Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Ongoing Search for a New UNSMIL Coordinator

Libya New UNSMIL Coordinator
The Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Political Affairs in Libya, United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Williams gives a press statement at the end of a follow-up meeting on Libya, on the sidelines of the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 16, 2020. THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

As the UN prepares to nominate the 9th Mission Coordinator of its mission in Libya amid a power struggle between two governments in Tripoli, Africa finally imposed its candidate for the position. However, the person heading the mission will face many challenges. The most serious of which is the possibility of new warfare between armed militias whose allegiance is distributed between both sides of the conflict.

Since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, eight people have held the position; Jordanian, Lebanese (twice), Spanish, English, German, American and Slovak. However, this marginalisation of Africa is ending. It is finally the turn of an African to head the UN mission.

Since the resignation of Slovak Ján Kubiš in November 2021, no replacement has been appointed, reflecting the difficulty in choosing a new UN envoy who will be unanimously approved by the UN Security Council’s 15 members. It should be noted that the Security Council is divided into two main blocs: the United States and its European allies and the African bloc supported by Russia and China.

The UN Security Council recently extended the deadline for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) by only three months – until 31 October 2022 – to constitute an acceptable compromise to Russia. This transpired despite concerns regarding the limited duration of the extension.

Since autumn 2021, UNSMIL has only been renewed for short periods due to the Security Council’s inability to agree on a new envoy.

Sources indicate that the UN Secretary-General has suggested former Senegalese Minister Abdoulaye Bathily for the candidacy for special representative and head of the UNSMIL, giving the 15 members until Monday, 15 August 2022, to approve. An agreement has not yet been reached because of the different international players involved in the ongoing conflict in Libya.

Bathily is a historian and activist against racism. Since 2014, he has been the head of the United Nations Regional Office in Central Africa (UNOCA). He also chaired the Review Committee that evaluated the UNSMIL. The assessment was dreadful and sharply criticised the leadership of Ján Kubiš.

According to journalist Talal al-Haj, the ambassadors of the 15 countries in the Security Council are expected to respond after consulting with their governments. If a country does not accept the candidacy, it will be considered a veto, as was the UAE’s vote against Algerian Sabri Boukadoum.

The Chances of the African Role

The nomination of a prominent figure will not be the end of a nearly two-year US hegemony of UNSMIL’s work. Over time, Washington realised it was time to try the African option. This was illustrated by US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland’s statements following his recent meeting with African Union officials.

Some believe that the Libyan crisis, which pushed the African Union to play a more neutral role, has exposed the challenges of operating within a highly competitive international intelligence framework. They, too, consider it unlikely that the African Union, due to its commitment to neutrality, will be able to influence the Libyan. Based on previous experiences, less impartial players, including the UN, must act to push the Libyan parties to the negotiating table.

The multiplicity of international players is a fundamental challenge in light of questions about the neutral role that the West envisions for the African Union. The main question is whether it wants the African Union to work on a comprehensive settlement of the Libyan crisis or to address the crisis of African migrants in Libya. The number of these migrants, according to the Union’s estimates, is between 400,000 and 700,000 migrants. Some suffer from brutal practices, including human trafficking and slavery. These migrants are also considered potential terrorists for and by European countries.

Libya New UNSMIL Coordinator
Senegalese music icon Youssou Ndour (R) and the opposition leader at that time and the African Union’s candidate for the presidency of the UNSMIL. SEYLLOU DIALLO / AFP

This may have led some of Libya’s political elite to address what they described as the decline of the African Union’s role. However, the Libyan crisis has recently been on the agenda of most African Union summits.

A study advises the African Union to overcome differences and develop a framework for dialogue that includes specific provisions for fostering an inclusive democratic transition and state-building. The study also called on the Union to communicate with all Libyan parties and work within the framework of broader regional coordination that includes all supporters of these parties and Libya’s neighbouring countries.

Eight months after she was appointed Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Libyan file, Stephanie Williams left her post at the end of July 2022. With regard to the postponed elections of 2021, Williams thinks it should be possible to have elections by the end of 2022, provided that the Libyan Parliament and Higher Council of State will put the necessary legal framework in place. With this, she refers to the disputed constitutional law that was at the root of the postponement.

The presidential elections, which were scheduled to be held at the end of 2021, were disrupted as a result of the imposition of new laws that prevented some prominent candidates, such as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, from running. One of the legal conditions imposed at that time was that the candidate should hold only Libyan citizenship and not hold an official position in the army.

Williams noted that most Libyan leaders “love to court external actors, to travel the world, and receive the red carpet treatment,” clearly accusing the leaders of the current political landscape of not yet being willing to leave office and give up the privileges they gained while in power.

Libyan Minister of State for Economic Affairs Salama al-Ghweil recently said in televised remarks that he agreed that the right person to save the people of Libya had not yet appeared.

In her final statement, Williams emphasised: “It is only with the establishment of a consensual constitutional framework which sets the milestones, the contract between the governed and those who govern them, and the guardrails for the end of the transitional period through national elections that the current political stalemate and recurrent executive crisis can be overcome. Libyan leaders have a clear responsibility towards their fellow citizens and future generations to make the necessary historic compromises to enable the needed breakthroughs.”

Williams, however, did not just throw in the towel. After a four and a half year involvement in Libya, she was convinced that she had reached a dead end due to the intransigence of the political class and its desire for the continuation of interim governments, which she described in an interview as playing a game of musical chairs.

Williams’ departure left a vacuum in Libya, which is difficult to fill for Zimbabwean Raisedon Zenenga, the acting Head and Coordinator of UNSMIL, at this sensitive and critical juncture, which has seen occasional clashes and threats to enter Tripoli by force.

According to this reading, since his appointment on 10 December 2021, Zenenga has played no significant role in resolving the Libyan crisis, despite having some fruitless meetings with local officials to meet protocol.

Myriad of Difficulties

The task of the new UN envoy to Libya will not be easy. The envoy is handling a ticking bomb due to the cat-and-mouse game between Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, head of the interim Government of National Unity, and his rival Fathi Bashagha, backed by the House of Representatives. While Dbeibeh refuses to cede his power except to an elected government, Bashagha can still not enter the capital six months after he was appointed prime minister by the House of Representatives.

From his temporary headquarters in Sirte, Bashagha has consistently claimed that he will peacefully enter Tripoli. This comes at a time when attempts by loyal armed militias to enter the capital at least twice were thwarted by militias affiliated with the Dbeibeh government.

A senior official in the House of Representatives told Fanack that he felt Bashagha would never succeed in this nearly impossible task, pointing out that the latter missed the opportunity to do so immediately after obtaining the position.

The official, who requested to remain anonymous, admitted that the House of Representatives had earnestly begun to look for other solutions. He also pointed out that the Head of the House Aguila Saleh’s recent visit to Turkey not only served to improve the strained relations between Ankara and eastern Libya but also to gain support from Ankara for Saleh and his proposal to solve the conflict’s power dilemma.

Turkey has succeeded in slowly restoring its relationship with Egypt, the latter of which is extending its influence over eastern Libya. Since Dbeibeh and Bashagha are more or less affiliated with Turkey, this positions Ankara as a powerful player in settling the conflict in Libya.

The Complication of Two Governments

For weeks, Tripoli has been living with concerns and fears that violent street battles between Dbeibeh and Bashagha forces could erupt, resulting in a political impasse and a situation without prospects for a peaceful solution.

Bashagha will not accept to remain prime minister only on paper. Likewise, Dbeibeh will not accept to cede power, relying on the loyalty of armed militias for which he recently provided a semi-open budget to ensure he remains in office.

The struggle between the Dbeibeh and Bashagha for power has created a new map of allegiances of the various militias, especially in the western region.

The division extends beyond the political aspect. The conflict centres around spheres of influence and control in the western region, while the eastern and southern regions are under the control of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, often described as the strongman in the east of the country. Haftar formed a surprise alliance with Bashagha in February 2022, and his delegates made an undeclared deal with Dbeibeh that allowed for the resumption of oil production and export from previously closed fields.

The work of UN envoys in Libya resembles walking into a minefield or a sad short story.

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