Western leaders are losing patience with an entrenched Libyan political elite that has collectively failed to agree on the basis of elections for more than a year but has boosted politicians’ salaries by more than 40%, according to official figures.
Special envoys from the US, France, Germany, Italy and the UK are due to meet in Washington on 13 January to discuss their next steps after two rival Libyan factions last week failed to reach a final agreement in Cairo on the constitutional basis for national elections.
The presidential and parliamentary elections were aborted in December 2021. A previous French-led effort to stage elections, in 2018, had also foundered. A series of unelected and competing interim governments have governed Libya for nearly a decade
Elections planned for 2022 were cancelled due to disputes over the qualifications of candidates to stand, which masked a deeper reluctance by politicians in both the east and west of the country to risk a democratic winner-takes-all process that might see them lose access to state patronage and power.
One exasperated western diplomat said: “They are some making sincere efforts at mediation, but the abiding character of too many Libyan politicians on both sides of the divide is [to] pay lip service to the necessity of elections and then do everything possible to throttle them so they can continue lining their pockets. We may have to stop hoping we can persuade these people to agree to elections and instead find a way to work around them.”
The meeting on 13 January of special envoys convened by the US envoy, Richard Norland, will look at how to stage elections and whether to urge the new UN special envoy Abdoulaye Bathily to set a deadline for establishing a national Libyan body to agree on elections.
The growth of the Libyan economy is projected to be 17.9% this year, the highest in Africa, but despite this some estimates show that nearly a third of Libyans, especially in the south, live at, or below, the poverty line.
Libya’s political leaders have gone round in circles with competing proposals for the constitutional basis of the elections. Months of talks in Cairo between Libya’s House of Representatives speaker, Aguila Saleh, from the east of the country, and the head of the high council of state, Khaled al-Meshri, representing the western area, made some progress, but did not resolve whether dual nationals could stand for the presidency, or for how long candidates would have to permanently resign from any existing position if they wished to stand.
Behind these disputes are efforts from either side to bar controversial candidates from standing. Norland has claimed there is no impediment to Meshri and Saleh setting an election date, but the two men have refused to do so.
The reputation of the political class has hardly been enhanced by Central Bank of Libya figures published last week showing total state spending rose last year to 127.9bn Libyan dinars, an increase of 42bn dinars or about $9bn in 2021.
Figures on how the state is spending money have been unclear for years, with a full UN-commissioned audit of the CBL accounts never published.
Public salaries, including those for politicians, rose 42% to 47bn dinars for 2022, compared with 33bn dinars the previous year. This was the single biggest expenditure item. Fuel subsidies racked up 20bn dinars, and development and projects 17.5bn dinars. The Libyan National Oil Corporation was given 34bn dinars – about $6bn.
Oil remains the chief source of state revenue, worth 134bn dinars ($29bn).
The House of Representatives, last elected in 2016, was paid 144m dinars or $30m. The high council of state, the remnants of an oversight parliament elected in 2012 under the control of the west and led by Meshri, received 49m dinars, or $10m