Could internal divisions derail Libya's democratic path?

6 min read
07 October, 2021

Libya has faced a bumpy road towards obtaining a stable government, despite establishing a ceasefire in October 2020 which precipitated a unity agreement and slated elections for 24 December 2021.

After multiple obstacles, Libya’s legislative elections have been postponed until January, while the presidential elections will still proceed as planned, the spokesperson of the eastern parliament Abdullah Bliheg announced on 5 October.

With such defiance from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) parliament less than a month before the extension, frictions are clearly inhibiting the path towards fair elections.

Yet despite this, a glimmer of hope came after the Tobruk-based parliament passed a law permitting legislative elections to the House of Representatives just a day before, on 4 October.

"Profound divisions have lingered between the administrations of Tripoli and Tobruk"

Libya’s current post-conflict transition has raised expectations in some quarters and was recently dubbed the “best opportunity” in decades “to lay the foundation for a stable democratic society” by US Department of State Counsellor Derek Chollet during a visit to Tripoli.

Even so, profound divisions have lingered between the administrations of Tripoli and Tobruk, and delaying legislative elections further indicates that they may not run smoothly.

Meanwhile, warlord and Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar recently indicated that he has not relinquished his political ambitions, another dynamic that could still upset the country’s peace process.

Prolonged East vs West divisions

On 21 September, Libya’s eastern Tobruk-based parliament issued a vote of no confidence towards the UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, which was appointed in March 2021 as part of the UN-backed peace process to reunify the rival administrations in Libya’s West and East. 

A total of 89 members of House of Representatives (HoR) voted in favour of the move out of 113 in attendance.

Throughout the summer months, new disagreements arose within Libya over the framework of the planned parliamentary and presidential elections. Moreover, it shows that the ills that have plagued the country’s stability since the 2011 revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, and led to civil war, are not yet over.

There were limited consultations between the unity government and Tobruk parliament prior to the no confidence vote and postponement of elections, highlighting how tensions between the two regions after the civil war period from 2014 have not subsided.

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Libya has faced a bumpy road towards obtaining a stable government, despite establishing a ceasefire in the country’s conflict in October 2020. [Getty]

The role of Haftar

Since Haftar’s offensive to capture Tripoli faltered by the summer of 2020, violence has decreased in the country. Furthermore, Haftar recently announced he would suspend his military participation and would instead stand as a candidate for the elections.

However, it is important to note that Haftar is only temporarily resigning from his military role, and he has left the door open for further military activity. Along with parliamentary divisions, it indicates that Haftar could take another leading role in adopting violence should he struggle to gain prominence in the elections.

Moreover, given the timing of the latest political rebellion in Tobruk, it could be a coordinated move for both Haftar and the Tobruk government – particularly driven by its parliamentary speaker Aguilah Saleh - to ensure that they disrupt the government and secure a foothold in power themselves.

Revealing the impact of these domestic tensions, on 25 September the head of Libya's Presidency Council, Mohamed al-Menfi, said he would urge candidates in elections proposed for December not to take part unless there was consensus on the vote's legal framework.

Al-Menfi warned that "not having a proper vision towards this election, (not having) this kind of consensus, is by itself a risk".

Indeed, the path towards fair elections clearly faces obstacles. This fragile agreement shows that the Berlin Conference on Libya held in 2020 has still failed to provide a solid roadmap for political stability. And even if the elections are successfully held, tensions could still arise as various actors seek to manipulate them.

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International dynamics

Meanwhile, there have been international efforts to ensure that Libya’s transition can succeed, although there are still limits to the UN’s abilities to promote a successful transition.

On 30 September, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend the UN political mission in Libya until the end of January 2022, to ensure that the presidential and parliamentary elections can run smoothly and to provide support for its reunification attempts.

Thus, the UN is evidently prepared for the prospect of elections stalling in the country, and it may even extend its mandate should they falter.

Geopolitical complexities have also exacerbated Libya’s instability, with various external powers competing with one another. Mercenaries remain in eastern Libya, largely due to Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) supplying them to Haftar’s forces.

Other countries like France and Egypt have still wanted to salvage some influence in the country, despite moving away from Haftar after his war efforts failed last year.

"Geopolitical complexities have also exacerbated Libya's instability, with various external powers competing with one another"

Turkey also retains a presence in the West and helped turn the tide of the conflict through supplying military personnel and equipment to the Government of National Accord (GNA) – the internationally recognised authority of Libya prior to the GNU’s establishment - amid Haftar’s offensive on the capital Tripoli.

On the other hand, Turkey and the UAE’s rapprochement in August indicates that the two countries could scale down their rivalry. Libya was a leading area of contention between them.

Both countries have since started discussing bilateral investments, indicating that they could finally see eye-to-eye on their differences, which could mean they are less willing to compete over Libya, among other areas. However, the roles of Russia, Egypt, and France could still spoil positive efforts for the country’s transition.

Crucially, the UN has still struggled to show any real authority and is divided on whether it should impose sanctions on countries who are supplying mercenaries.

Indeed, various countries have been able to ensure that they could disrupt the procedures of Libya’s transition. France and Russia sit on the UNSC as permanent members and could easily veto any move that could hurt their own interests in the country.

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The US has also said it will sanction external powers who are operating mercenaries in the country. However, it is not clear whether Washington will genuinely penalise its allies who are involved in mercenary activity. Meanwhile, it would struggle to have sway over Russia, which has been a key supporter of mercenaries in Libya through its Wagner Group.

With elections due in less than three months, time is running out to ensure that stability can be achieved.  With the UN preparing for continued fracturing, although unable to exert its authority, elections could struggle to run smoothly, and the recent delay further reinforces this.

When elections do occur, we could expect to see contested results and prospects of vote-rigging, while a stable post-war future in the country is unlikely to emerge immediately. Lacklustre efforts to support stability mean that Libya could once again fall victim to domestic and possibly external manipulation in its political affairs.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey