In a moment of anticipated opportunism that comes amidst a highly volatile security situation and a critical political moment, militias of Salah Badi and Abdul-Basit Marwan seized Libya’s Presidential Council headquarters and threatened to besiege the executive authority and cancelling elections, leaving actors in the Libyan theatre facing a critical test in the last chapter of the peaceful political transition. Arguably, it could be seen as a life-altering test that could either give rise to a political transition dilemma or take the country to comprehensive stabilization.
As the landscape becomes increasingly complex, all scenarios seem possible, primarily failure of the roadmap. Yet the containment scenario remains possible, albeit requiring actors to adopt a prudent approach towards addressing the uncertainties and confusions in managing the political and security situation at an accelerated pace before the situation spirals out of control.
A diagnosis of the current scene would reveal failure of the active actors in drawing on a decade-long experience in addressing the Libyan crisis. Actors in Libya seemed to have got their thinking stuck at the Battle of Tripoli (2019-2020), in their pursuit to ensure the country wouldn’t suffer a similar battle again, failing to realize that chaos could snake its way through different channels, including failure of the state to undermine militias and armed factions, lack of urgency in addressing the phenomenon of mercenaries and foreign fighters that serving as interest groups and agents of foreign powers that see the roadmap could bring to power a regime that runs counter to their interests. In this vein, three key points should be noted:
First, the current political context produces a distinct situation than what was the case when the Battle of Tripoli took place. At the moment, parties to the armed conflict see an interest in the political transition and in engaging in a security and political dialogue through the Joint Military Committee (5+5 committee), notwithstanding the slackening progress its makes on the files it takes on, which could be attributed to the heavy legacy built up over a decade of chaos. However, there are numerous indications that reveal existence of a strong political will to shake off this gloomy period, as has been evidenced by the recent rapprochement between the Commander-in-Chiefs of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces and the General Command of the Presidency, and the promising outcomes of this rapprochement, including unifying Libya’s military institution which will negatively reflect on interests of the militias that will not lose ground if such unifying is completed.
Second, avoiding the chaos scenario following the Libyan elections – which is a likely scenario due to fears of rejection of election results – is a joint responsibility between the UN mission and the internal and external actors. In effect, this joint responsibility was called into question given the policies pursued by the UN mission in the previous phase; however, the return of Stephanie Williams, the architect of the road map, at the helm of the mission, renewed optimism about the possibility of addressing deficiencies. Notably, Misrata militias became active concurrently with Williams holding meetings in Misrata, a good starting point that reflects Williams’ profound understanding of where the substance of the problem is, i.e. the militias and deferring the elections for some time, a step that the militias could see through and quickly responded to as has been evidenced by the concurrent moves of militias of Abdul-Basit Marwan, ex-Commander of the Tripoli Military Zone, the same day he was sacked.
Third, postponing the elections is a double-edged sword, involving an opportunity and a constraint at a time. It could be an opportunity to realign the scene and remedy deficiencies, particularly the legal reforms that stood in the way of activities of the Election Commission. Notably, the Commission has requested a legal revision of the appeals adjudication process to ensure transparency of elections and electoral results. However, several constraints may squander this opportunity, including the uncertainty over who would be responsible for developing the timeframe for rescheduling the elections where the Commission stated the Parliament shall be in charge of that. However, the media advisor to the Chairman of Parliament passed the ball back to the Commission. There was also a third view that suggested the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum shall be the entity responsible for that. In many respects, this problematique gives rise to other complexities pertaining to postponement controls that should be clear and well-defined.
This context reveals that the scenario of controlling tensions in Libya is still possible. The starting point would be addressing the political aspect which would require introducing legislative reforms that could definitely leave one of the prominent candidates out of the presidential race, a situation that would contribute to undermining Misrata militias, taking into account the political links of these militias whose interests would be served well if the elections were completely obstructed rather than temporarily postponed.
References should be made to the position of the State Council leadership, international sanctions, and actions in response, particularly given that fact Badi is already on the international sanctions list. This once again poses a test to the tools that be employed to contain tensions and prevent chaos.
The meeting of the 5 + 5 committee on 16 December could present an opportunity to deal with this landscape, particularly given the suggestion to transfer the executive authority to Sirte away from chaos and areas where the militias operate. Maybe there is a chance for that now; however, the UN mission, which is taking part in the meeting, should take action and warn the external powers that back these militias and urgent action from the working group of the Berlin Conference and the Security Council is also needed.