Libya’s electoral commission postponed for one month the elections promised to Libyans on December 24, 2021, plunging the war-torn country into a deep uncertainty about a peaceful resolution of its longstanding civil war. The Government of National Unity’s (GNU) agreed-upon-term (per the UN-brokered Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (‘LPDF’) technically ended at the end of 2021, and the House of Representatives in Tobruk is not inclined to sanction an extension of that term.
Ex-General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), is mobilizing disgruntled politicians across the country, from both East and West, to jumpstart his own political trajectory and capitalize on the failure of the UN-brokered process. Armed militias have begun flexing their muscles as they strongarm the GNU, while government forces have been deployed to cut off access to the capital by other militias intent on sparking a conflict. Turkish Bayraktar drones have also reportedly been deployed in the capital in order to fortify security as uncertainty spreads.
The UN dispatched Stephanie Williams to Tripoli shortly before the announcement of the election delay to rescue the political process.
The situation has been compounded by the apparent lack of preparation among the UN envoys and international policymakers for the unfolding scenario. The UN dispatched Stephanie Williams to Tripoli shortly before the announcement of the election delay to rescue the political process, but there is now increasingly vocal resistance and antagonism across the board to her efforts. A testy tweet from the UK embassy in Libya took aim at Haftar’s bid to launch his own independent political track in Libya, asserting that it would not recognize any authority except the GNU until elections take place.
What is now unfolding in Libya is a tense political wrangling that has the potential to spill over into skirmishes. But it does not mean that Libya is necessarily heading towards renewed conflict.
Pushing for a new government
Three important dynamics are at play.
First, the original election date was set not via consensus between the Libyan parties. Rather, it was imposed by Washington frustrated by Russia’s gains and the increasing unilateralism by regional powers that have undermined US influence in the region.
Second, the prime minister selected by the UN-brokered Libyan Dialogue Forum to lead the GNU emerged, not from common accord, but out of a collective desire of the Libyan participants to prevent former interior minister Fathi Bashagha and Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh from becoming the major powers.
Third, Libyan factions did not want elections. They strived over the intervening months to ensure that elections would not take place.
These three dynamics remain crucial underpinnings of the attitudes of the powerbrokers in this next chapter in Libya’s troubles.
The US also announced that in the meantime it would not recognize any government other than the GNU.
Yet, the US is scrambling to impose a new election date and to impress upon the Libyan factions that elections should take place at the soonest possible date, and spoilers will be held to account. The US also announced that in the meantime it would not recognize any government other than the GNU.
The fact of US insistence on the GNU currently led by Prime Minister AbdulHamid Al-Dabaiba is significant because that is precisely what many Libyan factions in both the East and West are seeking to change.
On December 21, 2021, Haftar received the former interior minister Fathi Bashagha, and former deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Maitiq in Benghazi looking to foster a new consensus that might lead to the formation of a new government entirely, or at least pressure Dabaiba in Tripoli into a government reshuffle under which he would give up key posts.
To the chagrin of Dabaiba’s rivals, his unique position as the Prime Minister of the internationally recognized GNU has allowed him to amass power at their expense. Moreover, they believe that Dabaiba has no intention of leaving following the interim period as required by the terms of the dialogue agreement. The fear is that he will instead use his newfound authority to mount a bid for the Presidency, and will have another year or more to do so as a result of the absence of any agreement.
The distrust of Dabaiba is beginning to give rise to a new agreement similar to that which delivered him to power in the first place at the expense of the once-influential Bashagha.
Dabaiba has found himself facing challenges within Tripoli. His decision to change the city’s police chief resulted in an open challenge by militias led by Abdul Ghani al-Kikkli, known as Ghneiwa, who has deployed artillery in Southern Tripoli. Dabaiba also allegedly positioned forces to block off roads into Tripoli to prevent other militias from making their way to the capital and take advantage of the unrest.
There have also been concerns that the emerging consensus led by Haftar might draw support from Western-based militias. It is partly for this reason that allied militias from Misrata have been making their way over the past week to Tripoli to bolster Dabaiba’s position.
It is important to stress that the different compromise that is being sought has nothing to do with facilitating an environment for elections. Instead, it is about reshuffling the power dynamics and entrenching resistance to elections.
The different compromise that is being sought has nothing to do with facilitating an environment for elections.
In an interview with Al-Araby TV, the Chairman of the High Council of State Khalid Al-Mishri dismissed the efforts of Stephanie Williams to resume the track towards elections, and asserted instead the need to establish a consensus and constitutional framework before any election date could be set. This argument was repeated in Turkey, which remains the most powerful force on the ground in Western Libya and a firm backer of the GNU.
Whether such arguments are sincere are debatable. Al-Mishri was part of the bid by Parliament in late 2013 to unilaterally extend its own term and avoid elections, as well as the successful efforts of armed groups in 2014 to overturn the contested election results.
However, there is some truth in the assertion that the absence of a political accord renders elections a moot exercise. There is little point in voting if armed groups will violently resist the results and return to civil war.
Meanwhile, regional powers are consulting with their allies over how to adapt to the increasingly fluid dynamics in Libya. The Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh is believed to have flown last week to consult with Abu Dhabi, and then to Morocco on January 2 for mediated talks with rival Chairman of Libya’s High Council of State in Tripoli, Khalid al-Mishri.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the aim of the Libyan factions is to prevent elections from taking place, or at least to delay them as long as possible. Dabaiba seeks to entrench himself using his position as Prime Minister. Al-Mishri tries to delay as long as possible to avoid the fate of his ideological allies in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Haftar does not want to recognize any political authority in Tripoli and needs time to build and establish one that he can then present as a contender for a new consensus government.
Turkey meanwhile does not want any elections that might produce a government that reverses the treaties and agreements it has secured in Libya. France, UAE, and Egypt do not wish for any elections that offer an avenue for the Islamists to win power and allow Turkey to stay on as a significant influence in Libya.
Notwithstanding the US’ insistence on elections, its history of pragmatism in Libya offers enough encouragement for these different regional players that they might convince Washington to push for elections, or recognition, in a manner that benefits them. Washington’s late scramble to prevent the son of former ruler Moammar Gaddafi Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who announced his intention to run in November, from participating in elections revealed that the US desire for elections is not absolute, but is open to being molded.
For now, the jockeying is not about election dates, but about the continuing standing of the GNU.