As the world’s attention remains fixed on the war in Ukraine, the United Nations is pushing for new elections in Libya, another country on Europe’s doorstep where Russia is seeking greater influence.
More than a decade after the uprising that toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the North African country remains mired in political chaos with two rival camps, each backed by foreign powers, vying for control.
The UN’s Libya envoy, Abdoulaye Bathily, told the Security Council on Monday that he would be forming a high-level steering panel of “relevant Libyan stakeholders” that would produce a roadmap for presidential and legislative elections by the end of 2023. Bathily’s plan is the second international push for national Libyan elections in as many years.
Polls scheduled for December 2021 collapsed amid disagreements over the constitutional basis of the elections and who was eligible to run. Candidates included Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a former CIA asset-turned-warlord in Libya’s east, and Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Russia-backed son of the ousted dictator.
As the elections stalled, Libya found itself with two prime ministers — Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who was installed as head of the UN-supported interim government, and Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed by the eastern-based parliament that is backed by Hifter.
The proposed elections in 2023 aim to unify Libya under a single executive authority. Many Libya-watchers and foreign officials say Bathily’s plan is a good start but short on details. Questions remain over how members of the steering panel will be selected and whether they can achieve political consensus in just 10 months.
The United States says it’s “100% committed” to helping Bathily succeed.
Libya may not be a foreign policy priority, but the Biden administration recognizes that further instability in Africa’s most oil-rich country could undermine global counterterrorism efforts, send new migration flows into Europe and expand Russia’s sphere of influence in Africa and the Mediterranean.
Last week in Washington, the administration hosted Bathily and senior officials from Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom for a discussion on Libya’s stalled elections.
US officials have also been visiting the North African country with more frequency, and the administration is weighing reopening the US Embassy in Tripoli, which closed two years after the deadly 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi.
A senior US official told Al-Monitor that the administration is “looking internally and as appropriate consulting with the Congress about steps in that direction.” The official also hinted at “more regular and more senior travel” to Libya as security conditions allow.
CIA director William Burns made a surprise visit to Libya in late January, with Russian private military company Wagner reportedly high on the agenda.
Wagner fighters supported Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army in its failed 14-month offensive to capture Tripoli. Its mercenaries remain in Libya, despite a 2020 ceasefire calling for removal of foreign fighters from the country. US officials, including Burns and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have asked Cairo to pressure Hifter to end his dealings with Wagner, the Associated Press reports.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the senior US official said the administration has discussed the presence of foreign fighters with “a wide range of Libyan actors.”
“We’re not going to sit on our hands and wait when there’s a really serious security risk,” the official said. “The ongoing presence of Wagner fighters in Libya is tremendously destabilizing to Libya and to the broader region.”
Libya’s current political turmoil is seen as part of the problem. A more accountable, representative government would have the “moral weight to speak clearly about the relationship it wants with foreign actors, including Russia,” the official said.
Ben Fishman, a former National Security Council director for North Africa and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the main role the United States can play in any Libyan election is getting outside actors on board.
Egypt, which supports the east-based parliament, is “very wary of any elections, despite what they may say publicly,” said Fishman. “They are comfortable with the status quo.”
Also comfortable with the status quo are the Libyan political elite who stand to lose power in a possible election.
As a European envoy to Libya told Al-Monitor, “It’s more or less clear that some people would like to remain in the position that they are right now, and that is the reason why we are in this stalemate.”