Elections are an important tool in establishing a legitimate government in any given state. Yet, in the absence of a state itself, elections can become part of the problem rather than the solution. The crisis in Libya continues unabated, with successive interim arrangements, transitional governments, and legislative bodies having lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan constituency. The protracted nature of this crisis further threatens the future of Libya and its territorial integrity, with the country likely to sink deeper into economic collapse, political and social turmoil, and increased insecurity.
Cognizant of this imminent threat, the new Special Representative of the United Nations’ Secretary General in Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, has been working to design a roadmap for convening national elections at the earliest, that are seen as a way to resolve the protracted crisis. In February, the House of Representatives adopted a legislative document entitled “the 13th Amendment,” that paved the way for elections which was endorsed by the High Council of State shortly after. The two chambers of government tasked a 6+6 joint committee to deliberate on electoral laws. The novelty this time is that a high-level panel will be established as a mechanism to ensure broader national ownership of the electoral process by Libyans from different walks of life beyond the usual small group of influential legislative actors. This is a welcome development that will ensure more inclusiveness and a wider participation.
Two governments without a state
Despite a number of positive developments, including months of relative security stability, the constitutional and political crisis remains unresolved, state institutions are fractured and polarized, particularly the executive and other sovereign institutions. According to a UN study published in 2020, the estimated cost of the Libyan conflict since its inception in 2011 has reached $576 billion. Despite efforts exerted by the international community to assist Libya in its political transition, unfortunate policy choices were made in the immediate post-conflict phase in 2011, when a hurried electoral process preceded the stabilization of the country. This process of stabilization required rebuilding key institutions, the most important of which the implementation of an effective security sector reform plan. Instead, a power-sharing process trumped the institutional capacity development and state-building process. The state should have come before a government. Today, Libya has two governments, fragmented institutions but no state.
The installation of the interim Government of National Unity (GNU) in March 2021, with a mandate to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 December, 2021, while a major positive development, contributed little to an effective reunification of the fiercely contested institutions between the east and the west de facto powers. The chronic multi-level fragmentation of governance structures since the state collapse in 2011, particularly key institutions including the Central Bank of Libya and the security sector ones, has been severely taxing for stability in Libya. This institutional fragility stalled the implementation of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum Roadmap agreed upon in the Berlin Conference in 2021, as the national elections planned for 24 December, 2021 had to be indefinitely postponed due to schisms and disputes among Libyan political actors and institutions on a plethora of issues, not the least of which, the constitutional basis for elections, and eligibility requirements for presidential candidates. The political crisis deepened polarization and tensions among political and security actors with shifting alliances among armed groups resulting in periodic armed clashes, mainly in the Tripolitania region, resulting in civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure.
Overcoming perceptions of the state as the ‘enemy of the people’
It is true that the current Libyan political impasse is overdetermined and multi-faceted. Some of its ramifications have their roots in the legacy of the 1951 state formation, and most of all the four decades of Gaddafi’s regime, under which the state was considered as the enemy of the people. In other words, this crisis is symptomatic of Libya’s failure to become a modern and effective state. The apparent failure to resolve the conflict since 2011 and bring about a lasting peace, is rooted in the adoption of a series of approaches, time and again, that rest on power sharing ignoring Libya’s state-building needs. The post-conflict transition plans lacked strategic foresight and suffered from a deficient understanding of Libya’s historical legacy and political economy. This tragic lacuna would come back to haunt both Libyans and international actors, as its components became major drivers of the protracted conflict.
Without engaging in counterfactual history, more than a decade after the events, some critical assessment is nevertheless due. Once the Constitutional Declaration was adopted in August 2011, it would have been more appropriate for the National Transitional Council (NTC), with the assistance of the international community, to plan for a longer transition period to allow for effective institutional building and address priority issues, particularly in the security sector, and resolve the thorny issue of the armed groups through an effective disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process.
Some would argue that elections were a priority, necessary to establish a legitimate government. After all, the NTC was not an elected government. While this is theoretically true, the fact remains that elections, by nature, tend to divide constituencies along ideological and partisan lines. In a country like Libya, whose citizens had lived under a quasi-totalitarian rule for decades, political life was non-existent since political parties, unions, and other relevant institutions were banned. Libyans were to a large extent unified around what they did not want, i.e., Gaddafi, but this popular consensus was still too fluid, too fragile to be put to the electoral test. The reality is that 2011 elections broke the revolutionary sacred union of the Libyans. An inclusive national dialogue should have taken place in the early phase, to broker a large popular agreement on a truly inclusive transitional authorities, which would then be mandated to prepare carefully for fair and transparent elections, easing thus the potential divisions that would surface in the post-electoral phase.
Inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process necessary
As SRSG Bathily rightly pointed out, “elections are not just about the constitutional and legal documents (…)There are other critical issues that need to be addressed.” While the current context differs from that of 2011, and elections today can play a role in restoring a much-needed legitimacy, lessons learned from relatively similar post-conflict situations around the globe prove that state building has become the central objective in responding to fragility and post-conflict needs through conceptualizing and rebuilding the state and its institutions within the broader context of the relationship between state and society, therefore creating an inclusive process that moves states from conflict-driven fragility to resilience and legitimate statehood.
Beyond the electoral process, what is needed now is not only to bring more “excluded elite actors” into the political process through yet another power-sharing agreement, but to ensure that the right kind of participation, buy-in and most of all a genuine reconciliation happens between all national stakeholders. This can be achieved, at the national level, through a Libyan-led inclusive national dialogue and national reconciliation process. At the international level, this Libyan effort can be supported by an inclusive National Libyan-Libyan Peace Conference modality to ensure the initiation of a broader and more inclusive consensus on a vision for building the state and a governance structure with its corollary institutions. Short of that, Libya will be condemned to a Sisyphean fate – a never-ending cycle of power-sharing agreements, and repetitive elections, leading to more government formations with no state in sight.
Younes Abouyoub has long experience in conflict resolution, peace building and governance. He previously advised the UN Under-Secretary General for Conflict Prevention including Burundi. He also advised the UN Secretary General Special Envoy to Yemen and the UN Special Representative for Libya and was a senior regional expert in the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Sudan (Darfur).