The international community and some of the international actors, including the US and Türkiye, can play a decisive mediation role in encouraging rival Libyan groups to prepare a new, practical, applicable, and long-term strategy for breaking the cycle of the political impasse and facilitating conditions to hold elections.
Heavy gunfire and blasts erupted recently in several neighborhoods throughout Libya’s capital, Tripoli, leaving 32 people dead. The worst fighting in two years and a months-long political deadlock could threaten to escalate into a wider conflict.
The oil-rich North African nation has been without a functioning central state since the country’s long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in the 2011 revolution. Eleven years after Gaddafi’s overthrow, the country’s situation remains precarious. Various militias and tribal fighters have filled the vacuum vacated by Gaddafi’s dictatorship, leading to a fragmented environment in which foreign interference is the key driver.
Elections are vital for political stability in Libya
In the post-Gaddafi era, the crucial challenges for Libya have been security issues and political uncertainty. Over the past several decades, holding elections has become a fundamental part of the international community’s peacebuilding plan to establish a functioning and legitimate government in an unstable country.
Elections have a key role in war-to-peace transitions as they mark a transition from violent to peaceful modes of political contestation and spearhead efforts for more inclusive and legitimate governance.
Libyans are exhausted after a decade of war, division, and occupation. Therefore, the planned elections had raised hopes of breaking the deadlock. Even though many Libyans seemed eager to take to the polls, as 2.8 million of them had signed up to vote. However, the elections were postponed indefinitely when numerous parties disagreed on eligibility criteria for candidates and election rules.
Following the postponement of Libya’s much-awaited elections in December 2021, political maneuvering has increased among competing factions and leaders across Libya’s fragmented political sphere. Consequently, political uncertainty has become the norm even though many Libyans hoped that the planned elections could end the deadlock and reunify the Libyan people to bring stability and prosperity. As a result, Libya entered another period of profound political crisis.
Postponed elections led to new disputes
By delaying the polls, the dispute over the legitimacy of the Dbeibah government increased. Speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR), Aguila Saleh, claimed that the mandate of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, whose internationally recognized government sits in Tripoli, ended when the interim government failed to hold elections. As a result, the HoR chose Fathi Bashagha as the new prime minister, who is supported by Khalifa Haftar. Bashagha has tried to install himself in Tripoli twice; however, on both occasions’ militias loyal to Dbeibah were able to push him out. After having failed to establish his government in the capital, Bashagha installed it in Sirte, which led to a political duality between the two rival administrations.
In response to the HoR’s decision, Dbeibah announced that he would hand over power only after an election. He stated that he would “accept no new transitional phase or parallel authority” and that the actions of the HoR were “another attempt to enter Tripoli by force”. It is essential to highlight that the Government of National Unity remains the internationally-recognized government of Libya. In addition, Dbeibah seems to enjoy the support of some well-organized forces, including the powerful Brigade 444 in western Libya. In some ways, the country’s current legitimacy crisis resembles the situation between 2014 and 2021, when two competing governments based in the east and west operated, respectively.
The failure to hold the polls significantly damaged international efforts to end the political crisis in Libya. It opened a new chapter in Libya’s long-running political stalemate, with rival governments once again claiming legitimacy.
Dynamics of the recent escalation
To understand the dynamics of the recent escalation in Libya, each side’s goals since the elections were canceled should be explained. Both parties have raised their ambitions significantly and now, they are deeply committed to achieving formidable political aims. Dbeibah wants to hold his position until the election is held and consists upon his claim that the legitimacy of his government continues until the authority is handed over to an elected government. Yet, there is no plan for setting a new election timetable so far. Furthermore, it would be very challenging to defeat Dbeibah given that he is still seen as an internationally recognized prime minister and controls the country’s finances via the Libyan Central Bank.
On the other hand, Fathi Bashagha is seeking to seize the power from Dbeibah, and dislodge the internationally recognized Government of National Unity in Tripoli. As the elections are now unlikely to take place in the coming months, the latest clashes might have damaged Bashagha’s reputation as a powerful military commander and strongman in western Libya. However, he will likely continue to challenge Dbeibeh’s authority with the strong support of Haftar and Aguila Saleh.
Therefore, each side still has powerful incentives to find ways to prevail and, more importantly, avoid losing. In practice, this means that there are still concerns that the increasing political crisis could renew fighting between rival armed groups that have mobilized in western Libya over the past few weeks. Furthermore, given each side’s determination to achieve its goals, there is little chance of a meaningful compromise on the constitution and election laws.
As things currently stand, there seems to be no comprehensive political settlement — as both sides are firmly committed to war aims — making reconciliation almost impossible. The absence of a possible political solution encourages rival groups to increase the tension. What lies further up deep division could be something genuinely catastrophic: a fresh conflict. Thus, the international community and some of the international actors, including the US and Türkiye, can play a decisive mediation role in encouraging rival groups to prepare a new, practical, applicable, and long-term strategy for breaking the cycle of the political impasse and facilitating conditions to hold elections.
This article originally appeared in the Analysis section of Anadolu Agency’s website.