After nearly a year, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, secured the approval of the Security Council to appoint his choice of Special Envoy to Libya. The new Envoy is a former Senegalese minister and experienced UN diplomat, Abdoulaye Bathily. He is also to head the UN’s mission in the country.
Last November, the former Envoy, Jan Kubis, resigned before a planned crucial vote of 24 December, 2021. But that vote never took place due to disagreements among the Libyan protagonists who never found common ground over a Constitutional basis to go to the polls, after all efforts to solve the problem came to nothing.
It has been eleven years during which the UN sent eight envoys to end Libya’s problem, with little success so far. Incremental progress has been made, but that final and comprehensive solution has, so far, eluded everybody, including the UN.
The problem now, as the UN sees it, as it has always been: how to help Libyans to, freely and securely, choose their own government in transparent, open and inclusive elections. The nation is eager to cast its ballots as manifested in the registration last year, of some 2.8 million Libyans. But that enthusiasm has, since, given way to despair and disappointment, particularly after last year’s planned elections were cancelled.
Mr. Bathily knows this fact rather well and is aware of the difficulties facing him. In his first report to the Security Council, on 24 October, setting his priorities, elections topped his agenda. Four days later, the Council reciprocated and showed its support by adopting Resolution 2656, extending the mission for a year and insisting on elections as the only way out of the deadlock. However, effective support is doubtful in comparison to previous Council promises. The new Envoy made clear that he wants the “international community” to “rally behind the UN’s lead” and to refrain from taking any action that could “further deepen divisions”. This is a diplomatic reference to the fact that the conflict in Libya, over the last eleven years, has become a proxy war, making the country a political battle ground among different agendas driven by regional and international players through supporting their domestic proxies. Is the UNSC going to end this? Very unlikely.
Abdoulaye Bathily also told the UNSC that his most pressing priorities are: facilitating elections, ensuring the countrywide ceasefire, signed in October 2020, is still observed as it has been so far, and making sure that UN member states respect previous UN resolutions that ban all forms of interference in Libya’s internal affairs. It is unlikely that countries Turkiye, Egypt, Russia, among others, will heed Mr. Bathiliy’s call. Foreign meddling in Libya’s affairs has been the biggest obstacle facing the UN mission there.
He also wants to know the details of the agreement, said to have been reached on 22 October in Rabat, Morocco, between the House of Representative’s Aqila Saleh and the Higher Council of State’s Khalid Al-Mishri to set up a unified government before the end of the year. Neither side has explained how they are going to do this, or whether such a government will actually be in place soon.
Libya has two competing governments. In Tripoli, the caretaker Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, has refused to hand over power to the Parliament’s appointed premier, Fathi Bashaga. The struggle for power has seen violence flare up in the capital, Tripoli, at least three times over the last nine months since Bashaga’s appointment . Civilians have been paying a heavy price, as is always the case.
The question now is what the UN is bringing to the table that has not been there already, and what kind of skills Mr. Bathiliy possesses that his predecessors lacked? Crucially, how serious is the UNSC in its approach to ending the Libyan conflict?
All potential solutions have been exhausted and negotiated over many times before. Every time a breakthrough is reached, another problem arises. Clearly the problem is within Libya itself, as the former UN Special Advisor, Stephanie Williams, told me in the summer of 2021 and, again, last August. She believes that Libya’s leaders simply do not want elections any time soon because that would threaten their political careers and deny them the enormous privileges they are enjoying. This has not changed.
The appointment of the Senegalese former minister, as new Envoy, came as the UNSC’s response to the African Union’s repeated request that Africans should be given the opportunity to handle Libya, which is an African country after all. The AU was first to attempt mediation in the Libyan conflict as early as April 2011, at the height of the civil war, but its efforts went nowhere because the West, led by France and the United States at the time, was determined to topple Muammer Gaddafi’s government without considering what would happen to the country. The AU has its high level committee, headed by President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo, to spearhead its work on the Libyan conflict. AU supports Abdoulaye Bathily, but how practical such support is remains unclear.
However, the crisis in Libya over the last 11 years has gone from in internal conflict, when the AU first attempted to end it, to a multi-party conflict instigated by foreign powers. It is now a proxy conflict among different regional and international powers. It has also become entangled in disagreement within the UNSC between Russia and the West, for example, because of the war in Ukraine. On top of that, AU and its members do not have any real powers in the Council that, effectively, decides on what must happen in Libya.
The best chance Mr. Bathily has, to make a difference, is his abilities to have foreign powers like Turkiye and Russia, among others, press their Libyan proxies to come to the table with the intention of agreeing on the few details that have blocked elections. All other contentious matters should be left to elected government to tackle. Even success here does not guarantee the end of the conflict.
The task is more difficult than it sounds, given the fact that Abdoulaye Bathily does not enjoy the strong backing of the UNSC. The Council has, repeatedly, promised its support before but it failed to translate that into actions to, for example, reinforce its decisions, such as the ban on transfer of fighters and weapons to Libya or the banning of foreign meddling in the country’s politics. Nothing has changed to indicate UNSC’s ready to act differently.
All previous envoys failed and, because of this, Mr. Bathily is no exception.