Elections in Libya Mired in Controversy

The leading political factions in Libya represented by Fayez al-Sarraj, President of the Presidency Council of Libya, Aguila Saleh, President of the House of Representatives (HoR), Khaled Meshri, President of the High State Council (HSC), and, General Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the LNA, agreed on May 29th in Paris to a UN supervised process for new elections by December 10th for president and parliament. It was also agreed that a new electoral law will be in place by mid-September, which requires finalizing and adopting a new constitution. The joint communique committed the signatories to acceptance of the election results, an end to parallel institutions, and a unified military and security institution.

Elections in Libya

The leading political factions in Libya represented by Fayez al-Sarraj, President of the Presidency Council of Libya, Aguila Saleh, President of the House of Representatives (HoR), Khaled Meshri, President of the High State Council (HSC), and, General Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the LNA, agreed on May 29th in Paris to a UN supervised process for new elections by December 10th for president and parliament. It was also agreed that a new electoral law will be in place by mid-September, which requires finalizing and adopting a new constitution. The joint communique committed the signatories to acceptance of the election results, an end to parallel institutions, and a unified military and security institution.

A week later, the UN Security Council endorsed the agreement saying that it “Reiterates its call for all Libyans to work together in a spirit of compromise in the inclusive political process . . . .”  Of course, the nuanced diplomatic statement provides enough ambiguity that all parties could find immediate benefits to supporting the efforts, and still retain their objective of leading the government of a unified Libya.

It didn’t take long for various interests to show their strategies for impacting the election outcome. The UAE is working on behalf of General Haftar’s Libyan National Army, according to Libyan media, and is already courting potential Haftar supporters to run for parliament. The New Arab alleges that the “UAE has held many meetings in Cairo, Tunisia, and Amman for the sake of picking the names to run for the elections in Libya with one common thread among all the names, loyalty to Khalifa Haftar.”

military commander Khalifa Haftar
Military commander Khalifa Haftar.

The former Libyan Ambassador to the UAE Aref Ali Nayed, is often mentioned as a key player. He owns a Libyan TV channel “Libya’s Channel” which is funded by the UAE. “There are five lists that are being funded by the UAE, each list has four candidates who are loyal to Haftar,” The New Arab added. Interestingly, sources it cited say that Haftar will not run for the presidency, adding fuel to concerns about his health.

Those with presidential ambitions have reason to undermine the process, said The Mail & Guardian. “Libya’s transitional leaders, some of whom will be presidential candidates, are entangled in – and benefit from – the country’s war economy. So do various armed factions that may view the vote as a threat to their interests and disrupt the process before it begins.” And since there are a number of options for the constitutional process, establishing an electoral regime, not to mention ensuring adequate security and transparency, many hurdles are still ahead.

An article in Foreign Affairs notes that “The war economy is the main factor working against political reconciliation. It developed in the years after Gaddafi’s regime collapsed and is driven by the hundreds of self-armed militias that emerged after plundering his vast armories.” While several of the larger militias have ties to leading politicians, others are informal and provide security to towns, tribes, or ethnic groups. “To support themselves, they fuse together: public forms of financing like state sector salaries, smuggling (notably, oil), human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and “protection” rackets. These groups hold both the civilian population and the country’s core infrastructures – like oil, electricity and water – hostage.”

The issue of the migrants was also on the agenda of President Macron. He recently called Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the Government of National Accord, to encourage continued momentum on the elections in Libya, and discussed necessary political and security arrangements, and combating illegal immigration. Now that Italy has an anti-migrant government, France is taking the lead in dealing with the continued flows of migrants and combating human trafficking gangs.

Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya
Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya

The need to cast a wide net in enlisting various militias and groups in the peace process was highlighted by recent fighting around oil installations in June, cutting off 80% of Libya’s main source of income. As an article in Critical Threatsreminded its readers, “Libya is falling back into active conflict that will likely lead to a surge in Salafi-jihadi activity. The fighting demonstrates that settlements between elites who do not control the forces on the ground will fail to resolve the Libya crisis. The international community is pursuing summits and elections as the keys to peace in Libya, but must recognize that any durable solution requires the resolution of conflicts between armed actors at the sub-state level.”

 A warning that early elections might not have a salient effect on the conflict in Libya was the subject of a recent Foreign Affairs.com article. Authors Frederic Wehrey and Wolfram Lacher argue that to have elections without first reaching consensus on a constitution will only give opponents of whoever is elected the grounds for challenging the outcomes of the presidential and parliamentary elections. “But even outside [those areas controlled by Hiftar and the GNA], in the best case, voting results would be heavily influenced by local strongmen and militias, and polling threatens to ignite violent local conflicts.”

Their indictment is quite strongly stated. “Progress has been stymied by entrenched spoilers and structural factors. Too many elite actors are benefiting from the status quo; members of both the HoR and the High Council of State seem more interested in clinging to power than in moving the country forward. In Tripoli, the GNA has fallen prey to a cartel of militiaswho are stuffing the administration with their allies to plunder state budgets and assets. Beyond these failures in elite will and vision, political shifts on the ground have obstructed progress.”

It is difficult to see how any electoral process with short-term goals will provide the basis for long-term stability and reconciliation. As damaging to the process was the perceived play by Macron to get an agreement without any assurances that it would be implemented. “And even these four representatives did not, in fact, agree on anything in Paris. They did not sign Macron’s declaration and left unsolved the question of the constitutional basis for elections.”

In answer to the question as to a viable way forward, the authors believe that “The answer lies in a negotiated settlement that provides a detailed road map toward elections. This is not the stuff of flamboyant but fleeting unilateral initiatives. Reaching such a settlement requires international coordination, a careful design of the negotiating process, and stamina.”

Recognizing the roles of the multiple agendas and actors and building a consensus on the way forward requires a significant investment in diplomatic and political resources. This includes leveraging outliers who are promoting their favorite factions and solutions. Whether or not the UN process will be effective will largely be determined by a process that is credible, inclusive, and sustainable.