The agreement governing Libya’s advancement toward presidential and legislative elections, which are slated to be held in December, ran into serious trouble that originated in factional competition and dangerous brinkmanship. Such trouble is not new to the Libyan body politic over the last few years, but it speaks of a renewed spirit of obstructionism that verges on intentional criminal malfeasance, the core of which are selfish interests. To be sure, Libya—the nation and the people—is being subjected to yet another series of obstacles before it can gain the desired peace and stability for which it has yearned since the collapse of the Muammar Qadhafi regime in 2011.
Disputes between different institutional elements of the political agreement, signed in Geneva in February 2021, threaten those elections. This is despite the announcement by the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) that registration of candidates for both the presidential and parliamentary polls would begin on November 8th. That announcement had come after an international Libya Stabilization Conference in Tripoli in October affirmed the December date, in keeping with the United Nations-sponsored process culminating in the dialogue forum in Geneva. Furthermore, the United Nations continues to pressure everyone to adhere to the declared timetable of December 24th, which indicates that the world body is worried that its process may be sacrificed on the altar of political differences despite the serious repercussions that would arise from postponing, or perhaps even abandoning, the upcoming polls.
Disagreements on Laws and Dates
Two sources of serious obstacles to the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) that installed a Government of National Accord in Tripoli continued to impede the process of transition in the country, until the HNEC’s latest announcement. The first is the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) that is headed by Aqilah Saleh and provided legislative branch approval of the LPA. Saleh and the HoR have operated for years in the eastern part of the country where the second obstacle, renegade General Khalifa Haftar, the self-anointed leader of the Libyan National Army, has held sway since at least 2014 when he launched his Operation Dignity against Islamist forces in Benghazi. Arguably, Saleh and Haftar—each for his own reasons—have been the principal hindrances to progress in establishing a meaningful and purposeful institutional life for the country.
Saleh and the HoR have operated for years in the eastern part of the country where the second obstacle, renegade General Khalifa Haftar, the self-anointed leader of the Libyan National Army, has held sway since 2014.
In his position as leader of the legislative branch, Saleh has the power to legitimate the process or send it into uncertainty. He is an interested party not only because he is a regular politician out to protect his interests in a new Libyan settlement, but also because he is at the mercy of Haftar’s army in the east of the country, an area outside of whose writ Saleh cannot venture. In September, Saleh illegally approved a presidential election law that was tailored to allow Haftar—a military man—to run for president. The law was rejected by other state bodies because it circumvented stipulations in the UN-sponsored agreement. Also in September, 89 of 113 HoR members present in their Tobruk chambers (the balance of a total of 200 come from and reside in western Libya) voted to withdraw their confidence from the unity government of Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, although they allowed it to continue in a caretaker fashion.
In October, and contrary to the agreement to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 24th, the HoR again voted to postpone the parliamentary polls until January. That vote was rejected by Libya’s upper house, the Tripoli-based High Council of State, because of its violation of procedural rules. The parliamentary elections law also appeared to be tailored to serve the interests of Saleh and Haftar. Specifically, if Haftar were to win the presidency, he would be in a position to influence how the legislative elections would be held in January, assuring a majority that he could control. Additionally, the number of seats allocated per district favored eastern and southern areas Haftar currently controls militarily. While the Libya Stabilization Conference of late October and the HNEC’s announcement about registering candidates may have helped to firm up the date of the elections on December 24th, there is no certainty about whether Saleh and Haftar would allow the polls to be conducted in the east on that date, or if they would accept the outcome.
Developments since that time also throw a thick veneer of uncertainty around the elections. In the last few days alone, important official institutions expressed some worrisome opinions and positions. The leadership of the army loyal to Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli has announced its rejection of the House of Representatives’ electoral laws. Politicians in western Libya outside Haftar’s military influence have also rejected holding the elections as devised by the HoR and without a constitutional basis. While disparaging the work and agenda of the elections commission, the president of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, even called for a boycott of the elections if they are to be conducted according to the HoR’s laws. He also hyperbolically accused France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates of writing those laws; all three have been supporters of Haftar.
Haftar Will Not Disappear
General Haftar is just as dangerous to the Libyan settlement process. Following his failure to control Tripoli after more than a year of trying, Haftar was forced to retreat and retrench around the central-coastal city of Sirte. But his military sway over eastern Libya is unquestionable, and he appears to want to exploit that to his advantage. Haftar could easily intimidate the people in the areas he controls to vote for him in the presidential poll. In September, and in application of the presidential election law Saleh shepherded in the HoR, the general temporarily relinquished command of the LNA for three months to prepare himself for the campaign. From the looks of it, competition is likely to be fierce, with many ambitious politicians and businessmen running to occupy the presidency, including current Premier Dbeibah, former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, and others. Even Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late dictator, may want to try his luck. But again, despite his popularity, Dbeibah’s candidacy is problematic since the current arrangement does not allow sitting officials to run in this round, a factor that will bring its own set of complications.
Haftar’s military sway over eastern Libya is unquestionable, and he appears to want to exploit that to his advantage. He could easily intimidate the people in the areas he controls to vote for him in the presidential poll.
Aside from his influence over the House of Representatives and the clear possibility of intimidating voters in eastern Libya, Haftar is also likely to depend on his regional and international connections to impact the presidential election. When his LNA withdrew to Sirte in June 2020 and was threatened by a counterattack by forces allied with the Government of National Unity, which was then Tripoli-based, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was quick to announce that Egypt had a right to intervene in Libya to defend its security, i.e., to help Haftar against the GNU. Haftar can also rely on support from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Russia, and others.
Haftar also appears to have avoided, for now, a serious complication and an embarrassment in an American courtroom, where he is a defendant in multiple cases alleging that he committed torture and war crimes against civilians. The presiding judge in a Virginia court decided to postpone the proceedings because they interfere in Haftar’s presidential campaign. He is even seeking Israel’s help in boosting his chances; his son, Saddam, was recently in Tel Aviv offering diplomatic recognition in exchange for Israeli political and military assistance for his father. It is interesting to note that Saddam Haftar arrived in Tel Aviv on a private jet coming from the UAE, which today appears to be the facilitator of Israel’s normalization with countries of the Arab world.
Indeed, the fear is that Haftar could arrest the whole process and refuse to acknowledge the result of the election if he did not secure the presidency. If that were to happen, the whole UN-sponsored institutional renewal process could be derailed. The question would be, how might that influence the unity of the country and its political and economic institutions? Since 2014, there has existed a de facto east-west division of Libya, one that has been supported by outside actors claiming to support different factions and agendas. But since 2015, a United Nations mission began to cobble together a political settlement for which the current arrangements for the December elections are pivotal for a stable and secure Libya. If this phase fails due to the refusal of factions—Haftar included—to accept its outcomes, it is hard to imagine a gloomier fate than partition.
If this phase fails due to the refusal of factions—Haftar included—to accept its outcomes, it is hard to imagine a gloomier fate than partition.
The Elections Must Take Place
Considering current complications related to the timing and execution of presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya, it is hard to predict their outcomes with confidence or to surmise if General Haftar has a better chance than others at winning the presidency. After all, the last word should be that of some 2.8 million Libyan voters who, as expected, would like the upcoming polls to be decisive in determining Libya’s future. It is thus hoped that they be allowed to exercise their right to freely choose their leaders and that turnout rates be high so the outcome is viewed as legitimate and beyond reproach.
In June 2014, the last time Libyans went to the polls to elect the House of Representatives, turnout was a mere 18 percent, not only because of widespread disenchantment with the process but also because of acts of violence that took the life of five Libyans, including women’s rights activist Salwa Bugaighis. Indeed, a popular participation threshold could bestow needed legitimacy on the current political process. Also crucial is an intimidation-free, democratic election that could give Libyans the necessary opportunity to unify their country and assure its peace and stability for the long term.