The clock is ticking for UN special envoy for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, who must outline his plans before his opportunity closes.
Abdoulaye Bathily was appointed UN special envoy for Libya in September, the eighth UN representative since 2011 to try to negotiate a way out of Libya’s government crisis. He faces great challenges. The political situation in Libya remains at an impasse, with the re-emergence of rival governments and increasing factional movements. Internationally, Bathily inherits a UN mission that has faced significant revenue and capacity problems, a deeply divided Security Council, and various agendas put forward by interested states.
“There seems to be a broad consensus that Libya’s institutions are facing a serious legitimacy crisis,” Bathily told the UN Security Council on November 15. “There is also consensus on the need to coordinate bilateral and multilateral diplomatic initiatives and to rally behind United Nations efforts.” Both statements are true, but the latter is precarious. As Bathily continues to consult and evaluate his options, he may have less time than he thinks to make his plans clear.
Every plan for the Libyan transition since 2011 has attempted to establish an “interim administration,” and each one has exceeded its mandate.
Bathily’s appointment has sparked a wave of political activity. Khaled al-Meshri, the leader of the High Council of State, and Agila Saleh, the speaker of the House of Representatives, indicated in late October that they had reached an agreement to resume talks on holding elections and reiterated their support for the process Replacement of the leaderships of sovereign institutions. Reports have surfaced in recent days and weeks that they are also close to an agreement to form a new government. There are many rumors that they would both be given leadership roles in the proposed new government, which would – in theory at least – be given a limited mandate to hold elections.
The Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity (GNU), Abdelhamid al-Dabaiba, has presented his own plans and indicated that his government will hold a public consultation on the road to the elections. Few take Dabaiba at his word as he previously broke his promise not to vote and consistently overstepped his mandate to reunite the institutions and prepare the ground for an end to the political transition. As tensions have risen in recent days, his GNU reportedly also attempted to prevent the High Council of State from meeting.
The GNU Presidential Council is focusing on its mandate for national reconciliation – a process that has never materialized since Gaddafi’s fall in 2011 – by considering a more bottom-up political process and rightly the lack of a social contract highlights. However, this process seems to kick the elections into the long grass.
The Presidency Council is also at the heart of some international proposals to break the impasse. By issuing a decree enacting an electoral law and constitutional foundation, the Presidency Council could bypass the House of Representatives and the High Council of State, but this would likely be challenged.
Praised from all quarters, Bathily must make clear decisions about the options available to him. To help him decide, he must learn four lessons from Libya’s recent past.
The most important lesson Bathily needs to learn is that an agreement between two people is not enough.
First, Bathily should beware of the trap of temporary settlements. Every plan for the Libyan transition since 2011 has attempted to establish an “interim administration,” and each one has exceeded its mandate. GNU is just the latest example. The simple fact is that once discussion of an interim administration arises, talk of an interim plan recedes into the background as leaders busily work to make their interim status permanent. An interim government led by Saleh and Meshri may continue to present superficial advances in developing electoral laws and a constitutional basis for elections — as it did during the protracted negotiations this year — with no real progress.
Second, Bathily should recognize that the existing group of institutional leaders has lost legitimacy and cannot be counted on to find a sustainable solution. The mandates of the House of Representatives and the High Council of State have long expired and the GNU has not respected the mandate given to it. In order not to be derailed, Bathily must ensure that any processes initiated by Libyan rivals have clear terms and are not the only game in town. The endless negotiations between Saleh and Meshri should be timed very tightly, and agreement on the legal basis for elections must be wrested from their sole influence. This could be done either by making the House of Representatives and High Council of State delegations a minority in each deliberative body, or ideally by removing them entirely and delegating critical tasks to technical bodies on a set timetable.
Tim Eaton, Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Program