There is cautious optimism that perhaps Libya might finally hold the long postponed country wide elections this year ending the current situation of the country having two governments. Till 2020, when General Khalifa Haftar and his east Libya based Libyan National Army, supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sought to capture Tripoli. Libya, post Gaddafi, was administered by the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.

The Government of National Accord drew its legitimacy from the Libyan Political Agreement signed on 17 December 2015 at a conference in Skhirat, Morocco. The agreement had been unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council which recognized that the Government of National Accord was Libya’s sole legitimate government of Libya. It also established the High Council of State, a consultative body independent of the Government .

With Haftar held at bay by the Tripoli Government, backed by Syrian mercenaries and Turkish troops, a ceasefire deal was negotiated in October 2020 under American and UN aegis. A Government of National Unity was set up on 10 March 2021 to unify the rival Government of National Accord based in Tripoli and the Second Al-Thani Cabinet, based in Tobruk.

Tobruk was the base of General Haftar, and the Cabinet of Abdullah Al-Thani, approved on September 22 2014 by east Libya's democratically elected House of Representatives, was generally called the Tobruk government. The Libyan Supreme Court had, however, ruled that the cabinet was "unconstitutional".

Prime Minister al-Thani and his government offered their resignation on September 13 2020. The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum on February 5 2021 had selected Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh to be the Prime Minister of the unity government till, as provided under the roadmap drawn up as part of the UN and USA initiative, national elections were held in December 2021.

In March 2022, a Government of National Stability was formed in Sirte supported by the House of Representatives which ruled the east; General Haftar and his Libyan National Army. The east based House of Representatives selected Fathi Bashagha as the Prime Minister and that led to demands from the east that Dbeibeh resign.

Dbeibeh refused to hand over power until national elections were held. In May 2023 Osama Hamada was appointed acting Prime Minister of Libya by the east based House of Representatives taking over from Fathi Bashagha.

The timetable for the elections continues to get postponed. First the House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh Laws came under criticism for issuing electoral laws in September-October 2020 for the conduct of the elections without a proper vote or quorum in Parliament. Confusion created by the uncertainty of whether his rules or the UN defined roadmap would hold, led to a postponement of the then scheduled December 2021 elections.

Till date the elections have not been held. Meanwhile Mohamed al-Menfi remains the Chairman of the Presidential Council which has international recognition and is based in Tripoli. But the Prime Minister Dbeibeh continues to face opposition since 2022. And so the tussle between Tripoli and Tobruk continues in effect leaving Libya with two contending power centres.

Such is the rivalry that the two sides could not even agree on a common date for the celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr. The general religious authority for Awqaf in the East and the Dar al Iftaa in the West, aligned respectively with the Parliament in Tobruk and the Government of National Unity in Tripoli, disagreed on the day of the official Eid celebration, marking the first time such a division had taken place in Libya.

Starting 2012, national, regional and international efforts to fashion power sharing arrangements, a transitional government and constitutional parameters for elections have failed. Most proposals focused on trying to sell different models based on the military/paramilitary capacities of the opposing parties in Libya and the interests of their patrons.

A preparatory meeting for a national reconciliation conference to be convened by the African Union and Libya’s Presidential Council in Tripoli in 2023 had been held with UN participation. The UN was also planning to establish a High-level Steering Panel for Libya.

While all regional and international partners are agreed on the necessity to hold inclusive and transparent elections in 2023 the role of external elements has been a problem with different countries backing their proxies. The UN efforts to broker a lasting peace have been thwarted by competing peace conferences sponsored by different foreign governments.

It is not just conferences but material support to the opposing parties. Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Russia back General Haftar’s Libyan National Army, while Turkey, Italy, and Qatar have provided support to the Government of National Unity. The presence of foreign fighters from Turkey and Russia remains a problem and Turkey has been particularly intransigent claiming that its forces are legally allowed in Libya under the security agreement between Turkey and the former Government of National Accord (GNA).

The ceasefire deal had quietened the conflict at the national level and the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, set up after the ceasefire deal, and comprising five senior military officers chosen by the Government of National Accord and five senior military officers chosen by General Haftar, has been engaged, though not very successfully, in maintaining the ceasefire and continuing the process of disarmament of the adversarial groups.

In April 2023 a delegation led by the Chief of Staff in Tripoli Lieutenant-General Muhammad al-Haddad had held talks with a delegation headed by Lieutenant General Abdel-Razek al-Nadhouri the Chief of Staff of Haftar’s Libyan National Army. According to media reports the purpose of the meeting was to discuss ways to complete the unification of the military institution and its affiliated departments, as well as to form a joint force.

Both the heads of delegations said they were committed to reconciliation and that they supported the electoral process.

It is apparent that the Libyan people would welcome a return of stability. But there is no certainty that the political power players have an equal commitment to holding inclusive and transparent elections in 2023.

Efforts to define an optimal situation for peace have also come up against local conflicts reflecting long-standing feuds between various factions, tribes, and ethnic groups. There is a recognition, at least in the UN, that the exercise to fashion a functioning stable Libya has to be Libyan led.

The UN’s envoy Adoulaye Bathily has expressed the hope that the discussions in Morocco held in early June 2023 could pave the way for elections. House of Representatives head Aguila Saleh and High State Council head Khaled al-Mishri were hoping that they could finalise a deal on new electoral laws, but any fresh agreement on voting rules or a new interim government would spark opposition and further delay the political process.

Even as the discussions were to begin in Morocco 61 HoR members and some HSC members had objected to the manner in which their leaders had been negotiating their agreement, and said they would oppose its ratification. The major issues of contention remained the role of the president and parliament, and key questions of electoral law including the eligibility of divisive candidates.

Libya’s security situation is likely to remain troubled in the absence of a single unified nation wide security establishment. The relations between politicians and different non-state armed groups would pose problems and even now incidents of clashes continue.

The borders are porous particularly in the southern Fezzan, facilitating an increase in trafficking and smuggling of illicit materials, including weapons. The state of Libya’s prisons has also made them a conducive recruitment ground for radicalization and recruitment by the non-state armed groups.

The UN Security Council is likely to renew, this month, the authorization for member states, acting nationally or through regional organisations, to inspect vessels on the high seas off the coast of Libya, bound to or from Libya, that are suspected of violating the arms embargo.

The continuing turmoil has been exploited by Islamic State’s Libyan Branch which was one of the strongest outside its original territory in Iraq and Syria. The IS was driven out of its stronghold of Sirte in 2016 following a major campaign by it when it seized the city in 2015 and also beheaded a group of Egyptian Christians.

Lately it has been concentrating on carrying out attacks largely in Libya’s southern region. In May 2023 a Libyan court sentenced 23 people to death and another 14 to life in prison for the incidents in 2015.

Recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had issued a warning that that 10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were missing from a particular declared location raising the spectre of any of the non-state or rival power centres gaining the ability to fashion weapons of mass destruction or selling the missing uranium ore to external interested parties.

The intensification of the internal conflict in Sudan, where the government has declared the special representative of the UN secretary-general “persona non grata”, has added to concerns about Libya’s stability. The Sudanese RFS has had links with Libyan Militias. Whichever side wins in Sudan could be encouraged to expand its influence which might be detrimental to Libyan and other regional countries’ interests.

There is also the question of refugees fleeing Sudan. Libya has been a hub for those trying to reach Europe and the absence of an effective central government controlling Libya’s borders has contributed to the problem. Trade relations between Sudan and Libya have been affected and there is the fear that international focus on Sudan might result in some ignoring of Libya’s problems.

The past years have seen a substantial degradation of the Libyan economy. UN data indicate that the population has increased from 6,871,292 in 2020 to 7,144,627 in 2023. There is high youth unemployment feeding a general mood of frustration.

Libya was largely dependent on its revenue from oil and hydrocarbons which accounted for more than two thirds of the GDP. This sector has been disrupted because of the internal conflict with Haftar’s Government of National Stability arguing with the Tripoli Government about the manner of distribution of oil revenues.

With the national level armed conflict dormant there is some cautious optimism that oil production may rebound. But the revenue earning effect is likely to be negated by the international dip in oil prices.

Libya has a public wage bill that is nearly 33% of GDP, subsidies account for 25% of the budget and 70 percent of the revenues of the National Oil Company are shared between the two governments. Oil revenues are centralised by the Libyan Central Bank in Tripoli. But the Tobruk based government has established its own monetary authority.

In addition, Libyan assets of nearly US Dollars 65 billion with the Sovereign Wealth Fund have been frozen under international sanctions.

Assessments by economists suggest that the current account surplus would continue to decline as the trade surplus has narrowed; the population has grown; and there is need for expenditure on reconstruction. Even a small increase in oil revenues is an uncertain scenario.

So what do the people of Libya have to look forward to? Transparent and inclusive national elections if the June 2023 Morocco yield positive results which are endorsed by all sides. Or, Heaven forbid, another round of internal political, and possibly armed, confrontation between the rival sides.

The real challenge that the people of Libya face is that external powers refuse to stop interfering on behalf of one side or the other. Libya’s oil and hydrocarbons remain a magnet certainly for a country like Turkey embarking on a fresh Erdogan era committed to the future development of his country.

And when armed non-state actors and criminal gangs are able to wield power, in connivance with political players, the prospects for a return of a country to a functioning democracy dim. One can only wish the Libyan people a hopeful and peaceful future.