Libya is due to hold elections on December 24 in a bid to establish a new unified authority that can lead the country out of its brutal chapter of civil war into an era of political dialogue and national reconciliation. Yet, despite suggestions of hope and change that an election process might usually be associated with, the overwhelming sense is that these elections will either be delayed or spark another round of war as parties prepare to reject unfavorable results.
The reality is that Libyan parties across the spectrum, and in both the East and West of the country, do not want elections. For the factions in the East that include warlord Khalifa Haftar and the Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, the prospect of elections threatens to create a new legitimacy for an authority that is not under their control. Worse, they will be pressured internationally into recognizing this authority and subjugating themselves to it.
Haftar has categorically stated in televised speeches that he will not “subject [his] army to a political authority.”
Haftar has categorically stated in televised speeches that he will not “subject [his] army to a political authority.” Until now, both Saleh and Haftar have been disingenuously asserting the contested legitimacy of the House of Representatives that was elected in 2014 and then ousted by the Tripoli factions that violently rejected their defeat at an election marred by low turnout.
The House of Representatives survived the various UN-brokered agreements between the warring factions as the official parliamentary body with legislative powers. These elections, however, threaten to bring an end to this dubious legitimacy that both Saleh and Haftar have used to pass laws in their favor without accountability.
For the factions in the West, the matter is just as complex. Unlike Haftar who has been able to impose himself on swathes of territory in Libya, both in the East and South, in Tripoli the factions continue to compete and remain mired in division and infighting. Despite having come close to annihilation during Haftar’s assault on the capital in 2019, the brush with defeat, that was only averted by a Turkish military intervention, did not inspire any reconciliation that might give rise to a unified bloc capable of imposing itself.
The continued wrangling was on full display when the Presidential council led by Khaled al-Mishry announced that the Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush was to be barred from leaving the country pending an investigation. The Interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dabaiba (also spelled Dbeibeh) responded by defending his foreign minister and asserting that the Presidential Council had no power to make such decisions. For observers, the situation was seen as Al-Mishry seeking to check a PM that is clearly becoming stronger and more influential.
For these competing factions in the West of Libya, the elections threaten to completely upend the fragile status quo and reshuffle the political scene. Holding elections has the potential to relegate those who enjoy power to the side-lines of politics and elevate those currently on the side-lines to the highest echelons of Tripoli’s political scene.
While Libya’s factions do not want elections, they have struggled to resist the international pressure to hold them.
Yet, while Libya’s factions do not want elections, they have struggled to resist the international pressure to hold them. More specifically, they have struggled to resist Washington’s assertion that they must take place irrespective of the fragile political and security environment.
Just as the Trump administration sought a quick fix to Libya’s civil war by allowing Haftar to assault Tripoli on the basis that a decisive military victory would put an end to instability, the Biden administration is seeking a quick fix by ramming through an election process on the basis that it will end the question of legitimacy and accelerate the political process.
Biden has impressed upon the Libyan factions that any spoilers will be punished all while seeking to rein in the international competition that has exacerbated the conflict. US aid to Egypt’s military has been cut. A jittery Saudi Arabia has reconciled with Qatar. Turkey and the UAE are in a rapprochement process.
Each of the regional actors is re-adjusting its foreign policy priorities on the basis that the Biden administration will not tolerate what the Trump administration did. Biden has also sought to contain its European allies, and Vice President Kamala Harris was dispatched to the Paris conference to prevent Macron’s attempt to seize the initiative and hinder the political process.
Moreover, the Biden administration has given the impression that it does not differentiate between the Libyan factions. In other words, it does not view the conflict in terms of “good versus evil”, or “right versus wrong”. There has been no attempt by Washington to prevent Haftar from running in the election despite pending court cases and accusations of war crimes. Instead, his trial in the US has been postponed until after the elections.
Similarly, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is under an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and charged with “two counts of crimes against humanity: murder and persecution, allegedly committed in 2011 in Libya.”
There also appears to be no real effort to affirm the rules of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum which stipulated that the interim PM Dabaiba would not be able to run for office. Dabaiba has in fact confirmed his candidacy.
There is a continuation of a pragmatic US policy to work with individual factions across the spectrum.
There is a continuation of a pragmatic US policy to work with individual factions across the spectrum. In 2016, Washington worked with the militias of Misrata in the West on issues related to terrorism. And, Haftar was praised in 2019 by Donald Trump for his efforts against terrorism.
Issues related to the horrific mass graves discovered in Tarhuna that suggest evidence of war crimes appear not to have moved Washington which appears prepared to recognize the results of contested elections even if it delivers those accused of war crimes. For Washington, it does not matter who wins. What matters is the establishment of a new political legitimacy in order to unify the political field.
Washington’s insistence on elections has meant that until recently, none of the Libyan parties wanted to be seen as the “spoiler”. The parties instead have sought to bide their time in the hope that a rival will blink first, derail the process, and force a delay in the elections. But months passed and no one blinked.
Yet, while one might consider this a positive development, the reality is quite the opposite. The reason none of the parties “blinked” is because there is an implicit consensus that the elections are destined to fail, even if they take place on time.
Herein lies the crux of the problem. The issue in Libya is not elections. Libya has had elections in the past in 2012 and in 2014. In 2014, the problem was not elections. Rather, it was the refusal of the Libyan parties to recognize the results of the elections that were tarnished by low turnout and held following an attempt by the incumbent parliament to unilaterally extend its mandate.
The parties that lost proceeded to launch an armed takeover of the capital. And Haftar had already begun his military campaign in the East prior to the elections on the pretext that the General National Congress (GNC) had transgressed by unilaterally extending its mandate.
The situation in Libya today resembles that of 2014. The environment is tense. Factions are armed. There is no political consensus on the legitimacy of elections, nor even on the constitutional framework that should govern the process. The only difference this time is that there is a more open assertion by Libyan factions that they are preparing to reject unfavorable results.
“The factions of the West will take up arms and resist [if Haftar wins the elections].”
In an interview with Aljazeera, the head of the Presidential Council Khaled al-Mishry, who was also one of the architects of the overthrow of the results of the 2014 elections, said that “the factions of the West will take up arms and resist [if Haftar wins the elections]”.
Ironically, the loudest advocates for elections in Libya today are those associated with autocracy and authoritarianism. Khalifa Haftar, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, and others are all apparently keen to see the election process through, not because they suddenly support the democratic transition, but because they believe that irrespective of what happens in the election process, they will continue to play a significant role in the next chapter.
For Haftar, elections are a win-win situation. If he wins, he is President. If he does not, he has the military strength to resist all attempts at enforcing the results. Saif al-Islam believes that the nostalgia for the security of the past, as well as the increasing international prioritization of stability over democracy, means he stands a good chance of winning the popular vote and securing international recognition.
Meanwhile, it is clear that the environment in Libya is not conducive to free and fair elections. Candidates from the West are highly unlikely to be afforded the freedom by Haftar to campaign in the East. Likewise, Aguila Saleh, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and Khalifa Haftar are hardly likely to be permitted to campaign in the West.
There are concerns that election results will be determined by the barrel of the gun; not a free exercise of the right to vote.
Kidnappings, forced disappearances, coercion, and arbitrary use of force remain prevalent across Libya, raising concerns that the results of any elections will be determined by the barrel of the gun; not a free exercise of the right to vote.
But then, perhaps that is no longer the priority for the international community which is more interested in stability and security as economic and political crises fuel nationalist tendencies and social polarization.
In reality, the problem is that these elections may not even achieve the stability and security that is being sought and appear more likely instead to ignite another war, one that promises to be even more bitter than the last. Yet, it may well be that the elections are delayed, or that only the parliamentary elections are conducted (instead of the presidential). Despite the December 24 date fast approaching, there is a real possibility that they will not go ahead.
Meanwhile, there is an unusual phenomenon emerging in Libya that bodes ill for the aspirations of those Libyans who were inspired by the Arab Spring wave. The perceived frontrunners of the elections from both the East and West of the country are all political figures from the Gaddafi era: Khalifa Haftar, Saif-al Islam Gaddafi, and the Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Al-Dabaiba. This in itself is a damning indictment of the democratic transition, but also a failure of the NATO-backed opposition that no longer inspires a healthy alternative vision as it once did.