March 7, 2022

IntelBrief: Libya Continues to Unravel

AP Photo/Yousef Murad

Bottom Line up Front

  • A U.N.-backed process to stabilize Libya through presidential elections appears close to collapse.
  • An apparent power grab in February by leaders linked to eastern Libya strongman Khalifa Haftar has furthered the political divisions plaguing the U.N.-led election roadmap.
  • Regional and international powers continue to press their own interests in Libya at the expense of the political and economic stability that would benefit the Libyan people.
  • Libya’s role as an oil and gas exporter has been significantly harmed by internal conflict, reducing its ability to help compensate for any energy shortages resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In 2020, in the aftermath of a ceasefire among contending Libyan factions, United Nations representatives and Libyan leaders established a roadmap to try to end a decade of internal conflict since the overthrow of Muammar Al Qadhafi. The agreed process hinged upon holding elections for a president and a national assembly, under a consensus set of election laws, and subsequently scheduled for December 24, 2021. The objective of the election was to unify a U.N.-backed government based in Tripoli with eastern Libyan leaders led by General Khalifa Haftar, a staunchly anti-Islamist strongman backed by Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. Many of Libya’s major political players from both the east and west, including Haftar as well as leaders in western Libya, and Saif al-Islam Al Qadhafi, had filed to run for president. However, court challenges about the eligibility of several candidacies, as well as disputes over the election laws that would govern the planned December 24 vote, caused the elections to be postponed. Stephanie Williams, the U.N. special adviser on Libya, asserts that the only way to sustain the U.N. roadmap for Libyan political reconciliation will be to hold an election by summer 2022.

With a new election date still not set, simmering disputes among major factions erupted on February 10 with a decision by the Tobruk-based parliament to name a new prime minister, Fathi Bashagha. The parliament asserted that the term of prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh had ended on the December 24, 2021 date that was set for the presidential election. Experts characterized the appointment as a “power grab” by Bashagha, a former minister of interior; Aguileh Saleh, his key backer and the speaker of parliament; and Haftar. Haftar and his allies failed to conquer western Libya by force in 2019, but since have sought opportunities to unify Libya under their control through political means. By appointing Bashagha as prime minister, the eastern Libyan leaders hoped to rally supporters in western Libya - Bashagha himself hails from western Libya (Misrata) - and thereby undermine Dbeibeh’s government.

Rather than consolidating Libya’s contending factions, the appointment triggered a backlash in western Libya, hardened Libya’s divisions, and increased the potential for a renewal of armed conflict. Dbeibeh vowed to remain in his post until national elections are held, and supporters rallied to his side. Demonstrators protested Dbeibeh’s replacement and pro-Dbeibeh militias rushed to Tripoli to defend his government. U.N. officials used the power grab to stress the importance of political reconciliation and to prod the various factions to set a new election date. The day after the vote to replace Dbeibeh, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric stated that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “takes note” of Thursday's vote in the House of Representatives in Tobruk to designate a new prime minister and “further calls on all parties to continue to preserve stability in Libya as a top priority.” While the ouster of Dbeibeh might ultimately succeed, and without producing major new armed conflict, the appointment did not advance reconciliation or produce movement on setting a new presidential election date.

Many experts assess that the same regional and global powers that have been supporting the contending Libyan leaders were behind the effort to oust Dbeibeh. Expressing public support for Bashagha ‘s appointment was Egypt - which still hopes to see one of its proxies in power - as well as Russia. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also has supported Haftar militarily and politically. Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Qatar, have backed the Tripoli-based government. However, Turkey, which has recently sought reconciliation with its regional adversaries, indicated it would not risk provoking a return to armed conflict within Libya by supporting its ally’s claim to remain in power. While on a rare visit to the UAE, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed neutrality in the Libya dispute, asserting that his government has good relations with both Dbeibeh and Bashagha.

A failure to reconcile the contending factions will further complicate Libya’s efforts to recover economically and maximize the potential of its large oil and gas sector. U.S. officials have been consulting with global energy exporters to increase world oil production - in an effort to lower world oil prices - and to consider providing extra natural gas supplies to Europe in anticipation of gas shortages arising from the war in Ukraine. Most of Europe’s natural gas is provided by Russia, which will curtail supplies as U.S.-led sanctions are imposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some experts consider Libya as potentially able to help ease a shortage, given its strong gas production and close proximity to the continent. However, Libya’s political instability makes it a troublesome energy partner, and its ability to increase exports of gas is limited. On several occasions, paramilitary forces and other autonomous actors have shut down Libyan oil fields and caused Libya’s state-owned oil company to declare force majeure - a legal move allowing it to free itself from contractual supply obligations due to factors beyond its control. Russia could also leverage its presence in eastern Libya and the country’s oil fields to disrupt energy flows to Europe. It is likely that U.S. officials would look to more stable and reliable gas suppliers, such as Qatar, for any solutions to a Ukraine crisis-induced gas supply shortage in Europe, and will continue to focus Libya policy on political stabilization there.