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Rushed Elections in Libya Won’t Bring Peace

The U.N.’s obsession with process is making conflict and instability more likely.

By , a Washington-based political analyst specializing in Arab affairs and Morocco’s foreign policy and the co-founder of Morocco World News.
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) meets with Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah (R) and head of the Presidential Council of Libya Mohamed al-Manfi (L) during the International conference on Libya  in Paris on Nov. 12.
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) meets with Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah (R) and head of the Presidential Council of Libya Mohamed al-Manfi (L) during the International conference on Libya in Paris on Nov. 12. YOAN VALAT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For all the heady talk of newfound momentum amid great expectations for the December elections, the International Conference on Libya held in Paris on Nov. 12 was a major disappointment.

The latest in a series of half-baked but grandiose international events on the Libyan quagmire, the Paris Conference was held just three weeks after yet another “international conference” on Libya in Tripoli, on Oct. 21. None of these conferences produced any tangible outcome that could provide a credible sense of hope that Libya is close to ending its protracted instability. In addition to renewing the usually ignored calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries, both conferences emphasized the need to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 24.

Instead of seeking to address head-on the irreconcilable positions of different Libyan stakeholders and the pending issues that threaten to unravel the current political process and plunge the country into another period of chaos, the Paris gathering was merely superficial diplomacy aimed at asserting France’s status as a major player in Libya’s future.

For all the heady talk of newfound momentum amid great expectations for the December elections, the International Conference on Libya held in Paris on Nov. 12 was a major disappointment.

The latest in a series of half-baked but grandiose international events on the Libyan quagmire, the Paris Conference was held just three weeks after yet another “international conference” on Libya in Tripoli, on Oct. 21. None of these conferences produced any tangible outcome that could provide a credible sense of hope that Libya is close to ending its protracted instability. In addition to renewing the usually ignored calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries, both conferences emphasized the need to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 24.

Instead of seeking to address head-on the irreconcilable positions of different Libyan stakeholders and the pending issues that threaten to unravel the current political process and plunge the country into another period of chaos, the Paris gathering was merely superficial diplomacy aimed at asserting France’s status as a major player in Libya’s future.

It is remarkable that an event that meticulously avoided the elephant in the room—namely, the announcements that Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Aguilah Saleh were running for president—could ever conceive of itself as laying the groundwork for Libya’s transition to democracy.


The Paris conference did provide a window into one of the chief factors that has long undermined U.N.-led multilateral diplomacy: The stubborn belief that the holding of elections is a panacea and a goal in itself, rather than a means to create the conditions for a smooth and orderly transition.

Emphatic but hollow calls for elections have become the very raison d’etre of the increasingly inefficient international community whenever faced with cases of political instability. This is the case in Libya, where elections are considered to be the answer—regardless of whether the political, social, and legal conditions are in place to ensure a stable transition. Hence, it was no surprise to see participants at the Paris Conference focus more on urging Libyans to abide by the timetable set by the U.N. in February, while glossing over the legal and constitutional hurdles standing in the way of genuinely free and fair elections.

Nothing has been done to address the deep-seated animosity between western and eastern Libya. Add to this the controversy surrounding Saleh, who as Speaker of the House of Representatives unilaterally issued an electoral law by decree. This law neither enjoys the approval of the parliament, nor that of the High Council of State, thus contravening the provisions of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement. Also, it allows military and civilian incumbents to step down while they run for office with the possibility of returning to their positions in case they lose.

With no forceful action to tie the hands of bad actors, calls for “free and democratic elections” simply set the scene for another long period of post-election instability and chaos.

This raises the likelihood of a rerun of the post-2014 election period in the event that Saleh and Haftar lose. Ever since the June 2014 elections, both figures have stood in the way of all international efforts aimed at steering Libya toward stability and peace with Haftar staging a military coup against the sitting governments and Saleh refusing to abide by the 2015 U.N.-brokered Libyan Political Agreement he had himself signed.

Haftar is accused of committing war crimes and is facing legal charges in a U.S. court. Saleh was subjected to sanctions by both the EU and the United States for obstructing Libya’s march toward stability and democracy.

The U.N. must ask: What is the point of holding numerous international conferences if their outcomes are not fully implemented?  What credibility is left for the U.N. if it allows bad actors to take part in a process that was already sabotaged by them and if the Security Council resolutions, even those adopted under Chapter VII, remain a dead letter?

The answer is very simple: With no forceful action to tie the hands of these problematic figures, calls for “free and democratic elections” in the prevailing atmosphere in Libya will simply set the scene for another long period of post-election instability and chaos. Rather than making the holding of elections the core of their peacemaking mission in Libya, the U.N. and major powers should have the courage and the leadership to call a spade a spade.


A serious and realistic debate about Libya’s future should have started by making sure that all foreign countries and their proxies abide by both the provisions of the October 2020 ceasefire agreement and the U.N. Security Council resolutions 2570 and 2571 adopted in April this year.

Resolution 2571 called on all parties to comply with the ceasefire agreement and for the “withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries without further delay.” Ensuring compliance with this resolution should go hand in hand with ensuring the full adherence of all parties to Libya’s arms embargo.

Since the U.N. has failed to impose its terms on internal actors and regional players who welcomed and then conveniently ignored its resolutions, the United States and EU must step in and impose crippling sanctions on Libyan actors while threatening to suspend their military and security cooperation with foreign players.

To do this, however, Brussels must set its own house in order when it comes to supporting problematic Libyan actors. Intra-NATO and intra-European competition, as evidenced in France and Italy being engaged on opposing fronts in the conflict, means that the West cannot demand that other foreign powers to exit Libya while some of its members are playing a central role in prolonging the conflict.

Another problem with the Paris Conference is France’s own involvement in the Libyan quagmire. Despite professing support for the interim government and the U.N.’s peacemaking efforts, the French government has a known track record of providing Haftar with weapons, intelligence, and training. As an interested party with a history of financial and logistical backing for one of the actors, only by ending its own violation of the U.N.’s arms embargo can France be entitled to pose as a genuine peace broker in Libya.

The U.N.’s rush to reach a feel-good political win is pushing Libya toward another period of armed conflict and division. 

Business as usual is no longer an option. It would be delusional to believe that a smooth transition to democracy through “transparent and fair elections” is possible while 20,000 foreign forces and mercenaries are still roaming the country.

A country that is still grappling with the presence of foreign forces, where the interim Prime Minister cannot travel from west to east because one of the stakeholders—Haftar—enjoys the support of mercenaries from Russia, Sudan, Syria, and Chad, cannot be regarded as a sovereign country. Only when foreign mercenaries and forces are compelled to leave can Libya regain its sovereignty and hope to recover from its debilitating decade-long war.

The removal of foreign mercenaries would go a long way in depriving Haftar and his allies of decisive leverage, leaving them no choice but to commit to a political compromise. This could pave the way toward some semblance of reconciliation between the east and the west, an essential condition to ensure the country does not relapse into armed conflict.

Achieving reconciliation must go hand in hand with efforts to resolve several thorny issues. These would include power-sharing after the elections, allocation of resources between different parts of the country, bringing the military under the control of the interim government, and a comprehensive agreement on the criteria and mechanisms for appointment to leadership positions in government institutions in line with Article 15 of the Libyan Political Agreement.


The U.N. once had a realistic shot at achieving tangible progress. But it failed to build on the momentum created by the series of meetings that representatives from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the Tripoli-based High Council of State held in Morocco last fall. These meetings produced a landmark agreement on the appointment process for the seven institutions, including that of Governor of the Central Bank. Instead of ensuring the implementation of those arrangements, a process-obsessed U.N. threw its weight behind holding elections without working on establishing the right conditions for such a vote.

The U.N.’s rush to reach a feel-good political win and launch a new process irrespective of the polarized and divisive political landscape prevailing in Libya has led to a situation where, three weeks before the scheduled elections, a thick cloud of uncertainty still hovers over them. As a result, Libya is edging more toward another period of armed conflict and division.

Besides the disastrous consequences that this scenario would have on the well-being and livelihood of the Libyan people and on the viability of Libya as an independent and sovereign state, prolonging the conflict will provide a breeding ground for the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the region. This could have far-reaching consequences for countries in the region, as well as for the security and economic interests of both the United States and the EU.

A beleaguered and unstable Libya would only benefit Russia. Russia’s behavior and its tendency to play eastern and western Libyan authorities against each other suggests its interests lie more in prolonging the conflict than in solving it. This was on display in January 2019 when Russia made no effort to pressure Haftar to sign an agreement with the former Government of National Accord after hosting the Russian-Turkish summit.

While Russia has provided military support to Haftar through the Wagner Group, it has neither bet fully on his ability to take control of Libya nor provided him with decisive military force to ensure victory. Instead, it has sought to ensure that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s loyalists have a say in Libya’s future. Russia has ultimately succeeded in ensuring  loyalists’ participation in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum.

As the U.N. struggles to navigate Libya’s convoluted political process and faces the prospect of a new period of upheaval and division, it must acknowledge its original sin: a rush to elections while overlooking all the complexities and nuances of the conflict.

Samir Bennis is a Washington-based political analyst specializing in Arab affairs and Morocco’s foreign policy. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News. His publications have appeared in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic. Twitter: @SamirBennis

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