The promise and pitfalls of Libya's high-stakes elections

In-depth Paul Iddon
10 min read
23 November, 2021

At the Paris conference for Libya on 12 November, participating leaders gave a final push for a plan to hold elections in December, reinstating their backing for the long-awaited presidential and legislative polls, a key step in the UN-backed peace process to end 10 years of violent chaos since an uprising toppled long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The polls, slated for 24 December, were set through a UN roadmap adopted last year, which also established an interim unity government, led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, to take over from rival administrations in the country’s warring east and west.

Power will be at stake in the long-awaited election, starting with who will become the president and take the lead on Libya’s multiple problems.

But the twin electoral appointment is in doubt, with only four weeks to go and several thorny issues yet to be resolved.

Libya is still divided over how to hold the elections in December, as there is no agreement yet on the constitutional basis for the vote.

"The present conditions on the ground don't guarantee credible elections. In a critical moment like now, there's a danger of regional fracture between east and west with a cold war style scenario"

In early July, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), a UN-appointed body of 75 Libyan representatives, failed to agree on a legal framework that would establish political checks, institutional balances, and organise power between the parliament, presidency, and military ahead of elections.

Consequently, Aguila Saleh, speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR) in eastern Libya, unilaterally enacted a draft electoral law in September, without a vote or a constitutional basis, that would govern presidential elections, sparking criticism from parliamentarians.

The legislation controversially allows military officials to put forward their candidacy on the condition that they withdraw from their roles three months beforehand, a move that critics say is intended to favour his ally, the eastern-based military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

But without an election law, the upcoming polls could be a difficult undertaking.

Umberto Profazio, a Maghreb analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation and associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), considers “the absence of a clear, shared constitutional framework” to be one crucial matter endangering the course of the planned vote.

“The inability of the various political bodies and factions to agree on this legal framework poses a risk in that it may lead to new institutional chaos which could, in turn, create prerequisites for a return to armed violence,” the North Africa specialist told The New Arab.

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“The electoral law is more important than anything else. Libyan factions have to find an agreement on this issue,” Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told The New Arab, warning against possible “legal challenges” from those contenders who do not succeed in the election.

In his view, the two-round presidential polls should be run over a brief span (of one month maximum) and not overlap with the parliamentary ones, so as not to give time for the losers to get organised, as, he says, they may be “tempted to undermine the validity of the electoral process”.

The scholar, with expertise on Libya, maintained that holding an election, far from bringing a solution, “will provide hope for a solution” in that a balance can be built and the country may move toward the creation of a more pluralistic governing body.

But if the polls do not materialise, he continued, some will feel betrayed by the international community, and there will be a temptation on the part of the conflicting sides, each backed by different foreign powers and militias, to remobilise on the ground.

The presence of foreign forces on Libyan soil is a complicating factor too. There has been no progress in forcing their departure, as envisaged in the ceasefire agreement of October 2020 that ended fighting between the country's rival factions, which demanded that all foreign fighters and mercenaries leave Libya within 90 days.

Analysis - Bajec
Libya is still divided over how to hold the elections as there is no agreement yet on the constitutional basis for the vote. [Getty]

The UN estimates that at least 20,000 foreign fighters remain in the war-torn country, including Russian Wagner Group mercenaries, Syrians, Chadian and Sudanese fighters, and Turkish troops.

World powers in Paris called for the withdrawal of mercenaries and foreign forces, and threatened to sanction those who attempt to disrupt or prevent the vote and the political transition.

At the request of France, which hosted the recent international conference, some 300 foreign fighters loyal to Haftar’s eastern forces - a rather symbolic number - are expected to initiate the pull-out from areas they control. Pro-Haftar forces remain in control of much of eastern and southern Libya.

The first batch in the mercenary withdrawal plan is required to be followed by Russia and Turkey pulling out fighters too. However, Turkey has shown little willingness to order its troops to leave having successfully pushed back along with Qatar, in June 2020, general Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt, which had been attacking the UN-recognised GNA in Tripoli since April 2019.

Turkey has long specified a difference between the presence of its troops in Libya that were invited by the internationally recognised government and those imported by other factions. It is unlikely to act before forces in the east depart.

Russia, for its part, has denied sending any soldiers or mercenaries to Libya.

"If the polls do not materialise some will feel betrayed by the international community and there will be a temptation on the part of the conflicting sides, each backed by different foreign powers and militias, to remobilise on the ground"

Both Ankara and Moscow sent only lower-level representatives to the Paris summit, and they seem to have little incentive for pulling out their fighters ahead of an uncertain electoral scenario.

“Until there’s a new government that tells those powers to retreat from Libyan territory, they won’t leave,” Mezran said.

Mercenaries remain entrenched along frontlines despite last year’s ceasefire, as major external actors - Qatar, UAE, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Russia, and the US - continue to use Libya as a proxy for their own ambitions, albeit in a less military way, and to preserve their interests in the oil-rich nation.

In the event of a disputed election or seizure of power, rival powers in the region could re-escalate their involvement towards a more direct conflict.

The still existing rift between the country's east and west is another obstacle, even as the wider peace process strives to unify long-divided state institutions.

Deep divisions present in the fragile transitional environment have been marked by ongoing tensions between the HoR, the High Council of State (HCS) and Dbeibah's government, which took office earlier this year. Tensions escalated in September after Libya’s parliament passed a questionable no-confidence vote in the newly established unity government.

The candidacies of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar for the presidential election are problematic. [Getty]

The vote overseen by Saleh came less than two weeks after he ratified the contentious presidential election law seen as bypassing due process.

The division of state institutions, including the military, risks undermining the roadmap and plans for the forthcoming elections.

The candidacies of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar for the presidential election are problematic, to say the least.

Saif al-Islam, who appeared for nearly the first time in a decade to register as a presidential candidate, sided with his father in the 2011 uprising and threatened Libyans with killing and chaos. He was sentenced in absentia for his supporting role in a brutal crackdown on protesters during the revolution. He is still wanted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Haftar is accused of war crimes and waged war on factions in the west after the country split in 2014, including a 14-month offensive to seize Tripoli which was repelled by the GNA last year. He has also been accused of seeking to establish a military dictatorship in the country. Members of the LNA who are said to be under his command have been indicted for war crimes by the ICC.

The announcement of his presidential bid came two days after Gaddafi’s son announced that he was standing. He temporarily stepped down from his position as head of the LNA in line with the electoral law to allow him to run.

"In the event of a disputed election or seizure of power, rival powers in the region could re-escalate their involvement towards a more direct conflict"

Both candidates will be hoping to draw from the same pool of voters in the east. Gaddafi is likely to tap into nostalgia for the stability of his father’s rule. As for Haftar, he appears to be betting on the ballot box to win after failing to succeed through a more than year-long military campaign.

Residents across several western cities including Zawiya and Misrata quickly opposed Gaddafi and Haftar’s candidacies, and civil society members published statements of rejection of the two men’s participation in the election warning that their return to power would take the country back to square one.

The controversial candidates reflect the chaotic climate surrounding the polls amid disputes over the rules underpinning the vote, its legal basis, qualifications of those seeking to stand, and whether free and fair elections are doable.

Former Libyan interior minister Fathi Bashagha and parliament speaker Aguila Saleh joined a growing list of candidates for the presidential election set. Saleh was sanctioned by both the US and European Union after he refused to recognise the UN-supported GNA though the sanctions were removed early this year as the peace process evolved.

Dbeibah, whose main mandate is to prepare the country for December elections, registered his bid for the presidency despite previously vowing not to run for office as a condition of taking his current position.

IISS’ Profazio argued for the need for a “reset” in today’s Libya and anticipated with concern that, given the line-up of key figures from the past decade, the forthcoming vote will restore faces from the old regime instead of bringing about a generational turnover.

According to the Atlantic Council's Mezran, virtually any of the Libyan actors and foreign powers involved in Libya could prove to be spoilers. In particular, he raised alarm over possible violent reactions from groups in Zawiya and Misrata. “Those people who don’t feel represented won’t vote, and losing candidates may go as far as unleashing their military power,” the Libya expert predicted.

Profazio pointed to the circles close to the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and Tripoli-based HCS, which is headed by Khalid al-Mishri, as likely spoilers who fear that Haftar, a potential frontrunner, may be elected president.

Mishri recently called for a boycott of the vote after previously claiming that electoral laws had been written by Haftar's foreign backers, and even threatened to resort to violence to stop the eastern commander from taking office if he is elected. Politicians and warlords in western Libya issued statements opposing holding the elections according to the laws ratified by the eastern-based parliament.

The North Africa analyst underlined the risk of election manipulation and voter fraud, and the fact that the results of the presidential election will not be accepted as legitimate by all parties.

"Mercenaries remain entrenched along frontlines despite last year's ceasefire, as major external actors continue to use Libya as a proxy for their own ambition"

“The present conditions on the ground don’t guarantee credible elections. In a critical moment like now, there’s a danger of regional fracture between east and west with a cold war styled scenario,” he hinted.

There are early signs that some factions in Libya may be positioning themselves to dispute the vote if it is held.

Human rights groups have also questioned whether Libya can hold free and inclusive elections.

“Can Libyan authorities ensure an environment free of coercion, discrimination, and intimidation of voters, candidates, and political parties? Is the judiciary able to deal promptly and fairly with elections-related disputes?”, Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), asked.

Notwithstanding the political wrangling over the rules of the contest and contenders viewed in some regions as unacceptable, the forthcoming election is seen by most Libyan factions and foreign powers as the only option to bring stability.

Mezran is adamant that the main international actors should be monitoring and supporting the process, but not interfering. “It’s important that they stay on a watching position, but they need to keep out”.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec