Peace and Profiteers: Corruption in the Libyan Process

This past February, delegates from the UN-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) seemed to do what a slate of other diplomatic tracks had yet to achieve: give Libyans hope for peace. On February 5, under the auspices of the UN Mission to Libya (UNSMIL), the 74 Libyan delegates making up the LPDF elected businessman Abdulhamid Debeibah to lead a transitional Parliament as its Prime Minister, vesting him with the responsibility of ferrying Libya to free and fair elections this coming December. With all the main warring parties appearing to come to the table in good faith, it seemed UNSMIL had engineered a transformational breakthrough in a conflict that has torn Libya apart at the seams for the past decade. As the process unfolded, the international community watched with baited breath. A joint statement by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy blessed the process, giving the LPDF its “full support.” The UN Security Council called the election an “important milestone.” The stage was set, at long last, for a successful consolidation of power into one transitional government.

The only problem? The vote electing Debeibah was rigged.

On March 2, a leaked UN report written by the Panel of Experts, an investigatory UN body, revealed that Debeibah had bribed several LPDF delegates to elect him Prime Minister. According to the report, two participants “offered bribes of between $150,000 to $200,000 to at least three LPDF participants if they committed to vote for Debeibah.” One delegate reportedly exploded in anger in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel hosting the LPDF when he heard that some delegates received $500,000 for their bribes. Apparently, he only received $200,000.

Just hours after the news dropped, UNSMIL issued a strong response. It threw its full support behind Debeibah, distanced itself from the UN Panel of Experts, and urged the newly elected Parliament to confirm Debeibah’s election at its first scheduled session on March 8. And while outside observers can only speculate as to UNSMIL’s motives, this see-no-evil response to the Panel’s bombshell revelations may well reflect a frantic attempt to salvage a peace process the entire international community has rallied behind. Indeed, proponents of UNSMIL’s position have argued that the long-term stability of moving ahead with Debeibah at the helm and keeping December’s election schedule on track is worth any short-term scandal, as further disruption of the process could lead to its unraveling. This position—which has been endorsed by experts and fellows from the Brookings Institution, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and others—may seem like hard-headed realism. But in fact, UNSMIL’s refusal to hold Debeibah and his co-conspirators accountable through an open and transparent process is a mistake. UNSMIL has chosen, as one Libyan lawyer and LPDF delegate put it, to “priorit[ize] expediency above all else and at the expense of due process,” and by doing so, UNSMIL risks undermining both the LPDF’s legitimacy and Libya’s long-term peace prospects.

To be clear, and to be fair, the impulse to keep the process on track for the sake of long-term stability is entirely understandable given Libya’s situation. After a constitutional effort in 2015 gave way renewed fighting and a fracturing of the state into three competing factions, Libya has teetered on the edge of collapse. Aid organizations warn of a decimated healthcare system and nearly 700,000 in desperate need of food, with the situation only worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic. For those leading the peace process, it makes sense that the weight of such suffering would seem to justify tolerating Debeibah for a few months before elections can be held in December.

However, that well-meaning calculus has too many times resulted in disaster. The tragic experience of countries from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan has demonstrated, time and again, that elevating corrupt officials to positions of power in transitional governments more often than not results in a relapse back into conflict. Those corrupt officials will only delay reconstruction, undermine public confidence in the process, and hand potential spoilers more ammo in their efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the new system. What’s more, as Professor Susan Rose-Ackerman has found, the resulting unrest is often used by the very corrupt officials causing it to remain in power longer than the transitional period prescribed. Those who should be in office for only a few months stretch their position into a decades-long rule under the exact same order-trumps-justice rationale that UNSMIL and its supporters are now citing to minimize Debeibah’s corruption of the LPDF process.

Everything about Debeibah’s profile indicates that he is likely to follow this very path. In addition to bribing his way to the premiership, Debeibah has long been steeped in the world of high-level corruption. It is well-known that he was close to ousted dictator Muammar Gadhafi, and that he profited in the billions of dollars from that association. Another associate of his, a cousin, engaged in such massive corrupt practices that he triggered Scotland’s largest fraud investigation in its history. Moreover, there are already reports that Debeibah wants to delay the December 2021 elections. By legitimating his election, UNSMIL might be swapping one dictator for another.

As the process stands, all signs point to the likelihood that Debeibah will maintain hold of the premiership. But it is not too late for UNSMIL to listen to the local Libyan civil society groups, human rights organizations, and LPDF delegates speaking out against the scandal and take action. There are two things that UNSMIL should do right now.

  • First, UNSMIL must release the Panel of Expert’s report in full, per the request of Libyan civil society groups, dozens of LPDF delegates, and the newly elected transitional government itself. Refusing to do so, as one coalition of civil society groups note, “will undermine the whole dialogue process with potentially dire consequences.”
  • Second, Debeibah’s confirmation should be suspended, those who engaged in this scheme with him should be dismissed from the LPDF, and elections should be held again once the full facts come out. Those who may object to the delay in the timeline need only to look at the fact that the LPDF’s election process already was delayed, from an initial date of November 2020, after rumors of the bribery started to surface. Any delay in the nationwide elections due to reconvening the LPDF for a third round is a price worth paying to preserve the Forum’s integrity and ensure that the enormous task before the transitional government is needlessly bogged down by allegations of bribery and illegitimacy.

If Debeibah and others involved in the process are allowed to bribe their way to power with impunity, they will govern with impunity. UNSMIL and its allies should hold him and his associates accountable for any wrongdoing, act with transparency, and use this scandal as an opportunity to establish a Libyan process that will ferry the country to a durable peace.

13 thoughts on “Peace and Profiteers: Corruption in the Libyan Process

  1. Great post Brooke! I wonder if there’s a compromise position. For example, could UNSMIL allow Debeibah to take office but work to limit his ability to remain in office? It could even condition Debeibah’s accession on his disqualification from running in December. Of course, it is impossible to guarantee that he wouldn’t hold on to power, but it could mitigate — at least to some degree — the risk of him retaining power.

    • Hi Sam, thanks for this reply and for these really creative ideas! I need to look more into it, but I know that the LPDF is following quite a rigid procedure that is already set out–which is why I suggested that they do the voting over again, rather than an entirely new procedure. So it remains an open question of whether the parties would tolerate an entirely new mechanism to constrain Debeibah after they’re this far along.

      • That makes sense. Given UNSMIL’s initial shrug of a response, it doesn’t seem to have much negotiating power in any case. After all, why would Debeibah go along with restrictions if he can get what he wants by plowing ahead?

  2. This is a great post Brooke! You mentioned that the original election was in Nov. 2020 and that was delayed after bribery rumors started to surface. Now we have another corruption scandal on our hands that seem to jeopardize the legitimacy of Debeibah’s confirmation and your suggestion is to push back the election again. What’s to prevent another corruption scandal from postponing the election for the third time? Should election reform come internally or from the UN? While I support any anti-corruption effort, I wonder if it’s a good idea to have some outsider come in and start demanding changes to how Libya should run its elections.

    • I think this is an important concern. Perhaps there’s a way to distinguish the current case from the hypothetical you suggest based on UNSMIL’s involvement. In other words, it may be more objectionable to allow a corrupt process to move forward if it is sanctioned by the international community.

    • Hi Vincent, you touch on this only marginally but I think you raise an extremely important point (that I don’t in the piece), that this is all organized by the UN and UNSMIL, including Libya’s December elections. The LPDF members were selected by UNSMIL, not the Libyan people, and then the broader elections will be facilitated by UNSMIL as well. So you really do have an extremely internationalized process that is significantly owned by UNSMIL, not the Libyan people, which raises all sorts of questions re: Libyan democracy and self-determination. As far as what’s preventing another corruption scandal, I think your guess is as good as mine.

  3. Amazing post Brooke! My question is in line with what Vincent wrote. What would be the limit or the moment to say stop regarding the postponement of elections? if corruption is so typical, will pushing back the election again really make a difference? I understand why it looks necessary not to “accept” what has happened but I wonder whether pushing back would really be more beneficial in the long term.

    • Thanks, Astrid! I’m hesitant to draw a firm line for when we should tolerate corruption in elections, but I do think it’s crucial in these situations that (1) any transitional government be seen as legitimate, and (2) that it be run by people who will not attempt to undermine the process itself. My concern is that tolerating Debeibah’s election will ultimately allow malicious forces like spoilers to point to the bribery as a reason to defect from an illegitimate process, sinking any hope for the elections at all.

      • Good points, Brooke. I still think there might be some arguments for the contrary position, but in balance I think I can agree with this one.

  4. The structure of the UN seems fundamentally flawed to me. What good is a Panel of Experts if their reports can be suppressed by the very groups being scrutinized? Investigatory bodies exist precisely so that the unsavory may come to light. The UN can’t pretend to be the world’s moral authority while engaging in the very tactics they claim to condemn.

    • This is such a good question, Jennifer, and I honestly don’t have a good answer about why the UN is structured in such a way. I don’t think we know for sure that UNSMIL suppressed the PoE, but it certainly is odd that the PoE refused to release that part of the report, and that UNSMIL repeatedly distanced itself from one of its own institution’s factfinding bodies.

  5. I’m afraid that this tendency to overlook corruption for the sake of ensuring political expediency and stability has become a hallmark of international assistance to many nations (not just Libya) dealing with the fall out of the Arab Spring. For example, there has been little pushback in the West regarding Sisi’s rise to power in Egypt even though Sisi obtained his power through pretty corrupt and anti-democratic means. The reason for this is that Sisi — much like Debeibah — represents some measure of stability in a nation ravaged by the unforeseeable chaos of a post-Arab Spring world.

  6. Hi Brooke! Thank you so much for this great post. I must admit, I am not the biggest fan of foreign participation in the governmental processes of developing countries. Assisting a country overcome certain shortfalls by providing advice is one thing but partaking in their electoral process is another. I then wonder, what are some of the institutional deficiencies that exists in Libya’s political or constitutional makeup that can be solved by the country itself? Halting a corrupt process might be one temporary solution but to address an issue of this magnitude, one must analyze and resolve the root cause of corruption in Libya.

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