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MENASource May 24, 2024

Libya’s special envoy resigned. What’s next for the country?

By Tahani Elmogrbi

Since the Libyan House of Representatives announced a new law for presidential and parliamentary elections on November 1, 2023, specifying a deadline of two hundred and forty days for holding the polls, political divisions in Libya have deepened. Despite this legislative step, disagreements persist among Libyan authorities, with various powerful politicians and military figures vying for control and influence over state resources.

The April 16 resignation of the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Abdullah Batili, demonstrated the failure of international efforts to resolve the crisis, exacerbating divisions within Libya. Thus, the path to elections remains uncertain.

For the Libyan people, elections are crucial to establishing legitimate governance and resolving the political crisis. While Libya faces significant hurdles in organizing elections, concerted efforts toward political dialogue, security stabilization, and electoral-law reforms are vital for progress.

Tahani Elmogrbi, a Libya expert, interviewed the High National Election Commission chairman, Dr. Emad al-Sayah, on May 14 for the Atlantic Council’s North Africa Initiative, to get his perspective on the elections in the current environment after Batili’s resignation.

TAHANI ELMOGRBI: Will the elections ever happen in Libya?

EMAD AL-SAYAH: The stakeholders involved in the current Libyan political crisis, including the international community, led by the UNSMIL, consider elections as an objective rather than a tool. Everyone knows that elections serve as a tool for the peaceful devolution of power, necessitating their implementation within a consensual political environment and a cultural framework fostering a minimum level of security and stability. Unfortunately, these conditions are currently absent in the Libyan political landscape. As long as this perspective dominates, the pathway toward elections and a peaceful devolution of power in Libya will face significant constraints, potentially delaying or even preventing the conduct of elections in the short term.


TAHANI ELMOGRBI: What are the current main reasons behind its delay?

EMAD AL-SAYAH: The Libyan political environment has become hostile toward democratic principles, particularly elections. This phenomenon can be attributed to some factors that have produced negative outcomes and shaped the environment over the past twelve years. The most prominent of these factors include the absence of a culture of democracy and peaceful devolution of power within Libyan society; lack of a constitution to regulate the process of power devolution; negative foreign interference aimed at preserving its interests and maintaining the status quo; and ineffective performance of most of the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoys.

TAHANI ELMOGRBI: Is it possible to amend the electoral law?

EMAD AL-SAYAH: Due to the absence of a permanent constitution establishing the primary legislative rules for the electoral process in Libya, political parties involved in the crisis have not accepted specific articles and provisions, particularly those related to candidate qualifications and the electoral system. In Libyan elections, it is common for some political parties to obstruct any electoral process that could potentially end their political careers. Therefore, amending electoral laws in Libya is much more challenging than drafting them initially.

TAHANI ELMOGRBI: Will Batili’s resignation affect the possibility of holding elections?

EMAD AL-SAYAH: During the twelve years of dealing with the Libyan crisis, the United Nations mission did not have any strategic vision for moving the Libyan state from the transitional phase to the phase of permanent stability. Each UN envoy adopted a different vision for resolving the political crisis based on his/her convictions and perceptions, which would undoubtedly be affected by his/her personal behavior on the one hand, and by the constant and changing political facts in the local and foreign arenas on the other hand. Most of them failed in their missions, and those who would have succeeded found themselves facing challenges that they could not overcome without having international support, which is also divided. Analyzing the briefings they presented to the United Nations Security Council, which primarily reported on Libya’s political, economic, and security situations, reveals that the resignation of any special envoy and their replacement will not have a significant impact without a coherent strategy in place.

TAHANI ELMOGRBI: Is it beneficial to focus on military and economic dialogues rather than political dialogue?

EMAD AL-SAYAH: The central issue in the Libyan crisis is the political dimension, which serves as its primary source and cannot be disregarded. Addressing other aspects, such as economic or security concerns, requires a political solution that results in an elected authority possessing the legitimacy to effectively manage other crises transparently and prioritize national interests above all else. Currently, there is a trend of leveraging foreign interests and ambitions to maintain power, which hinders progress toward resolving the crisis. Continuing with this approach, in the absence of unified and conscientious political leadership, will exacerbate political conflicts and deepen internal divisions. It will also safeguard the interests of foreign countries involved in the conflict and their local allies, preventing any political changes that may threaten their interests.

Tahani Elmogrbi is a Libya expert and international development specialist.

Further reading

Image: The High National Election Commission chairman, Dr. Emad al-Sayah (via High National Elections Commission Facebook page)