Analysis

Elections Can’t Fix What’s Wrong With Libya

A canceled presidential election might be just what the country needs.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Libyans demonstrate against election postponement.
Libyans demonstrate against the postponement of the elections in the city of Benghazi on Dec. 24. ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 21, 2021, two days before Libyans were supposed to elect a president who could finally unify the country behind a single leader, Libya’s election commission effectively postponed the vote. Violence suddenly seemed imminent in Tripoli, the capital city. Nongovernment militias used sandbags and pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on them to create roadblocks. Colleges and universities shut down in anticipation of trouble. The United Nations warned the country risked losing a chance to end the conflict that has ravaged the country since the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. 

But rather than offering a solution to Libya’s problems, an election might have simply compounded them. The existing election law hasn’t been accepted by all the participants; there are ongoing disputes over the eligibility of some of the main candidates and the eventual powers of the future president and parliament. If the election had gone ahead as scheduled on Dec. 24, it’s hardly clear that all sides would have accepted their legitimacy. There would have almost certainly been clashes among rival political groups and military factions, which could have plunged the country deeper into crisis. 

At the heart of Libya’s problems is the continued absence of a constitution—or even an agreement on the basic political principles needed to create one. In this context, an election would have simply been a political bludgeon handed to one of the many rival claimants to power. 

On Dec. 21, 2021, two days before Libyans were supposed to elect a president who could finally unify the country behind a single leader, Libya’s election commission effectively postponed the vote. Violence suddenly seemed imminent in Tripoli, the capital city. Nongovernment militias used sandbags and pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on them to create roadblocks. Colleges and universities shut down in anticipation of trouble. The United Nations warned the country risked losing a chance to end the conflict that has ravaged the country since the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. 

But rather than offering a solution to Libya’s problems, an election might have simply compounded them. The existing election law hasn’t been accepted by all the participants; there are ongoing disputes over the eligibility of some of the main candidates and the eventual powers of the future president and parliament. If the election had gone ahead as scheduled on Dec. 24, it’s hardly clear that all sides would have accepted their legitimacy. There would have almost certainly been clashes among rival political groups and military factions, which could have plunged the country deeper into crisis. 

At the heart of Libya’s problems is the continued absence of a constitution—or even an agreement on the basic political principles needed to create one. In this context, an election would have simply been a political bludgeon handed to one of the many rival claimants to power. 

Libya is today split between eastern territories dominated by the Russia-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar and Turkey-backed western forces, as well as myriad militias. The candidates who have emerged from this fractured landscape are hardly unifying. Three of the strongest candidates were also the most divisive; the legal legitimacy of their candidacies were themselves in dispute. Each could have used the election to carve a path toward another era of authoritarianism. 

Haftar is the most feared figure in the Libyan theater and runs the east on the back of the 25,000-strong Libyan National Army (LNA), as well as with ground support from Russian mercenaries. While he has some popular appeal in the east among people who crave stability and see him as a strongman capable of bringing everyone else in line, others think he will rig the elections at gunpoint without compunction. Haftar’s candidacy has been under dispute since he and his allies were accused of twisting the election law in his favor. A clause was inserted in the law that demanded officials give up their existing positions to be able to contest the elections, but only for three months. That meant that if Haftar had lost a presidential election last month, he could still have returned to being the LNA’s military chief and exert influence through a parallel army in the country. 

Anas El Gomati, the founder and current director-general of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, said that Haftar has no intentions of giving up control whether he wins or loses. “If he wins, he will use electoral legitimacy to return to war against his military rivals,” Gomati said. If he loses he could drag out the state-building process and hold it hostage to his demands. 

Gomati added that the delay in elections remains largely a result of the reemergence of Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi as a challenger to Haftar. 

Muammar al-Qaddafi’s London-educated son Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi first came to attention in the midst of the revolution as a somewhat acceptable face, a Qaddafi who wore Western clothes and spoke of reforms and democracy. But that charade was soon over; he aligned himself firmly with his father and ominously warned of “rivers of blood” running through Libya if the rebels didn’t find an agreement with the dictator. A few months later, after his father was killed by a Libyan mob, the younger Qaddafi was taken hostage by an independent militia and brought to their base in Zintan. 

Last year, the son reemerged, not in a suit and tie but in a traditional “gulf-style gown with gold fringes” when he met with a reporter from the New York Times Magazine to declare his presidential dreams. 

Qaddafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court on accusations of crimes against humanity, and he was sentenced to death in absentia by a Tripoli court in 2015 for ordering violence against protesters. But he regrets neither his father’s excesses nor his own alleged war crimes. “Seif told me he was confident that these legal issues could be negotiated away if a majority of the Libyan people choose him as their leader,” Robert Worth wrote in the New York Times Magazine

People who back Haftar also see Qaddafi as an option. Many fighters in Haftar’s LNA earlier served Muammar al-Qaddafi. Then there are Libyans who feel cheated by the revolution and are nostalgic about the days of relative stability under the dictator. Some of them think his son could be the answer to their problems. 

Haftar is aware of Qaddafi’s appeal to his support base, and to counter that he has reached out to heavyweights of the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Last month, he met with two other leading presidential candidates from western Libya, including former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, in a public sign of rapprochement that alluded to the possibility of division of power in the future. 

The other strong candidate is interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. His government was installed under a U.N.-led process in March 2021 to create an amicable atmosphere for elections, but he himself was barred from contesting the presidency. He conveniently ignored that and threw his hat in the ring. 

A businessman, Dbeibah threw money at problems as interim prime minister, hoping to be rewarded at the ballot. In fact, in a poll conducted by Diwan, a think tank, while 14 percent of people surveyed wanted Qaddafi to be president, nearly 50 percent preferred the rich businessman. “Dbeibah has been spending heavily since the last nine months,” Gomati said. “He is a skilled implementer and set realistic goals around socioeconomics, jobs, salary packages, and services.”

These contestants were banking on their challengers being dismissed to improve their chances. But in the end, none of them backed down. “My best guess at explaining the last-minute abandonment of the election is that various Libyan factions, including those supporting the three top candidates, had mistakenly thought the others would be disbarred,” said Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst with the International Crisis Group, “but when they instead realized that they would be running against their foes and risked losing against them, they opted to freeze the process.” 

Libya’s High National Election Commission recommended that elections be held a month later, in January, a timeline promptly ruled out by the parliament, which argues an election is pointless until a consensus has been reached on major disagreements. But that could mean an indefinite delay. The oil-rich African nation’s big problem is that no faction wants to step aside and embrace a truly democratic process. U.N. diplomats have been trying to develop some consensus but have had little luck. But the U.N.’s role has itself been a subject of controversy. 

Stephanie Williams, the U.N.’s special advisor on Libya, was first appointed to resolve the Libyan crisis in March 2020. She oversaw a cease-fire in October 2020 that has held thus far. She also got all sides to agree to elections. But in January 2021 she was replaced by Jan Kubis. Under Kubis’s tenure none of the substantive hurdles to ensure running an election were resolved. Williams was reinstated two weeks before the elections, on Dec. 12. She has been shuttling between different political players trying to stitch up a compromise.

There is growing fear that Libya may remain divided permanently. Some have even suggested federalism or splitting the country into three autonomous regions, as during colonial times. That suits the men holding the country hostage to their ambitions, but experts find the idea unrealistic. Division of oil revenue, for instance, would remain a major issue were the country to be officially cleaved. 

But the U.N. process that intends to unite Libya and carve a path to a modern state via elections is on life support. The margin of success is slim, especially compared to the likelihood of renewed violence and chaos.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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