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.
Since the uprisings in Libya began in February 2011, the country has seen considerable and almost constant upheaval. International players have tried to facilitate a transition to democracy, but success has been fleeting.
Now, in the midst of political division and internal conflict, Libyans are attempting to hold presidential and parliamentary elections.
Necessary as these elections are, they are a risky endeavor, and could easily result in an escalation of violence if they are executed poorly.
Drawing on interviews and an extensive review of secondary sources, this report outlines the factors that contribute to the ongoing violence that threaten Libya’s upcoming elections, an overview of the major actors, the complex interests and grievances at play, the windows and triggers for election-related violence, the opportunities to prevent violence, pre- and postelection challenges, possible election outcomes and scenarios, and recommendations for the international community.
- Amid deadlock in resolving Libya’s internal conflict, Libyans and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya are preparing to hold presidential and parliamentary elections— possibly before the end of 2018.
- Because none of Libya’s existing governments has enough legitimacy to garner the necessary domestic and international support, elections are necessary. Elections, however, present a serious risk—especially if they are held prematurely.
- The risk for violence and further state collapse is heightened by Libya’s long-standing fragmentation, its recent history, and uncertainty around the future of the state.
- Raising the stakes is competition over Libya’s state institutions, oil resources, and frozen assets. Political, factional, and local grievances also exacerbate the risks for violence.
- The ongoing National Conference, subnational reconciliations, security-sector reform talks, and the inability of any actor to militarily dominate could all serve as resiliencies as Libyans approach elections. These are likely not enough, however, to mitigate much of the expected violence.
- The UN Support Mission and the international community are encouraging competing Libyan factions to come together to produce a constitution and election laws. Both are crucial steps before elections are held.
- After the elections, Libyans will face a host of unresolved challenges, not the least of which will be consolidating competing factions, finalizing a constitution if this is not accomplished before the elections, and conducting security-sector reform.
- The international community should support alternatives that delay general elections. This would give Libyans time to work toward compromises and establish conditions for more durable elections that see less violence.
- Members of the international community also need to be more deliberate in coordinating their approach to avoid unintentionally complicating efforts in Libya.
- Finally, the international community should prepare for the possibility that elections could prompt another, more intense phase of violence.
Since the uprisings in Libya began in February 2011, the country has seen considerable upheaval. The international community has tried to facilitate a transition to democracy, but success in remedying Libya’s fragmented politics has been fleeting thus far.
The General National Congress (GNC)—an outcome of the July 2012 elections—and the government it formed proved unable to withstand the centrifugal forces of competing militias and power centers that pulled away from Tripoli and continue to violently contest fledgling state institutions, resources, and territory.
The June 2014 elections produced a rival parliament—the eastern-based
House of Representatives (HoR)—and resulted in a multiyear internal conflict. Since then, Libya has seen fierce fighting among numerous militias, many of which have taken zero-sum positions, though none is powerful enough to take control of the country.
Amid the conflict, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has worked toward a resolution by mediating negotiations between the competing governments, which resulted in the Libya Political Agreement (LPA).
The Government of National Accord (GNA), intended to be a unity government; and most recently, in September 2017, an “Action Plan” intended to facilitate a national conference, fully enact the LPA, establish a constitution, create election laws, and, last, hold presidential and parliamentary elections before the end of 2018.
Almost a year later, little progress has been made on any of these objectives, and the peace process has continued to stagnate. If the current dynamics persist, it is unlikely that Libyans will both fully undertake the action plan and hold elections by the end of 2018.
If factions attempt to bypass or rush crucial elements—especially the enactment of a constitution—and move toward elections too quickly, the results could be disastrous.
Without a constitution in place, newly elected leaders will have poorly constrained powers and poorly defined term limits and mandates, and the stakes for the elections will therefore be far higher than they would be otherwise.
Clashes and violence are expected regardless of election results, and, in the probable outcomes this report explores, multiple scenarios portend a high probability for escalated conflict.
Despite the risk, international powers—most notably France—have pressed for elections on a tight time frame. On May 29, 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron held a conference in Paris with prominent Libyan figures representing competing governments and factions and reached an agreement to hold elections by December 10, 2018.
If Libyans are to meet this deadline, they may need to skip over fully implementing the action plan. They will, at the very
least, need to draft and pass election laws before holding new elections and to come to some kind of constitutional basis. Because opportunities for obstruction in this process are numerous, the possibility is very real that either militias or political factions could prevent elections from coming to fruition.
Elections are indeed necessary to produce a new body that Libyans and the international community can support to take up the mantle of governance and state-building, but they are a dangerous undertaking.
Because Libya is in a state of tumultuous transition and conflict, the risk for election violence—that is, violence intended to influence outcomes, invalidate results, or disrupt and prevent elections altogether—at each stage of the electoral process is high.
Libya is controlled by competing and clashing militias rather than by cohesive political institutions and a unified security apparatus, and thus elections, if they are held, will take place under varied levels of security across the country.
The access of the High National Election Commission (HNEC) to multiple areas will likely be inhibited, making elections all the more contentious.
Even if elections avoid exacerbating the conflict and produce a new government, they will hardly address the underlying drivers for violence in Libya, which require both short- and long-term mitigating measures.
Elections will, in a best-case scenario, be a horizontal move to transfer power from defunct and competing institutions to a new body that the international community can support.
A new government will still face profound challenges as it attempts reconciliation and undertakes much needed state-building measures, and it could easily falter.
This report uses a modified version of the US Department of State Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations’ Electoral Violence Assessment Framework as a methodology, complemented by relevant elements from other leading frameworks and practice guidelines.
The report is structured as a hybrid between an electoral violence assessment and an analysis of the conflict rather than as a traditional electoral violence assessment.
This is necessary given that Libya’s elections are not the continuing function of an existing state but rather part of an attempt to construct a new state out of ongoing internal conflict.
In addition to an extensive review of secondary sources, the author and contributors interviewed UNSMIL officials, Libyan interlocutors and practitioners, country and regional experts in the US government, nongovernmental organizations, and the academic community
working on and in Libya.
Multiple factors increase the likelihood for violence and could prompt a resumption and intensification of conflict around Libya’s next elections.
These include, but are not limited to, the long-standing fragmentary nature of the state, the recent history of contested elections and internal conflict, and the profound uncertainty regarding Libya’s future.
A Fragmented Libya
Libya’s fragmentation, a major source of conflict and impediment to electoral success, is by no means a new phenomenon.
Since well before the formation of the modern state of Libya, inhabitants of the three regions of the country—Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan—have been, for the most part, tribally and locally oriented.
When Muammar Gadhafi took power in 1969, he began further de-institutionalizing Libya, abolishing the monarchy and later creating what he called the Jamahiriya, a “state of the masses.”
Although the Jamahiriya was nominally an experiment in direct democracy, it was hardly a functioning democratic enterprise. Instead, it consisted of disparate local governance committees—which bypassed central institutions and had direct relationships with an all-powerful Gadhafi—and, as a result, Gadhafi became the only entity holding Libya’s localities together.
Given the country’s historical lack of strong central institutions, the fall of Gadhafi resulted in the fragmentation of a fragile order. Now,
as Libyans approach elections, they are not trying to restore cohesion. Rather, they are trying to form institutions and cohesion for the first time. Electoral politics in such a fractious environment portend violence.
Recent Electoral History
Previous electoral contestation, violence, and internal conflict are predictors for future election violence, and, indeed, all three factors have been present in Libya since the Gadhafi regime collapsed in 2011.
Although the July 2012 parliamentary elections did not result in significant violence, the body they produced—the GNC—and the government that parliament formed failed to quell internal rivalries, setting the stage for contestation and disorder and inhibiting Libya’s transition.
The secular-oriented National Forces Alliance (NFA) initially won the plurality of seats, but the Muslim Brotherhood, by forming alliances with independents and Salafists, overtook the NFA.
In May 2013, the Islamist-dominated GNC passed the highly controversial Political Isolation Law to prevent any officials of the former Gadhafi regime from holding office—a measure widely regarded as targeting the NFA and secular parties.
In December 2013, the GNC controversially voted to extend its mandate from February 2014 until December 2014. Met with backlash over the extension, the GNC relented, agreeing to hold parliamentary elections later in 2014.
However, prior to these elections, Khalifa Haftar—a former general in Gadhafi’s armed forces, an anti-Gadhafi dissident in the 1980s and 1990s, and most recently a self-appointed military leader in eastern Libya—launched a military campaign dubbed Operation Dignity.
In May 2014, gunmen loyal to Haftar stormed the parliament building, taking hostages and forcibly suspending the GNC. Haftar concurrently launched a military campaign on Salafi jihadist militias in Benghazi, some of which were affiliated with and loyal to the GNC.
Sporadic fighting continued across Libya in the following weeks. In June, with forces loyal to Haftar still holding Tripoli, elections were held to replace the GNC. These elections saw notably low turnout—largely because of violence that prevented polling in numerous loca-tions across the country.
Given the low turnout, secular factions aligned with Haftar defeated the Islamists handily. In July 2014, Misratan militias and their Islamist allies launched Operation Libya Dawn in Tripoli in defense of the would-be outgoing GNC.
These militias prevented the newly elected body, referred to as the House of Representatives, from taking power in Tripoli, and the security situation made it impossible for the body to take power in Benghazi.
In turn, the HoR relocated to the eastern city of Tobruk. Meanwhile, the GNC refused to disband and remained in power in Tripoli.
In November 2014, Libya’s Supreme Court ruled that the HoR was illegitimate, but the HoR and its supporters rejected the ruling, accusing Misratan and Islamist militias of holding the Tripoli-based court hostage.
The political and electoral dispute resulted in a multiyear factional conflict, and though fighting has slowed and the security situation
has improved in Benghazi and Tripoli, the experience of 2014 set a bad precedent. For Libya’s competing factions, it is clear that violence can be an effective response to electoral disputes.
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.