Skip navigation

Libya and the Ongoing Battle for Legitimacy

November 22, 2021

Speaker: Claudia Gazzini, International Crisis Group, Libya
Chair: Francescco Strazzari, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe, Bologna, Italy

Who decides legitimacy? Is it found and built internally or through acknowledgment from the international community? In the case of Libya, these questions over legitimacy have resulted in a decade of conflict and an unclear future. On November 22nd speaking with SAIS Bologna students, Claudia Gazzini from the International Crisis Group outlined the history of Libya in the 10 years since the Arab Spring through the context of the country's ongoing battle for legitimacy and what this history can tell us about Libya's future.

Gazzini argues that the past decade in Libya has been one conflict between rival parties over their claims for legitimacy. Following the NATO-backed war to topple Leader Mu'ammar Al-Qadhdhāfī, Libya held its first ever parliamentary elections resulting in the country's first elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), in 2012. However, shortly after, the battle over legitimacy began with the exclusion of perceived illegitimate actors, such as former regime officials from holding public office.

Two years later in 2014, Gazzini described, this rift over legitimacy led to calls for a second round of parliamentary elections that led to the creation of the House of Representatives (HOR). Disputes over changing the Parliament's location from the capital Tripoli to the eastern city of Tobruk and the lack of a hand-over ceremony led some members of the first elected parliament to seek to invalidate the 2014 elections. When the the Constitutional Chamber of the Libyan Supreme Court ruled in their favour, the General National Congress just continued to operate in Tripoli.

This decision, Gazzini explained, split Libya into two: those in Tripoli who maintained that the elections had been invalidated and claimed the Congress was the legitimate parliament and those who claimed the new Parliament in Tobruk was the legitimate one. This created two distinct institutional frameworks with parallel governments, different armies, central banks, and national oil corporations all fighting for domestic and international legitimacy. Gazzini emphasized this fight was further complicated because of the contradiction between the international recognition of the Tobruk institutions, on one side, and the domestic legal framework that recognized the Supreme Court ruling and hence the Tripoli authorities on the other.

But that recognition flipped in late 2015, when UN-backed negotiations led to appointment of another government, called the Government of National Accord (GNA), to be based in Tripoli. The UN Security Council recognized it and the GNA became overnight the new internationally recognized government. This new government derived its legitimacy from foreign recognition. The parliament in Tobruk, however, did not recognize the GNA therefore the Tobruk-aligned government stayed in power but from 2016 onwards without international recognition.

After a series of unsuccessful UN negotiations and increasing competition for legitimacy, conflict re-emerged in 2019 when the Tobruk-aligned Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar led his forces in an unsuccessful attempt to siege of Tripoli in an attempt to take power by military means. A ceasefire was signed and rival factions then turned back to UN negotiations, establishing the Government of National Unity in February 2020, the first government in ten years with both domestic and international legitimacy. This government plans to hold the country's first Presidential elections on December 24th, 2021. Despite the possibility of conflict and worrisome similarities to the 2014 election, Gazzini explains that this leap of faith to hold an election has the potential to secure popular legitimacy for a President, enabling them to tackle the remaining political, military, and economic divisions that prevent full institutional unity within Libya. The electoral law remains key, with technical aspects that need improvement in order to avoid boycotts, contestations or a relapse into conflict. Should results be contested we could see a return to yet another battle for legitimacy between rival factions.