MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: RIVAL GOVERNMENTS CLAIM POWER IN LIBYA 

Bottom Line Up Front: THE SOUFAN CENTER 31.5.22
  • Rival governments are asserting power in Libya, bringing the country closer to renewed civil conflict.
  • The United Nations, United States, Egypt, and other external actors are trying to prevail on the contending factions to avoid further violence and respect a 2020 ceasefire.
  • The power struggle has overshadowed UN-brokered talks in Cairo to obtain consensus on a new constitution and organize long-postponed national elections.
  • The divisions have hindered the operations of the Libyan state, including the oil industry, placing additional burdens on a global energy market rattled by the war in Ukraine.
On May 17—five months after the cancellation of national elections planned for December 24—divisions in Libya worsened when supporters of rival governments established by leaders in the east and west clashed in Tripoli. Fighting erupted when armed supporters of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and his Tripoli-based allies (High Council of State) resisted the attempt by Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed prime minister three months ago by the eastern-based House of Representatives (parliament), to set up a new governing administration in Tripoli. Bashagha and the cabinet ministers accompanying him to Tripoli left the capital less than four hours after arriving, and subsequently set up their rival administration in Sirte, 280 miles east of Tripoli. Sirte is roughly midway between Tripoli and Benghazi, which is the seat of power of Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar and other eastern leaders. The brief conflict, which resulted in the death of one security force member and several others injured, was the worst since Haftar waged an unsuccessful yearlong campaign to try to take the city with backing from Russian contract forces, the Wagner Group. That phase of the conflict ended with a UN-brokered ceasefire in 2020. The eastern-based leaders argue that Dbeibah’s government terminated on the planned December 24 election day, but Dbeibah and his supporters maintain that they will yield their Tripoli stronghold only to a newly-elected government.

The clashes in Tripoli unfolded during a second round of talks in Cairo between the rival camps, convened by Stephanie Williams, the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General, to achieve consensus on a new constitution and on finally holding long-delayed elections. The United Nations, United States, and a range of European and regional stakeholders support the Cairo talks—which will convene again on June 11—as the only viable solution to reconcile Libya’s contending factions and avoid a return to civil conflict. According to UN special adviser Williams, the latest Cairo talks reached agreement on 137 out of 197 articles of a new constitution, including provisions outlining the powers of a bicameral parliament, a president, and a prime minister. But significant differences remain over the rules for a new election and other major outstanding issues, although some reports suggested that the Libyan participants agree that new elections should take place by mid-2023. Not only are the rival Libyan factions seeking to shape the outcome of the talks to favor their own election prospects, but Dbeibah and Bashagha reportedly also fear that Egypt and other outside actors might back a decision to dissolve both governments in advance of any elections. Even though Cairo, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), supports Haftar and the Bashagha government, both regional states do not want a return to civil conflict in Libya, and they have prevailed on Bashagha not to try to enter Tripoli again or provoke any further violence.

The United States and its European partners seek to contain the Libya infighting not only to protect Libya’s population but also to avoid further injury to a global energy market already disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Attacks on Libyan oil installations since March have caused some fields and refineries to shut down for extended periods, reducing Libya’s oil production significantly below its baseline level of 1.2 million barrels per day. The production shortfalls in Libya—which will surely worsen if Libya returns to full-blown civil war—come at a time when the United States and Europe have stopped importing Russian oil and world oil prices have spiked to over $110 per barrel. Yet, diplomats globally realize that the Libyan factions are motivated by their particular interests, and not by global economic progress or even the interests of the overall Libyan population, which is suffering from continuing conflict and economic insecurity.

Bashagha and his eastern Libya allies have orchestrated the attacks on Libyan oil installations in order to reduce the flow of oil revenues from the National Oil Company (NOC) to the Libyan Central Bank—an institution that remains accessible to Dbeibah and his Tripoli-based government. The eastern Libyans calculate that, without adequate additional funds to pay his supporters and armed allies in and around Tripoli, Dbeibah will be forced to yield power. Yet, the cost of the infighting is immense: Libyan energy officials estimate that Libya is losing about $60 million per day in oil revenue because of the damage caused to the oil sector. For Libya’s population, the decline in oil revenue has compounded the difficulties caused by political deadlock over plans to allocate Libya’s national budget and pay salaries to the administrative and security force personnel of both contending camps. The United Nations, the United States, and other mediators are trying, with limited success to date, to forge a consensus among Libyan leaders to establish a transparent financial mechanism to ensure that all national revenues are distributed equitably. Still, as their focus is squarely on the Ukraine conflict, U.S. and allied governments have deferred to the United Nations and Egypt—even though Cairo is not a neutral third party on Libya matters—to find a formula to prevent further violence and establish a durable roadmap for reconciliation.