The postponement of Libya’s parliamentary and presidential elections, which were slated for late December, has raised serious concerns about the country’s future. Although there is discussion that the elections might now take place in late January, it is far from certain that this will actually be the case. Moreover, discontent and disdain are widespread among the Libyan people; they perceive the leading presidential candidates as either representing the past or having ambitions that would likely return Libya to authoritarian rule.
The intense focus by the international community on elections as a possible cure for Libya’s myriad troubles, however, belies fundamental problems in the country, such as the lack of rule of law, rampant corruption, and the continued prevalence of militias along with foreign mercenaries. Additionally, it is far from clear that presidential elections in this environment will stabilize the country, as there is a very good chance that the losing side will not accept the results. While it is ultimately up to Libyans themselves to bring about change and form a representative government, given the extensive foreign influence in the country, the international community must do a much better job than merely holding meetings and issuing statements on the Libyan matter.
Military Stalemate Initially Brought Some Hope
Sadly, Libya has been immersed in violence for more than a decade. Although there are conflicts within conflicts, the major dividing line has been the struggle between two parties: the House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk and backed by military strongman and self-anointed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar of the “Libyan National Army”; and the Government of National Unity, based in the Libyan capital of Tripoli in the western part of the country, backed by various militias. In the spring of 2019, Haftar made a major push to take over the entire country and was close to taking Tripoli, but his advance was halted and reversed with the help of Turkey and Qatar as well as Turkish-led Syrian mercenaries. As Haftar’s forces retreated to eastern Libya, a military stalemate resulted in 2020.
Although there are conflicts within conflicts, the major dividing line has been the struggle between two parties: the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the Government of National Unity in Tripoli.
The international community, led by the United Nations, then brokered a cease-fire in October 2020. Hoping to capitalize on the reduction in violence, the UN sponsored a process that became known as the “Libyan Political Dialogue Forum” that brought together 75 delegates from different parts of the country. This group then appointed a Government of National Unity, led by businessman Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah; the main task of this temporary government was to arrange presidential and parliamentary elections to be held on December 24, 2021. The hope was that the elections would allow Libyans to settle their disputes through the ballot box instead of the gun and to have a truly representative and unified government.
Complicating Issues and Postponement of Elections
However, the election process was beset by serious problems. The Supreme Council of State, based in Tripoli, sharply criticized the election rules drafted by the House of Representatives in Tobruk. This criticism was echoed by Dbeibah. Both the Supreme Council of State and Dbeibah then called for the postponement of the elections.
Complicating matters was the emergence of controversial presidential candidates. Saif al-Islam Qadhafi (son of the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Qadhafi), who has been under an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed in 2011, announced in mid-November 2021 that he had registered to run for president. He had initially been disqualified by the Libyan election commission but won his case on appeal. Shortly thereafter, Haftar also registered to run for the presidency, as did Dbeibah. Although 98 candidates in all have registered for the presidential contest, it is understandable that these three, because of their name recognition, have received the most attention.
While these candidates have the support from different factions in Libya, they are not seen as unifying figures with the possible exception of Dbeibah—though his star has probably fallen because he reneged on his promise not to run for president, and under current rules he would have to suspend himself from government duties for three months to be eligible to run. Many Libyans believe that if either Saif al-Islam or Haftar wins, there will be a return to bloodshed in the country because the losing side would not accept the results. Given these contentious issues, plus the election commission’s inability to finalize the list of presidential candidates, the election commission announced on December 22 that the December 24 elections would not be held. Hundreds of Libyans in different cities took to the streets to protest the postponement.
Many Libyans believe that if either Saif al-Islam or Haftar wins, there will be a return to bloodshed in the country because the losing side would not accept the results.
After the postponement announcement, the election commission suggested that January 24 would be the new date for these contests. This date, however, is not universally accepted. The House of Representatives in Tobruk formed a committee to examine the matter and issued a report on December 27 stating that, at this point, setting a new election date was too risky. The parliamentary committee did, however, recommended a “new, realistic and applicable roadmap, with defined stages, rather than fixing new dates and repeating the same errors.” It also called for the creation of a new committee to draft a new constitution for the country, though no decisions have been reached yet.
Meanwhile, Dbeibah has announced that he would remain the interim prime minister. However, this claim has been challenged by his detractors, who said he and his government failed to prepare the country for elections, unify its institutions, and break up militias or fold them into the regular armed forces. The same abovementioned committee in the House of Representatives called for reshuffling of the interim government in Tripoli, charging that Dbeibah’s mandate should have expired on December 24.
Response from the International Community
A number of western countries—the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy—issued a joint statement on December 24 that called for a new election time frame to be implemented as soon as possible. They also indicated that the Dbeibah government should remain in place until election results are announced. On November 12, this group had met in Paris to endorse plans for Libyan elections, so they were obviously disappointed when the elections were postponed. One unnamed US official told the press that the Biden Administration believed that an elected Libyan government would have more “heft” to compel foreign military forces to leave the country, though another western diplomat cautioned that Libyans would have to agree on the integrity of the election process for it to be legitimate.
UN Special Advisor on Libya Stephanie Williams issued a more circumspect statement on December 23 in the wake of the postponement. She said she was “ready through mediation and the UN’s good offices, to work with concerned Libyan institutions and interlocutors to address [election] challenges.” She also called upon Libyan officials to “honor and support the will of the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote.” Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized in a written statement, via his spokesperson, that “Presidential and parliamentary elections must take place in Libya in the appropriate conditions to peacefully end the political transition and transfer power to democratically elected institutions.”
The Problem of Militias and Foreign Forces
Over the past several years and at various meetings, the international community has called on its members to desist from sending arms and military forces to Libya. Indeed, part of the cease-fire agreement of October 2020 stipulated that all foreign forces and mercenaries should be withdrawn for three months and that all parties should respect a UN-imposed arms embargo. Neither one of these stipulations has been respected.
Ever since the start of the Libyan civil war in 2011, home-grown militias have proliferated in the country. Some of these are ideologically oriented while others act as neighborhood extortion rackets.
Ever since the start of the Libyan civil war in 2011, home-grown militias have proliferated in the country. Some of these are ideologically oriented while others act as neighborhood extortion rackets. In the absence of a national army, therefore, the main antagonists in the civil war have cultivated these militias to bolster their own forces and this situation has contributed to a state of lawlessness in the country. In the wake of the postponement of the December 24 elections, Amnesty International charged that the militias have played a role in stifling civil society, repressing opposition voices, and attacking election officials.
Foreign forces have also contributed to the instability in the country. Haftar has been aided by Russian mercenaries of the notorious Wagner Group, whose leaders are reportedly close to the Kremlin. In addition, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have assisted Haftar’s forces with arms and air strikes, while Turkey has brought several thousand Syrian mercenaries into the country, supervised by Turkish officers, with the promise of high salaries for their service.
Although all foreign players have pledged to remove their forces and advisors from the Libyan conflict, they have not done so. This continual presence has exacerbated the difficulties in bringing order to the country.
Although all foreign players have pledged to remove their forces and advisors from the Libyan conflict, they have not done so. This continual presence has exacerbated the difficulties in bringing order to the country. France announced in early January 2022 that some 300 foreign mercenaries (reportedly from Chad, who were aiding Haftar’s forces) left Libya in late 2021, but this number represents only a small fraction of the estimated 20,000 foreign mercenaries in the country. France has played a dual role in Libya in recent years, pledging to support a unified government while aiding Haftar’s side in the conflict.
Oil, Economics, and Corruption
Much of the foreign interest in Libya is based on its substantial oil reserves and its strategic location in the Mediterranean. Various foreign governments hope to secure lucrative oil contracts once the Libyan situation stabilizes. But oil revenues (even at reduced levels because of the conflict) often come with corruption, and there is widespread perception among the Libyan people that current political figures in the country have their hands in the till. Perhaps to deal with this perception, in early January 2022 Libya’s chief prosecutor announced that the country’s minister of culture had been arrested for misusing public funds and forging official documents to conceal financial irregularities. However, this one incident is just a drop in the bucket of a much larger problem. Indicative of the popular perception of widespread corruption, one businessman in Libya told a western reporter that: “I don’t believe in any of them [presidential candidates]. They’re all thieves.”
Recommendations for a New Political Road Map
While it is understandable that after a decade of strife and civil war, the international community as well as many Libyans want elections to be held as soon as possible, the fact is that elections in and of themselves do not bring conflicts to an end. Even in an advanced democracy like the United States, Americans saw the 2020 presidential election as a highly polarizing event, and a substantial segment of the population still believes the result was rigged. There is fear in Libya that if either Haftar or Saif al-Islam wins, the losing side will claim fraud and violence will begin anew. Moreover, those Libyans who aspire for a democratic government are concerned that if one of these candidates is victorious, authoritarianism would be restored.
To quell such fears, it may make more sense, as the first order of business, for Libyan political leaders and legal experts to draft a new constitution for the country to delineate the actual powers of the president and parliament and to guarantee personal freedoms for all citizens. Without a new constitution, there is likely to be political strife and even violence between the executive and legislative branches, as the last decade has shown.
Parliamentary elections should be held before presidential elections. Because parliament would be composed of different factions of society, Libyans of various regional and ideological loyalties would be able to see their interests represented in the new legislative body.
Second, parliamentary elections should be held before presidential elections. Because parliament would be composed of different factions of society, Libyans of various regional and ideological loyalties would be able to see their interests represented in the new legislative body. That would at least assure them that their representatives would have a say in the drafting of laws. Once parliament is in place, then presidential elections could be held, with the winner having to contend with a legislature that would presumably have substantial powers and be broadly representative of the people. Barring a coup, the new president would have to be careful in how he would deal with such an empowered legislature.
Third, militias in the country would have to be integrated into a new Libyan army. This will not be an easy task, but if stability returns to the country after the previous steps are taken, then oil exports and revenues would likely increase, allowing the government to pay the salaries of such an integrated army (as opposed to the existing situation where the militias rely on various factions and extortion schemes to support their existence).
Fourth, the international community must do a better job in enforcing the arms embargo on Libya and compelling foreign troops and mercenaries to leave. Giving lip service to these policies is clearly not enough. In light of the foreign interest in oil and the business contracts in Libya, the United Nations should be tasked with naming and shaming the countries that continue to violate these policies. In addition, the international community should persuade the new Libyan legislature, once it is in place, to prohibit any oil or other business contracts with foreign governments and firms until all foreign forces are withdrawn from the country.
With a relatively small population of some seven million people and substantial oil reserves, Libya could have a bright future if stability is achieved, factionalism is played out in parliament and not by militias, and foreign governments desist from using the country as an arena to further their interests. But reaching that goal will be a be a very difficult task indeed.