, the UN and a group of interested states should pressure Libya’s current political leaders into an agreement in which they commit to abiding by these legal measures in return for a post-election power-sharing arrangement. Essentially, this would mean using the current stalemate to end the winner-takes-all mentality that has created such instability and that helped scupper the last planned election.
Europeans can still avoid a return to nationwide conflict in Libya. To achieve this, they will need to not only empower the Libyan people to set the priorities of the next government but also push elites to allow Libya’s political system to evolve.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.