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The presidential election is quickly approaching, and many Libyans are ready to vote. Around 2.83 million Libyans registered to vote, and 98 candidates (96 men and 2 women) registered their presidential bids. The interim unity government, the Government of National Unity, has declared it is ready to hold elections. The United Nations Secretary General has appointed former Acting Special Envoy and head of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya Stephanie Williams as his special advisor on Libya after the resignation of former U.N. envoy Jan Kubis, demonstrating a renewed sense of purpose toward international mediation amid Libya’s fractured political landscape. Some of Libya’s divided institutions seem to be very slowly beginning a process toward reunification – including the central bank and the Libyan armed forces. Oil exports have resumed, at least for now, and prices have reached a 7-year high amid a global economic recovery.
Despite these positive developments, Libya’s electoral process faces urgent legal questions, blatant politicization, corruption, and security risks, bringing into question whether a free and fair election can be held as scheduled. The first round of the presidential election is set for December 24, with serious concerns that it may be postponed. The parliamentary elections, which were supposed to be held on the same day, have been delayed by 30 days.
Among those registered to run for president, three divisive candidates – interim Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, General Khalifa Hifter, and Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi – were initially barred from running, though appeals courts have since decided to let them participate. Yet the final list of presidential candidates has yet to be announced with a week to go, so it is still unclear which candidates will be allowed to officially run. Beyond the legal and logistical obstacles to holding the presidential election, the security landscape in Libya is still dominated by various militias that are already using intimidation tactics interfering in the election process. Thousands of foreign mercenaries and several foreign military bases remain present in Libya, raising further concerns about the destabilizing impact of foreign actors on the political landscape.
Given this grim reality, the election is likely to be delayed. Many members of the U.N.-led Libya Political Dialogue Forum, as well as advisory bodies like the High State Council, are calling for the election to be postponed even though the interim Presidency Council has said it is ready for the election to take place despite the difficulties. Both scenarios are fraught with risks and could lead to further political divisions and a return to violence.
Libya’s Fragile Political Dialogue Process
The international community has pursued peace and political reconciliation in Libya through the Berlin Process. Under this umbrella, Libya’s warring parties reached a cease-fire in October 2020 and set up the Joint 5+5 military commission (which includes military representatives from the western and eastern factions) to monitor it. In November 2020, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, supported by U.N. mediation, laid out a roadmap to choose an interim government that would oversee the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections and the reunification of Libya’s divided political, financial, and security institutions. In March, the forum chose a prime minister and Presidency Council to lead the interim Government of National Unity to oversee elections. The international community overwhelmingly supported this process, and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2570 endorsed the roadmap in April. The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum held more meetings in the subsequent months in Geneva to try and reach consensus on a constitutional and legal basis for holding the elections, but no specific agreement was reached. Nonetheless, during the October Libya Stabilization Conference in Tripoli as well as the November Paris International Conference the international community and Libya’s interim Government of National Unity reaffirmed their commitment and support for the presidential election to take place December 24 even as the realities on the ground, including the lack of consensus over a legal electoral framework, remained unchanged.
Furthermore, Libya’s eastern-based Parliament, or House of Representatives, has passed election laws that have been disputed by the Tripoli-based advisory High State Council because parliamentary quorum was not met. For example, the Parliament voted to delay parliamentary elections for 30 days until January 2022 with only 70 to 75 members present for the vote (out of 200 elected in 2014). It also passed other electoral laws in a similar fashion, in what some critics view as a controversial move by the speaker of parliament, Aguila Saleh, who is also running for president.
Beyond concerns over political fragmentation and the legal ambiguities over electoral laws and presidential candidates, there is a lack of clarity over what would happen the day after the election. The powers of the executive are still unclear, turning the vote into an all-or-nothing scenario of contestation in a deeply divided country. This leads to concerns that candidates will use their allied militias to intimidate voters in areas where they have lower support. In recent weeks, security concerns have intensified as fighting broke out in the southern city of Sabah, and militias have attempted to intimidate judicial bodies deciding on electoral questions and the eligibility of presidential candidates. Moreover, if the election is held, there are concerns some defeated candidates who control militias may not accept the results and use this as an opportunity to reignite violence and institutional political divisions that characterized previous Libyan governments in the last decade.
Libya experts Tim Eaton and Tarek Megerisi argued, “At first glance, it seems that all Libyans and the international community are united behind elections. Yet, despite the pro-election statements, a zero-sum competition for power continues. The fight is now over the electoral process for whoever controls what happens next. Those in positions of power see the elections as an opportunity for advancement or self-renewal but place a priority on protecting their current position should the process collapse.”
Despite all the challenges, the High National Election Commission moved forward with the registration of presidential and parliamentary candidates on November 8. The commission has registered 98 presidential candidates, but the final list has yet to be published because of all the legal battles over the three most well-known candidates – the interim prime minister, Dbeibeh; the recently retired general, Hifter, and Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the son of Libya’s slain authoritarian ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi. All three were barred from running and appealed. Hifter and Qaddafi were barred because of accusations of war crimes. Qaddafi is also wanted for arrest by the International Criminal Court, and Hifter was also initially barred due to restrictions regarding dual citizens (Hifter also hold U.S. citizenship). Dbeibeh was barred because the interim prime minister was supposed to oversee the elections and step down. He was able to appeal because of the lack of clarity and consensus on a legal electoral framework. These candidates appear to be running and are likely best placed to do well in the election given their social bases in different regions and most importantly their alliances with armed militias.
Dbeibeh’s base is in western Libya, Hifter’s is in the east and somewhat in the south, and Qaddafi still has major support in the south. However, the majority of the population lives in western Libyan, suggesting a potential electoral victory for Dbeibeh, who hails from Misrata. But given the huge issues with Libya’s electoral framework and security risks, Libya experts have argued that it may be impossible to declare any sort of legitimate election result, which could lead many of these candidates and their allied militias to return to fighting.
Others that have announced their candidacy include Saleh, the parliamentary speaker who is closely allied to Hifter; Fathi Bashagha, former minister of interior of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord; Aref Ali Nayed, the Libyan ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2011-16, who is from Benghazi in eastern Libya and leads the Reviving Libya bloc; Mohammed Khaled Abdullah al-Ghweil, from Misrata in western Libya, who leads the Peace and Prosperity Party; Ali Zeidan, Libya’s prime minister from 2012-14, who leads the Nidaa Al Qardabiya Party; Othman Abdul Jalil, former education minister; and Ismail al-Shtiwi, a businessman from western Libya that is based in the UAE.
The Role of External Actors
The other glaring issue is the lack of progress on withdrawing foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya, a key stipulation in the October 2020 cease-fire and roadmap toward free and fair elections. The heavy presence of foreign fighters poses security risks beyond those already caused by the ubiquity of Libyan armed militias aligned with specific political factions, and now presidential candidates, across the country.
This was a significant topic in the Libya Stabilization Conference and Paris Conference, where the international community and the Government of National Unity reaffirmed their commitment to Libya’s 5+5 Joint Military Committees’ “Action Plan for the withdrawal of mercenaries, foreign fighters and foreign forces from the Libyan territory.” Meetings have been taking place in recent month among Libyan actors and neighboring countries on how best to proceed with the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries, but little tangible progress has been made. Most recently, the European Union announced sanctions on the Russian Wagner Group for its operations in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, highlighting the growing concern about the destabilizing impact of these mercenary groups.
Beyond the presence of external actors in the security landscape, there are also concerns about foreign interference through specific candidates. Polarizing candidates such as Hifter have long benefitted from support from the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and even European countries such as France in spite of his attempted takeover of Tripoli in April 2019. Dbeibeh is perceived as more closely allied to Turkey, though his critics focus more on his alleged use of state coffers to buy political patronage and run for president. Other candidates, such as Neyad, who is from the east and is viewed as a UAE-backed candidate, are also facing scrutiny.
Given Libya’s highly securitized environment and political divisions, consensus is difficult, and the presidential election has become a zero-sum power struggle. Libya is a long way from being able to hold free and fair elections, but despite all the challenges, there are positive indicators that the process could get back on track. The appointment of Williams, a former U.S. diplomat, as the U.N. Secretary General’s special advisor on Libya is a positive step toward reinvigorating an international mediation process that some experts have argued began to falter under Kubis. For example, in a Chatham House webinar in early December on Libya’s election, Wolfram Lacher argued that the U.N. took a back seat in recent months and should have played a more active role when points of friction over the legal framework for elections came to the surface several months ago.
Williams arrived in Tripoli December 13 and is talking to various Libyan actors on how to move forward with free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. Furthermore, many Libyans and the international community are on the same page about wanting a vote to take place: A majority of eligible Libyans have registered to vote, in spite of the political fragmentation and security risks.
Making sure these elections are free, fair, and safe is the challenge moving forward. International observers will be deployed, and the international community has warned that anyone who obstructs the vote will be sanctioned. The interim government has said the country is ready. But members of Libya’s High National Election Council have pushed back, stating that holding the election December 24 will likely be impossible. Time will tell.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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