UN warns Libya could be divided again, urges 2022 elections

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations’ political chief warned Wednesday that Libya could again see two rival administrations and a return to instability, calling for elections as soon as possible to unify the oil-rich North African nation.

Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo told the U.N. Security Council she is encouraged by support for a U.N. initiative to convene a joint committee from Libya’s rival House of Representatives and High State Council with a goal of reaching agreement by both bodies “on a constitutional basis that would lead to elections this year.”

The crisis erupted after Libya failed to hold its first presidential elections on Dec. 24 under a U.N.-led reconciliation effort.

The country’s east-based House of Representatives named a new prime minister, former interior minister Fathi Bashagha, to lead a new interim government in February. The lawmakers claimed the mandate of interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who is based in the capital, Tripoli, expired when the election failed to take place.

But Dbeibah insists he will remain prime minister until elections are held, and the High State Council, which advises the interim government, called parliament’s decision to name a new prime minister “incorrect” before holding elections.

DiCarlo said U.N. special adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, on March 3 asked the House of Representatives speaker and High State Council president to appoint six members to the joint committee and both responded favorably. She said the council nominated its representatives on Tuesday and the U.N. expects the House of Representatives to do the same in the coming days.

Separately, DiCarlo said, Williams has offered to mediate between Dbeibah and Bashagha “to overcome the current political impasse.”

Libya plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed 2011 uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. For years, it has been split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each supported by an array of militias and foreign governments.

In April 2019, east-based military commander Khalifa Hifter and his forces, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive to capture Tripoli. Hifter’s campaign collapsed after Turkey and Qatar stepped up their military support for the Tripoli government with hundreds of Turkish soldiers and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.

Mediated by Williams, then the acting U.N. envoy, an October 2020 cease-fire agreement led to the formation of a transitional government with Dbeibah as prime minister and scheduled elections for Dec. 24 which are now postponed.

DiCarlo warned that the continuing standoff over “executive legitimacy” could again lead to two parallel administrations, “instability and possibly unrest and deal a severe blow to the prospect of elections.”

She said there have been “worrying developments” since March 1, when the House of Representatives held a vote of confidence on Bashagha’s new government. The vote was marred by “procedural flaws and threats of violence against some members of the chamber and their families” according to reports received by the United Nations.

DiCarlo pointed to the continuing suspension of airline flights between cities in the east and Tripoli and “forces in western Libya supporting either side moving on March 9-10 towards the capital.” She said Williams engaged both sides “and managed to reduce tensions.”

But the U.N. political chief warned that “Libya is now facing a new phase of political polarization, which risks dividing its institutions once again and reversing the gains achieved over the past two years.”

“We remain convinced that credible, transparent and inclusive elections based on a sound constitutional and legal framework are the only solution to the current stalemate,” she said.

The United States and United Kingdom strongly supported Williams’ efforts to promote dialogue among the feuding parties that leads to elections, but Russia did not.

U.S. deputy ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis said the United States strongly urges the House of Representatives and High State Council to participate in the U.N.-facilitated dialogue.

“Free and fair elections are the sole path to stability and prosperity for the Libyan people, and we have an obligation to support the Libyan people’s desire for elections,” he told the council.

UK deputy ambassador James Kariuki also urged those on both sides to accept Williams’ offer and “set aside narrow interests and engage seriously to address the underlying conditions that prevented elections from going ahead last December.”

He said 2.8 million Libyans who registered to vote have made their aspirations clear and “all actors, internal and external, should refrain from any moves that could undermine stability or deepen divisions in Libya and threaten to undo the hard-won progress achieved over the last two years.”

But Russia’s deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, said, “We respect the wishes of Libyans to solve their domestic problems themselves.”

“It is from this standpoint that we perceive the endorsement by the Libyan House of Representatives of a new composition of the government led by prime minister Bashagha,” he told the council. “This is an important step towards overcoming the protracted crisis.”

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