Democratic Transitions Economy & Business International Organizations Libya Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy Resilience & Society United Nations
MENASource May 3, 2024

The UN Libya envoy’s resignation shows why the political transition is failing

By Karim Mezran

The most recent United Nations (UN) special envoy for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, resigned on April 16, announcing his decision to the press shortly after reporting it to the Security Council. He had been appointed to the post only eighteen months prior, in September 2022, following the resignation of his predecessor, Jan Kubis.

Bathily’s resignation was motivated by the UN’s inability to successfully support the political transition process that it has been trying to foster in Libya for more than a decade in the wake of the country’s civil war and enduring political fragmentation. As Bathily pointed out, the reason for this inability is that Libya’s various political actors are unwilling to place the collective interest above their own personal interests. Bathily bluntly described the leaders of the country’s political factions as lacking “good faith,” rendering UN initiatives futile and ruling out the possibility of any solution to the country’s current chaotic and unstable political impasse. His resignation, and his candid assessment of the political process in Libya, demonstrate the slim prospects for UN initiatives in Libya so long as national leaders remain unwilling to collaborate.


Bathily described the attitude of Libyan political leaders as driven by a “selfish resolve” to defend their individual interests and impede the transition process through political and administrative expedients. Bathily’s criticism is directed at the major political figures in Libya whom the UN special envoy had often described as the “big five”: General Khalifa Haftar, Mohammed Takala, Mohamed al-Menfi, Aguila Saleh, and Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. For these five political figures, the transition process doesn’t offer any incentives, but rather would severely limit their current ability to control the political system and the national economy. Particularly frustrating for Bathily, after almost two years of continuous initiatives that these internal actors systematically boycotted, the UN needed to put off a planned national reconciliation conference, which was initially scheduled for April 28 and is now postponed indefinitely due to the rival parties’ intransigence. 

The reasons for Bathily’s criticisms are clear. Although a relative calm has returned to the country since the failure of Haftar’s siege of Tripoli in 2020, this calm has not facilitated the resumption of national dialogue nor the start of the necessary transition process to organize national elections. Instead, this quiet period has allowed the different political factions’ balance of power to freeze in place. They are now unwilling to give up their respective spheres of power by initiating an unpredictable transition to elections that could subvert the status quo.

The web of individual political interests, moreover, is closely linked to a variegated framework of parallel interests, including control of the economy, corruption, management of the various militias that control most of Tripolitania (although in a disorganized manner), and deep ties with organized crime, which runs trafficking of all kinds in Libya.

Bathily’s resignation thus demonstrates how the role of the UN special envoy to Libya has become frustrating and devoid of real prospects over time. In 2020, Ghassan Salame resigned after two years in office citing health reasons, although he expressed deep disappointment at how the transition process had been systematically opposed by both local actors and the foreign powers and regional actors that have been intermingling in Libya since the 2011 revolution. He was succeeded by Jan Kubis, who in turn resigned in 2021 without clearly specifying the reasons, although he had clearly determined that it was impossible to fulfil his mandate.

The question remains how and whether the United Nations intends to appoint a new special representative. Talk among insiders indicates that the next special envoy could be Stephanie Koury, currently the vice head of the UN mission in Libya, who would take up the post on an interim basis pending new guidelines from the Security Council.

But regardless of who replaces Bathily, the next special envoy will not be able to solve Libya’s longstanding political impasse as long as the leaders of the country’s factions remain unwilling to meaningfully engage with the UN’s initiatives. The country’s political stasis is unlikely to shift anytime soon.

Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative at the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

Further reading

Image: عبد الله باتيلي الممثل الأممي ورئيس بعثة الأمم المتحدة في ليبيا خلال لقائه المبعوث الأميركي إلى ليبيا ريتشارد نورلاند في العاصمة الليبية طرابلس (6 مارس آذار 2024)