Libya’s youth take to the streets but political rivals are unlikely to budge

A picture taken in the early hours of July 4, 2022, shows burning tires blocking roads during overnight protests in the Libyan capital Tripoli. Libya's rival leaders were under growing street pressure Saturday after protesters stormed parliament as anger exploded over deteriorating living conditions and political deadlock.(Photo: AFP)

Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

After more than a decade of civil strife, internecine fighting, and bitter — often lethal — squabbling among various political rivals, which has led to a de facto partition of Libya and its constitutional institutions, ordinary Libyans have had enough. Youth-led protests have broken out, almost simultaneously, in both parts of the country, with one goal in common: to bring down the ruling bodies that have kept the oil-rich country of no more than 7 million people divided and in a state of perpetual chaos.اضافة اعلان

With two governments, one in the capital Tripoli, recognized by the UN, and the other somewhere in the east where it is supported by the parliament that is based in Tobruk, Libyans have had enough as almost a decade of political impasse has led to deteriorating living conditions exacerbated by endemic electricity cuts.

Libya’s problems are multifold. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 led to a short-lived state of euphoria and raised hope that the country can finally come together and embrace a democratic path that would enable the people to enjoy the windfall of oil dividends. Libya has one of the largest oil reserves, at 48 billion barrels, in Africa, and is among the top 10 countries with global proved oil reserves.

But tribal rivalries, old grievances between Tripoli and Benghazi and foreign interference have fragmented the fragile social structure at almost molecular and atomic level, as mediator and deputy head of the UN Support Mission in Libya for political affairs, Stephanie Williams, said recently. Her effort to bring the two main sides, speaker of the Tobruk parliament Agilah Saleh, whose term and that of the deputies had long expired, and the chairman of the High State Council, Khaled Al Mishri, to agree on a roadmap for holding new elections failed.

This is what triggered this week’s angry protests. The Geneva meeting was meant to iron out differences over the controversial elections law that derailed last year’s election a few days before polling day. The reality is that there are two factors, at least, that have made consensus possible. In the east, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, with backing from regional countries and Russia, wants to make sure that election results would open the way for him to assume power. What he had failed to achieve by force he now wants to secure at the polling booth.

On the other side, an Islamist-backed government, headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, refuses to give up power to an unelected government — led by Fathi Bashagha who has Saleh’s support, until a new election is held. Dbeibeh has international recognition, and, most importantly, enjoys US backing so far. It helps that Turkey had sent mercenaries and advisors to protect Tripoli from further attempts by Haftar to settle the score militarily.

In between there are the tribes who are well armed and have their own political ambitions and loyalties. Haftar and Dbeibeh both want to lead Libya, but there is one wild card that could upset things for both; Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, who wanted to contest last December elections and, according to observers, would have emerged as a compromise candidate. He is said to have the support of Libya’s two neighbors, Tunisia and Algeria, and is a person of interest for Russia.

But Gaddafi is not without rivals from his inner circle, including his cousin Ahmed Kadhaf Eddam, who has close ties to Egypt and President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

As the political process appears to have hit a brick wall, now it is the Libyan youth who are now trying to break through that wall. Sadly, the protests will soon be absorbed by the political elite on both sides of the divide. Already Dbeibeh has sided with the protesters and blamed the other side for failing to deliver what the Libyan people want, which is a fresh election. Saleh has come out to say that he did not pull out from the Geneva agreement, when in fact he did.

With the US and the Europeans focused on the war in Ukraine, and with the deep polarization in the UN Security Council, there is little hope that outside pressure will succeed any time soon in bridging the divide. Personal political ambitions and outside interference will keep both sides apart for now.

The young people of Libya will take to the streets but not for long. At one point, they will be forced to retreat. There is too much at stake for the war lords and tribal heads to reach an agreement. What Libya needs is a fair and free election to turn a crucial corner, but none of the key stakeholders can guarantee the result. For now, Libya’s upheaval is likely to continue.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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