By Alexander A. Decina, Darine El Hage and Nathaniel L. Wilson
Libyans need new elections to produce a competent and electorally legitimate government that the international community can support in navigating the myriad challenges the country faces….That said, elections themselves present a major risk.
Compromise Candidate Wins
A compromise candidate from the east or the west—one amenable to the interests of factions and militias across the country—would surely produce the best possible outcomes in postelections Libya, but such a candidate may struggle to come to the fore. The more oriented candidates are for compromise, the more difficulty they will face in consolidating enough support in their base to ascend to the presidency.
If, however, a compromise candidate does manage to win the presidency, they may well have some success in constructing a viable government and patronage network that consolidates enough domestic political and military support to survive. Success in such an endeavor will of course depend on the willingness of regional and international powers to curtail their support for actors outside the central government that elections produce.
Any new government, no matter how compromise-oriented, will still be too weak to wield formal control over the security sector. Alternate streams of support that enable competing militias to evade compromises will therefore have the potential to critically undermine the new government.
Even if the new government is able to implement a balanced patronage network, it will still face challenges from spoilers—including Salafi jihadist fighters and others who have remained outside the UN-sponsored peace process. These actors may well use violence to disrupt government operations and postelection state-building efforts. This violence could include assassination attempts, kidnappings, and clashes with state-aligned militias.
Moreover, even militias that are incorporated into the state are likely to retain their existing structures and could easily defect and use violence should the government enact political, security, or economic policies that threaten their interests.
If a compromise candidate creates a government that entails a patronage system balanced enough to ensure militias’ support—and if that government is complemented by a parliament balanced between members of prominent eastern and western factions—then the new government may have enough credibility to enact more lasting political solutions than Libya’s existing governments have been able to produce.
Eastern Hard-Line Candidate Wins
An eastern hard-line candidate—one not inclined to incorporate and extend adequate patronage to western opponents—would likely face tremendous challenges in consolidating power and could provoke substantial violence in the process.
Any eastern figure who wants to take office in the capital would need to make deals with major militias in Tripoli and mainstream Misratan militias, but the more hard-line an eastern president, the less likely they would be to compromise with western militias for fear of compromising standing and support in the east. A hard-line eastern president may forgo Tripoli altogether, opting to take office in Benghazi—a move that would certainly provoke contestations.
Regardless of where a hard-line eastern president takes office, a number of western militias are likely to remain outside the confines of the state and, disaffected, may be inclined to use violence and direct money, arms, and other resources to Salafi jihadist groups—just as they did in the 2014 conflict—in order to prevent the new government from functioning or even taking office.
In such circumstances, the levels of violence would lead to considerable instability and could cripple the new government—especially if anti-government subnational actors secure foreign support.
Western Hard-Line Candidate Wins
If a hard-line candidate from the west wins, and if the government the new president forms receives international support, then the majority of western factions are likely to consolidate around the new body, but eastern factions are unlikely to be swayed. Absent a president who is willing to extend patronage or advantageous formal security arrangements, Haftar, the LNA, and other eastern militias are highly unlikely to adhere to the state.
Eastern political factions likewise will be highly unlikely to accept the legitimacy of elections and the new government. A hard-line western president will give HoR members impetus to maintain their parallel parliament in Tobruk in opposition to the new government and strengthen their ties with antistate LNA militias.
Without acquiescence from eastern factions, the new government will have virtually no access to Cyrenaica and its oil resources and infrastructure. This could prompt clashes between pro-government western and anti-government eastern militias—especially if eastern factions cease cooperating with the Tripoli government to export oil.
If eastern factions continue receiving support from the UAE and Egypt, they will likely be able to maintain their hold on the east and could effect a de facto partition of the country—something that could easily prompt a violent reaction by western militias that fear losing access to Libya’s natural resources. The current conflict will continue and could very well see more intense and sustained fighting.
A Gadhafist Candidate Wins
A third scenario is one in which Gadhafi loyalists who are not currently affiliated with the LNA and the NFA come to power. The most prominent force in this camp is the Supreme Council of Libyan Tribes and Cities (SCLTC), which has coalesced around Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Gadhafi, who had been held prisoner since 2011 by a Zintani militia until the HoR passed an amnesty law in June 2017 that allowed for his release.
His whereabouts, however, remain unknown. In December 2017, the SCLTC announced that Saif al-Islam will run for president in the next elections, claiming he “enjoys the support of the major tribes in Libya.” Indications of Saif al-Gadhafi’s popularity beyond the SCLTC’s claims are scant.
In the event that Saif al-Gadhafi does run and wins the presidency, he will likely try to form a new government that draws support from tribal factions that have sympathies for the late leader and have been disaffected by Libya’s governments since 2011.
Because the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Saif al-Islam for crimes against humanity committed during the 2011 uprising, providing support for a government he forms would pose a real dilemma for members of the international community.
They may well choose not to assist a Saif al-Gadhafi government or to release Libya’s frozen assets to it, making it far more difficult for Saif al-Gadhafi to form a durable patronage system and win adequate domestic support. If major militias and factions in both the west and the east cannot be appeased, they are likely to reject the new government—perhaps violently.
Perhaps the only way Saif al-Islam or another Gadhafist figure could hold on to power would be to form an alliance with Haftar and the LNA. If such an alliance were to come to fruition, it would exacerbate Libya’s polarization, intensifying already deep anti-Gadhafi sentiments and grievances against the former Gadhafists in the LNA.
This could easily result in an escalation of violence, given that multiple disaffected anti-Gadhafi factions would be reenergized to fight. The chances of success for Saif al-Gadhafi or any other outright Gadhafist actually winning elections are slim, however.
Although it is difficult to gauge what support they have among Libya’s tribal entities, Gadhafists do not control or enjoy significant influence over any of Libya’s institutions responsible for drafting election laws and carrying out elections. Because the HoR and HCS factions are producing the election law drafts, it is unlikely that they will knowingly create the space for a Gadhafist victory.
Even HoR factions that quietly lean pro-Gadhafist—including the factions that secured Saif al-Gadhafi’s release—have incentives to avoid an outright Gadhafist coming to power for fear of alienating their own anti-Gadhafist constituencies.
Parliamentary outcomes will also play a major role in the success or failure of a new government and the violence Libya will see after the elections. The composition of the legislature will be especially consequential if a permanent constitution is not yet approved because the new body will then be tasked with ratifying and preparing a referendum for the constitution—be it the current draft or a new one.
If parliamentary elections yield a legislature that is balanced between competing factions from the east and the west—and, critically, if these results are complemented by a compromise-oriented presidential figure—such an outcome may minimize boycotting and defection and, in turn, produce a functioning legislature that can replace the HoR, the HCS, and the GNC.
Such a body may have more credibility and success in producing compromises on a constitution (assuming one is not yet passed), which can then serve as a mechanism by which a compromise-oriented government’s patronage can be distributed to localities across the country.
Some factions and candidates may still boycott, including federalists in the east and hard-line Islamists in the west.
These figures may continue operating the remnants of the HoR and the GNC, but if the new parliament retains enough membership—and if militias on both sides of the country are incorporated into the new government—then the boycotters likely will not have enough strength to prevent the new government from operating.
If elections produce a balanced parliament but do so alongside a hard-line president—whether the president is from the west or the east—the new legislature will likely be less successful in discouraging defections and boycotting from the camp opposite the president. Members of the new parliament opposed to the president will be unlikely to legitimize a government that does not afford them sufficient patronage.
Assuming the hard-line president also deprives opposing militias of patronage, parliamentary boycotters and fighters may remain aligned in opposition to the new government, making it even more difficult for it to function.
If one faction or camp wins parliamentary elections by a wide margin, the outcomes that follow will depend on whether the parliament is stacked in favor of or against the winner of the presidential elections.
If the parliament is dominated by factions aligned with the president—especially a hard-line president—losing factions will more likely contest the results and boycott the body, continuing to run their own parallel governments.
HoR members are unlikely to disband in favor of a new parliament dominated by their opponents alongside a western president they believe will oppose their interests. Likewise, GNC and current HCS members are less likely to accept a parliament dominated by HoR factions alongside an eastern figure as president, and they will be more likely to maintain their own parallel institutions.
If enough members from the east or the west boycott, they will undermine disparate localities’ confidence in the new government, which will then have more difficulty consolidating support after taking power.
Insofar as this outcome makes it harder to coalesce militias, greater instability and more violence may result. Alternatively, a scenario in which the new parliament is dominated by factions that oppose the new president would present both a challenge and an opportunity.
On the one hand, success in parliamentary elections could inflate factions’ and their militias’ positions, making them more intractable in negotiations on critical state-building measures with their opponents who, holding the presidency, may also have inflated positions.
Moreover, the parliament would be highly unlikely to accept and prepare a referendum for a constitution if one is not yet passed by the time of elections, as doing so would likely enhance the credibility and international legitimacy of a president they oppose.
On the other hand, a parliament dominated by factions opposite the president could afford the president an opportunity and a mechanism by which to incorporate opponents into the government’s patronage networks. This could serve as a basis for cross-factional cooperation on which Libyans can build.
Moreover, if the July 2017 draft constitution is passed, the parliament will theoretically have some checks it can put on the president if it can reach a two-thirds majority, perhaps making the dominant parliamentary factions less likely to boycott after losing presidential elections.
Parliament Dominated by Independent Candidates
If election laws are drafted to allow a sizeable cohort of candidates to run and take office as independents rather than on party lists, it will likely be unclear—at least initially—which factions dominate the parliament. Such independent candidates played a major role in Libya’s previous elections.
Although Islamist factions came in second to the NFA in the July 2012 contest, they eventually overtook their secular opponents by forming alliances with independent candidates whose allegiances were previously unknown.
In the 2014 elections—in which no party lists were allowed and all candidates were independents—the NFA and eastern federalists dominated. It remains to be seen who would benefit from a wide array of independent candidates in Libya’s next elections, and not knowing who dominates the parliament could make factions more skeptical of the new government.
But the ambiguity could also buy the new government some time to establish itself and its political alliances before losing factions register their loss and respond with violence.
Alexander A. Decina is an Amman-based analyst and Boren Fellow focused on conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa with particular attention to factional dynamics, security and political developments, and diplomatic efforts in Libya and Syria. A Middle East and North Africa consultant, he conducts predictive and diagnostic analysis on conflicts across the region for private-sector clientele.
Darine El Hage is a regional program manager for North Africa at USIP’s Center for Middle East and Africa based in Tunis, Tunisia.
Nathaniel L. Wilson is a program officer covering Libya for USIP, leading its programming in rule of law and local reconciliation peacebuilding initiatives.