Balancing Promise and Peril in Libya

Standing at a crucial crossroads, Libya is a nation brimming with promise yet besieged by peril. Recent strides by the “6+6 Committee” in establishing election laws have sparked hope in a country long plagued by turmoil. This development, a product of concerted effort following a decade of instability and foreign intervention failures, signals a potential shift towards a representative democracy. However, despite these advances, Libya's journey toward stable governance remains overshadowed by significant political and technical challenges.

The updated draft election laws signify important progress; yet, they fall short of incorporating vital elements required for conducting successful elections, notably adequate security protocols and a comprehensive regulatory structure. This gap is accentuated by adjustments in UN policies. The enduring conflict has embedded a profound mistrust among Libya's diverse factions and regions, making the prospect of fair elections seem remote without additional efforts towards reconciliation. Furthermore, the international community's urgency for quick elections risks overshadowing the need for unity, bypassing these indispensable issues.

This context is clarified by specific critiques from the UN regarding the preparedness of the election laws, drafted by the 6+6 committee, to effectively support the electoral process in Libya, highlighting concerns over their current state and implications for future elections.

A major impediment to progress is the leadership crisis. The interim Government of National Unity (GNU), initially set up to transition the nation to democratic elections, has overstayed its mandate, exacerbating governance polarization. The eastern-based Libyan parliament's declaration of the GNU's illegitimacy further complicates the situation, raising the question of whether another transitional body is necessary to supervise the electoral process.

After more than a decade of chaos, Libya finds itself deeply divided, lacking robust national institutions and democratic experience, and skeptical about fair representation. While previous transitional plans, premised on swift elections, have failed, the 6+6 Committee's work offers hope. The international community's role should pivot from imposing solutions to supporting Libyan-led initiatives with aid and security support, particularly for displaced persons and migrants often sidelined in political discussions.

Libya's future hinges on rising as a sovereign nation with institutions that represent all its citizens. The path ahead, though arduous, calls for patient, Libyan-directed progress and international support that emphasizes assistance over imposition.

The nexus of oil wealth and future challenges

Libya's economic narrative is a complex interplay of immense potential and daunting challenges. Home to Africa's largest oil reserves, Libya's economy is heavily reliant on hydrocarbons, which account for 95 percent of its revenue. This dependence places the nation at a critical juncture as it grapples with political instability and the urgent need for economic diversification, especially in the face of the global green transition.

The country's hydrocarbon wealth, while a significant asset, also narrates a tale of untapped potential amidst a shifting global energy landscape. Billions in frozen assets, mired in international disputes, further symbolize the tumultuous post-2011 revolution period. However, this scenario also presents an opportunity for Libya to redefine its economic trajectory by investing in diversification and stabilizing its political landscape. Importantly, Libya's oil reserves hold significant strategic value for European energy security, offering a potential stabilizing force in the region's energy supply.

China's economic and geopolitical interests in Libya

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as “the New Silk Road,” was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. BRI is a massive global overland and sea infrastructure development strategy that seeks to expand China’s economic and political influence. Originally intended to create infrastructure linking East Asia and Europe, BRI has expanded to include Latin America, Oceania, and Africa. The scale of China’s ambitions is unprecedented, but so is global receptiveness. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “147 countries—accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population and 40 percent of global GDP—have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so.”

The Government of National Accord (GNA), under the leadership of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, was established on December 17, 2015, as a provisional authority aimed at unifying Libya's divided political factions. This effort was part of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), endorsed by the United Nations, positioning the GNA as the legitimate interim government with its headquarters in Tripoli. Despite gaining international recognition, the GNA struggled with consolidating control over Libya, contending with opposition from various militias and the rival Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) based in the east, alongside the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar, during a period marked by the Second Libyan Civil War.

In a significant move towards international cooperation, Fayez al-Sarraj, representing Libya’s GNA, embraced the Belt and Road Initiative in July 2018, advocating for a broader Chinese investment in the country. China, as the world’s second-largest oil consumer, eagerly accepted this overture. Chinese enterprises have played a substantial role in the development of Libya’s oil infrastructure, including the construction of pipelines and refineries. Before the outbreak of the Libyan Civil War, Libya was a source of roughly 3 percent of China’s crude oil imports. By intensifying its involvement in Libya, China not only aims to secure its access to vital oil resources but also to establish a strategic foothold that could facilitate its expansion into Central Africa.

The collaboration between Libya’s GNA and China underscores the GNA's efforts to engage with global powers to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and stabilize its economy amidst ongoing internal and external challenges. However, the GNA's endeavors to assert its authority and manage the country effectively were persistently undermined by the fragmented political landscape and security issues. This backdrop of political strife and the GNA’s quest for international partnerships highlight the complex dynamics of governance and international relations in Libya’s quest for stability and prosperity.

Beyond energy security, China sees an opportunity to expand its geopolitical influence in Africa and counterbalance Western powers in the region, such as the United States and France. Libya's strategic location in North Africa offers access to growing markets, and, as Libya rebuilds, opportunities to secure lucrative infrastructure, construction, and other contracts.

Despite these opportunities, China faces challenges. In addition to the United States and France, other international players, such as Russia and Turkey, are vying for influence and contracts in Libya. Anti-Chinese sentiment remain common in Libya, reflecting Libyans’ memory of China’s pro-Gaddafi stance and alleged supplying of arms to pro-Gaddafi forces in 2011. These sentiments and the perception that Chinese companies are exploiting Libya’s resources and labor add to the challenge. However, economic interests, geopolitical ambitions, and the BRI will continue to drive China’s engagement in the country.

Addressing migration: A challenge for Europe

Libya's influx of migrants has emerged as a formidable challenge for Europe. Situated at the crossroads of Africa and Europe, Libya stands as a primary transit point for migrants seeking refuge across European shores. Fleeing from war or famine, migrants find themselves ensnared within Libya's borders, stripped of basic rights. The plight faced by migrants highlights the pressing need to address this complex issue with compassion and urgency to prevent further suffering and loss of life.

Additionally, the European Union's focus on border control and the interception of refugees at sea has led to severe humanitarian consequences. Over 82,000 people have been forcibly returned to Libya in the past five years, where they face dire conditions that include torture and sexual violence. This situation poses a moral and political dilemma for Europe. Balancing the management of migration flows with human rights obligations is a complex task. Europe must recalibrate its strategy, prioritizing safe and legal migration pathways and reassessing support for operations that contribute to human rights abuses. The EU's responsibility extends beyond its borders, demanding a policy shift that places human dignity at its core.

A catalyst for change: Empowering Libya's diaspora

Libya’s people are scattered worldwide. It is crucial for Libyan policymakers to engage with the diaspora to tap into their skills and utilize them for the progress of the country. Yet, the level of their impact depends on international support. Unfortunately, economic struggles, especially the liquidity crisis, have hindered the ability of Libyans living abroad to send financial aid to their families, which also affects regional economic stability. Acknowledging the diaspora as a valuable source of talent and assets is essential for rebuilding and growing Libya.

The Libyan diaspora makes up a significant part of the population, possessing valuable skills, expertise, and cross-cultural competencies acquired through time spent overseas. By utilizing this resource, Libya can gain diverse viewpoints and innovative ideas that have been honed around the world. To effectively involve the diaspora in rebuilding their country, it is necessary to tackle underlying economic problems that are plaguing Libya. Investing in infrastructure development will not only improve connectivity within cities but also establish transportation links connecting urban centers with remote regions. This connected network will unite communities and promote inclusivity among all Libyans, regardless of their location.

Additionally, in the pursuit of a stable Libya emerging from its delicate state, it is crucial to harness the potential of the diaspora with expertise in governance, accountability, and transparency. Libyans could greatly benefit from leveraging this resource by engaging individuals with extensive knowledge of effective governance practices acquired through experiences in various international settings. By tapping into their diverse skillsets, which encompasses areas such as policy development, institutional design, and organizational leadership, the diaspora can contribute towards building robust institutions that prioritize accountability and transparency within Libya's governmental framework. Through collaboration between overseas professionals and local counterparts, this partnership could foster innovative solutions to address pressing issues while nurturing an environment conducive to sustainable growth and stability for Libya.

The way forward

As we envisage Libya's path forward, the 6+6 agreement emerges as a cornerstone of hope and unity, bridging the divide between the East and the West. Integral to this transformation, and deserving of special recognition, is the Libyan diaspora. The diaspora's role extends beyond mere consultation. They are instrumental in driving economic development, promoting cultural exchange, and aiding in the establishment of a global network that supports Libya's aspirations. Their engagement is vital in ensuring that the implementation of the 6+6 agreement is not only successful but also inclusive, reflecting the rich tapestry of the Libyan identity. The 6+6 agreement offers a collective call to action for all Libyans, both within the country and across the globe, to embrace this historic opportunity for change.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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