The country lacks an electoral law, political freedoms and security. What could go wrong?
Saif Al-Qaddafi is determined not to let a death sentence stop him from running for president. The son of Libya’s deposed dictator was captured after the revolution in 2011 and later condemned by the government in Tripoli (his father was killed by a mob). But the militia that held Saif ignored the sentence and released him.
He has been out of sight for years and is wanted for war crimes. Still, if Libya goes ahead with a planned election this year, the man who once vowed to spill “rivers of blood” to protect his father hopes to stand as a candidate.
The uprising shattered Libya into a collection of fiefs ruled by militias. Libyans and foreign diplomats have spent years trying to put the country back together.
The new UN envoy, Ghassan Salamé, took office in August hoping to fix a deal from 2015 that tried—and failed—to unite everyone behind a single government. He hoped Libya would then hold a national conference and a referendum on a draft constitution. Only after all that should it call parliamentary and presidential elections.
His efforts, though, have not yielded much progress. Talks to fix the deal, called the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), stalled in October. The national conference has not happened.
In his last update to the UN Security Council, Mr Salamé said that it would not occur until after Ramadan, which ends in mid-June. The constitution remains a source of disagreement; no referendum is scheduled.
The “government of national accord” (GNA) in Tripoli, which was created by the LPA, has nevertheless jumped ahead to the last step. In December it launched a voter-registration drive, a precursor to elections later this year.
It now has a voter roll with more than 2m names. But it is missing other ingredients for a successful vote, such as an electoral law, political freedoms and security. A separate government in the east, dominated by the country’s warlord, Khalifa Haftar, shuns the GNA.
The last election, in 2014, was a disaster. Low turnout and a dispute over the process led to the creation of rival parliaments in the east and the west. There is no reason to expect better this time.
Militias hold sway across Libya, suppressing critics. General Haftar, who heads the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), rules the east with an iron fist (with backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates). “Libya today couldn’t be further away from…acceptable conditions for free elections,” warns Human Rights Watch, a pressure group.
A presidential election would be particularly divisive. One potential candidate, Fayez al-Serraj, the head of the GNA, is struggling to exert control, even in Tripoli. Last summer he agreed to a truce with General Haftar and reportedly offered to share power with him. But General Haftar refused.
His LNA continues to fight militias aligned with the GNA. He is open to elections, but warns that he will “take action” if he dislikes the outcome. The two sides cannot even agree on Saif’s fate: the eastern parliament granted him amnesty in 2017; Mr Serraj refuses to recognise it.
The younger Qaddafi hopes to “restore the Libyan state”, says his spokesman. Many Libyans would endorse that goal (if not Saif’s candidacy).
Income per capita is a third lower than it was in 2010. But where the fighting has abated, things are looking up. Oil revenues nearly tripled in 2017, from the year before, as improved security allowed the main fields and export terminals to reopen.
The dinar has strengthened. For good reason, most Libyans just want the war to end everywhere else.