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Libya: New hope for a political solution?

March 15, 2024

Libya's conflicting parties claim to be working on a way out of the country's crisis, including holding elections. Experts remain skeptical that such declarations of intent could ever be followed by action.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, seated center left, meets with leaders of three parties of the conflict in Libya, at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo
Libya's political factions met in Cairo to work on a way out of the country's crisis. However, key actors Hsftar and Dbeiba were missingImage: Ahmed Hatem/AP Photo/picture alliance

After years of strife and war, Libya once again appears to be seeking a political breakthrough.

According to the local newspaper Libya Observer, several high-ranking Libyan politicians met in Cairo last weekend for talks on a unity government and elections.

The meeting, which was organized by the Arab League, was attended by the president of the Libyan Presidential Council, Mohamed Yunus al-Menfi, who also serves as the country's president. Other participants were the chairman of the High Council of State, Mohammed Takala, and Aguila Saleh, the influential speaker of the House of Representatives in Benghazi, considered as a counterpart to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

On March 10, al-Menfi optimistically spoke of a "very important beginning."

The group called on the international community and the UN Support Mission in Libya for support. Egypt's Foreign Ministry praised the shared intention to hold presidential and parliamentary elections.

Elections would jeopardize politicians' power

Observers, however, have pointed out that so far these steps are only declarations of intent. 

"I am skeptical about the chances of real success," Salam Said, the head of the Libya office of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation in neighboring Tunisia, told DW.

"Even the unity government formed in 2021 was not strong enough to organize elections that were already scheduled," she said, adding that she doesn't see a fundamental difference this time around.

In her view, the representatives of the state and the two parliaments are certainly interested in a unity government — in theory.

"However, in practice they have no serious interest in presidential and parliamentary elections, as these could jeopardize their own positions," she said.

Libya's strongman in the east, General Khalifa Hiftar salutes in Moscow.
Libya's strongman in the east, General Khalifa Haftar, has close ties to RussiaImage: LNA/AFP

It is therefore telling that neither Libya's incumbent Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, nor his opponent, General Khalifa Haftar, the strongman in the east of the country, attended the meeting in Cairo.

"These two politicians in particular have no interest in a new government, as they would lose their offices and positions as a result," said Said.

She doubts the joint declaration could be accepted by all actors in Libya.

High pressure on Libyan political elite

Nonetheless, there is considerable pressure on those responsible, Said continued.

"The population is deeply disappointed after their hopes for elections were dashed in late 2021," she said. "The people feel that the political elite are constantly fighting for power while completely disregarding the interests of the citizens." 

Hager Ali, a Libya expert at the think tank German Institute for Global and Area Studies, takes a similar view. In addition to the disillusioned population, she said politicians are also under pressure due to the country's security situation which was exacerbated by last year's flood disaster.

"Southern Libya in particular is increasingly involved in the war in neighboring Sudan," she told DW, adding that Haftar's militias transport weaponsand equipment into the civil war country.

Migrants on a vessel in the open sea
The war in Sudan has led to the world's largest displacement, with up to 10 million people having fled the violenceImage: Emilio Morenatti/picture alliance/AP Photo

As an additional consequence of the war, the world's largest displacement crisis in Sudan has developed with up to 10 million internally displaced persons, Ali added.

The Sudan crisis has been exacerbated further by coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

The latest coup in Niger ended the cooperation with the EU, which has made refugee management in the entire region more difficult.

"This creates considerable pressure on the Libyan actors to finally work towards a more politically sustainable situation," Ali said.

International interests in Libya

While instability may be politically profitable for some Libyan actors, this cannot be a permanent state of affairs, Ali said.

"This is why the UN in particular is pushing for elections as the most important factor in unifying the country," she said.

An aerial view of devastation after the floods caused by the Storm Daniel ravaged the Libyan city of Derna in September 2023
In September 2023, the Libyan city of Derna was partly devastated and thousands died in a flood caused by Mediterranean storm DanielImage: Halil Fidan/Andalou/picture alliance

However, a peaceful and unified Libya is counter to Russia's interests.

"For Moscow, Libya plays an important role in circumventing the sanctions imposed by the West due to the Russian attack on Ukraine," Ali told DW. She expects arms trade from Libya to other hot spots will grow.

Controversy over electoral legislation

Libya's domestic political factors are even more difficult, complicating the process of setting up elections, according to Ali.

"The process could fail due to very pragmatic issues, such as electoral legislation," she said.

So far, the political powers have been unable to reach an agreement on electoral law, as all parties involved are primarily focused on the consequences that the respective electoral law and the layout of the constituencies could have for them.

In Ali's view, this is another reason why it's unlikely that swift progress will be made in Libya for the time being, despite the joint declaration made in Cairo.

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This article was originally written in German and translated by Jennifer Holleis.

Correction, March 15, 2024: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Abdul Hamid Dbeibah is Libya's president. He is Libya's prime minister.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East