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.
Uncertainty Regarding Libya’s Future
Although UN-led negotiations produced a political agreement and the GNA in December 2015, crucial issues remain unresolved.
The lack of resolution leaves open the space for violent competition to answer questions of governance and security, thus presenting a significant risk ahead of elections.
The most prominent of Libya’s unresolved issues are the lack of a constitution and, relatedly, the lack of clarity on the structure of the next government and the security sector.
The Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) completed a draft constitution on July 29, 2017, but the Libya Political Agreement still requires the draft to be ratified by a public referendum organized by the HoR.
Political rivalry between and within eastern and western blocs and disputes over the constitutional draft’s measures may stand in the way of its adoption.
And even if these impasses are resolved, given the time that would be needed for preparations, holding a well-structured referendum far enough in advance of general elections will be difficult, if not impossible, should those elections take place in 2018.
If a constitution—one that clarifies the structure of governance, the powers and limitations of the president and parliament, and the future roles of major armed groups and military leaders—is not in place, the stakes will be especially high in Libya’s next elections.
A lack of constraints on presidential power and poorly defined term limits and mandates will make zero-sum calculations more prevalent and likely result in violence.
The future structure of the security sector also remains unclear. Because the country’s numerous militias have been unwilling to shed their existing structures and form a national army loyal to a central government and neutral police forces, Libya has been unable to create a viable security apparatus.
Following the 2011 uprising, the National Transitional Council’s and GNC’s attempts to circumvent this fragmentation created a sprawling and disjointed security sector that incorporated militias by putting them on the government’s payroll without requiring them to disband and restructure into a unified force.
Militia-dominated parallel structures were cumulatively more powerful than the regular army, which was itself dominated by select militias and factional forces that largely retained their structures and political objectives.
Militias that were opposed to one another were able to collect revenues and weapons from Tripoli, biding their time until they fought openly, rupturing the state.
If the government that the new elections produce is not capable of implementing and enforcing effective reforms in the security sector, nonstate armed groups will be validated in a similar way as before, and further violence will likely follow.
Libya’s main actors can each have an impact—positive or negative—on the process and outcomes of elections. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it fully explore all of the internal fragmentations within these camps.
Government of National Accord
Formed in December 2015, the GNA took its seat in Tripoli in April 2016. This government is headed by the nine-member Presidency Council, which is led by President Faiez al-Serraj and eight vice presidents and ministers to represent Misrata, Haftar’s Libyan National Army, Zintan, the Muslim Brotherhood, southern Libya, and other constituencies.
The GNA is intended to incorporate the HoR as its legislative body and the General National Council as a High Council of State (HCS)—the latter serving as an advisory body under the HoR.
Most of the GNC disbanded and reconstituted itself as the HCS, but the HoR has yet to join the GNA. Thus the GNA has yet to fully come into effect. Despite its international recognition, the GNA does not have wide support across Libya and still controls only select areas in the capital.
Any control it exerts on the ground is possible only because of a loose and fragile alliance of militias—most from Misrata, Tripoli, and other parts of western Libya.
Indeed, militias within the GNA have fought each other at times—most notably in the clashes between Misratan and Tripoli militias over the presence of Misratan forces in the capital.
Even if they stay consolidated, however, these militias are not capable of providing elections security across the country. Moreover, they have the capacity to disrupt the electoral process and may well do so should they fear losses.
Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army
Among Libya’s most powerful actors, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar is a military figure who fought both for and against Gadhafi over the course of his decades-long career. After spending twenty years in exile in northern Virginia, he returned to Libya amid the 2011 uprisings.
He originally formed his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), while in exile, as the military wing of the anti-Gadhafi National Front for the Salvation of Libya in the late 1980s.
The group resurfaced as a meaningful entity during and in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings. Today, the LNA mainly comprises regular armed forces; the Special Forces (or the Saiqa Bri-
gade), under the command of Wanis Bukhamada; tribal factions in the east; and Tebu fighters from the south.
It has also quietly forged alliances with Saudi-backed Salafist fighters in multiple localities. Under Haftar’s leadership, the LNA launched Operation Dignity against Ansar al-Sharia and other jihadist fighters in Benghazi and against Misratan militias supporting the GNC in Tripoli.
In March 2015, the HoR appointed Haftar as commander of the armed forces on its behalf—effectively christening the LNA as its armed forces. Most elements of the LNA have remained opposed to authorities in Tripoli, be they the defunct GNC or the GNA.
According to several public sources, including a May 2016 UN Panel of Experts report, Haftar’s LNA has enjoyed financial and military support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Russia, enabling it to finance its military campaigns.
The Guardian and the Middle East Eye reported in 2016 that the LNA has also received diplomatic and counter-terrorism support from France and alleged counterterrorism support from the United States and the United Kingdom.
If it acts as a cohesive entity, the LNA will have the capacity across the country—and especially in the east—to mitigate violence ahead of and during elections, but it will also have the capacity to foment and disrupt elections.
If external backers exert their influence, they likely can pressure the LNA to support High National Election Commission activity and facilitate elections rather than undermine them.
Since defeating Ansar al-Sharia and its allies in Benghazi, the LNA has become more fragile in the face of tribal divisions, tribal grievances against Haftar, and tensions between regular LNA units and the Special Forces.
Rumors and reporting that reverberated throughout April 2018 of the seventy-five-year-old Haftar being medically incapacitated (though they proved false) made internal tensions all the more pressing.
Should Haftar be forced to step down or substantially weakened before the elections, the LNA could become far less cohesive. Factions are unlikely to fight one another—certainly not in any sustained fashion—but in a weakened alliance, they may be less likely to cooperate and less capable of projecting force beyond Cyrenaica.
If the LNA fragments, HNEC’s task of ensuring security in the east during the electoral process will be far more complex and will portend escalated violence.
House of Representatives
Libya’s House of Representatives was formed by the June 2014 parliamentary elections but, unable to take power in Tripoli or Benghazi, was forced to operate out of the eastern city of Tobruk.
Ageela Saleh Issa, from the eastern town of Qubbah, is president of the HoR, which mainly comprises members of the National Forces Alliance, who are more secular leaning and internationally oriented, and Federalist factions in Cyrenaica that seek greater autonomy in a federated system.
Because the HoR is tasked with drafting election laws (alongside the HCS) and preparing a referendum for the constitutional draft, it has significant influence over pre-election proceedings.
As noted, Haftar is the HoR’s commander of armed forces, and his LNA provides protection for the HoR, but the HoR has no civilian oversight over Haftar and the LNA.
In some sense, the HoR can be seen as a political extension to Haftar’s military power; it has on more than one occasion blocked measures in the negotiations that would weaken Haftar.
Because the HoR does not control its allied militias, it has no capacity in and of itself to conduct violence or provide security during the elections.
But insofar as its political figures have greater access to the international community than its armed factions, it may be able to leverage its position to dissuade these fighters from engaging in violence.
The western coastal city of Misrata is home to an array of Libya’s most powerful militias, most of which fall under the Misrata Military Council and have played a decisive role in Libya’s conflict.
The most powerful of these militias mainly consist of more moderate elements, such as the pro-GNA Halbous and the Mahjoub Brigades, but also include more extreme factions, such as in Salah Badi’s Sumoud Front, that have continued supporting the remnants of the GNC.
The degree to which Misrata is a cohesive entity varies, but its militias have for the most part remained unified in the face of external opponents from the east.
Many of the more powerful Misratan militias, though perhaps conservative, are not necessarily Islamists themselves, though they sided with Islamists for much of the conflict in opposition to Haftar.
When they were aligned with the GNC in Libya Dawn, it was widely reported—including in the May 2016 UN Panel of Experts report—that Misratan militias had received support from Turkey and Qatar.
However, in 2016, most of Misrata’s powerful militias abandoned the GNC and Libya Dawn to join the newly formed GNA. Now backing the internationally recognized government, Misrata’s most powerful militias have received international logistical and material support and counterterrorism support from the United States and its partners via Tripoli in the fight against the Islamic State.
The degree to which hard-line Misratan militias—especially those still supporting the GNC—continue to receive support from external actors outside the framework of the GNA is unclear.
Misratan militias control major territory in western Libya and have the capacity to either facilitate or hinder elections in these areas. The course they choose, and whether they remain largely consolidated, remains to be seen.
Many in Misrata’s business community want an end to the war and a return to some degree of normalcy.
Invested in their relationship with the international community vis-à-vis the GNA and hoping to protect their interests by gaining sufficient access to the new government, Misratan militias may indeed prove cooperative as the HNEC carries out its work.
That said, Misratan factions are widely seen to harbor anti-Gadhafi, anti-Haftar, and anti-NFA sentiments. If they believe their opponents will win and neglect their interests, these militias may opt to use violence to disrupt elections.
Controlling Tripoli is an array of local militias, the most prominent of which are the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, formed in April 2011, and anticrime Salafist militias, including the Nawasi Brigade, the Special Deterrence Forces, and the Abu Slim unit of the Central Security Apparatus.
Although they have at times clashed, these militias have mostly cooperated or at least refrained from seriously challenging one another. Before the GNA arrived in Tripoli, these brigades supported Libya Dawn, and in this capacity received support via the GNC.
After the GNA arrived in March 2016, however, many of these militias joined the new government, acting as a crucial component of its security apparatus and allowing it to take control of parts of Tripoli. Because the GNA is the internationally recognized government, these militias have been able to receive international support.
Tensions between Tripoli’s militias and their Zintani counterparts are long-standing—and were especially heightened from May to August 2014, when the two clashed in the capital and over the airport.
However, since joining the GNA, Tripoli and Zintani militias have cooperated—most notably defending the GNA against the October 2016 coup attempt carried out by pro-GNC militias.
The Tripoli militias have also for the most part cooperated with their Misratan counterparts—first under the Libya Dawn umbrella and today as co-supporters of the GNA—but tensions between the two over the Misratan presence in the capital have surfaced, most notably resulting in clashes in March 2017.
Like other powerful armed factions, the Tripoli militias have the capacity to either facilitate or hinder elections and other crucial state-building efforts.
Although most of these militias have thus far defended the GNA, they have also faced accusations of participating in kidnappings and extortion.
Their perceptions of how they and their favored candidates and factions will fare in the elections will factor into their calculus and behavior vis-à-vis the electoral process.
Zintan, a large city in the northwestern Nafusa Mountains just southwest of Tripoli, is home to an array of powerful militias that, like the Misratan groups, have been able to project power outside their home city.
Most of these fall under the Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council, and their most powerful groups include the anti-Islamist Lightning Brigades (or the Sawa‘iq Brigades) and the Qaa‘qaa‘ Brigades.
Zintani militias have had long-standing rivalries with both Misratan and Tripoli militias—especially during the height of the Zintani militias’ alliance with Haftar during the conflict that emerged in 2014.
Since the GNA came to power in March 2016, a number of Zintani militias have grown closer to the new government and have fought to protect it—even alongside former rivals in Tripoli and Misrata.
Given the Zintani militias’ strength, they too can either facilitate or hinder elections in both their territory and beyond. Although they seem cooperative with the UN’s and the international community’s efforts at present, they could (should they fear losing) easily launch attacks and offensives to disrupt the electoral process.
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.