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.