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.
Improving Security Conditions
Numerous armed actors have the capacity and the inclination to use violence if they are fearful of how elections will affect their standing, and so if Libya is able to move toward elections, it will do so in a highly fraught security environment.
Attacks like the May 2, 2018, attack on HNEC headquarters in Tripoli demonstrate how vulnerable the electoral process is to disruptions and violence.
Yet, given the proliferation of militias across Libya—both inside and outside the competing governments’ respective security apparatuses—the notion of ensuring security across the country in a consistent and consolidated fashion is highly implausible.
To improve the environment for elections, Libyans and the international community will attempt to work at the local level, empowering various militias with training and material support to protect their localities.
The international community will likely try to put conditions on assistance based on recipients’ willingness to cooperate with the UN Support Mission in Libya’s efforts and integrate into a future government’s official security apparatus.
However, the more support these militias are provided, the less amenable they may be to the compromises needed for Libya to move forward. Indeed, Libya’s governments and the international community have only a limited capacity to rein in and regulate the competing militias.
These militias are only likely to support elections if they believe that the results will enhance, or at least validate, their power, and are not likely to allow a constitution, election laws, or any other measures that will facilitate the creation of a government that could restrict them.
If militias fear that pre-election conditions are setting the stage for a new government that is against their interests, they are unlikely to guarantee security for elections and may well attempt to disrupt the electoral process.
Windows and Triggers
Because of the myriad unknown factors surrounding elections, predicting the exact nature and timing of election violence is difficult. Nonetheless, extrapolating from Libya’s previous two elections, assessing its transitional vulnerabilities, following the trajectory of its continuing conflict, and understanding its current cleavages can offer some sense of the violence expected before, during, and after elections.
Pre-Election Negotiations and Campaign and Public Opinion Polling Periods
As Libyans negotiate pre-election issues and, if elections are able to move forward, the nomination, campaigning, and public opinion polling periods, the ongoing low-grade violence may intensify.
Parties that fear losing—or are disengaged from the process and refuse to endorse elections—will have the incentive to use force to spoil negotiations and inhibit the High National Election Commission’s preparations, possibly resulting in increasingly violent interfactional clashes.
The candidate nomination period will be especially fraught given the lack of any clear figures likely to emerge as contenders for presidential elections. As factions within these coalitions attempt to ensure that candidates friendly to their interests come to the fore, they may well attempt to assassinate and kidnap disputed candidates.
This period could also see militias blocking candidates from reaching areas under their control, gender-based attacks in the media on female candidates, further hate speech intended to fuel violent reactions, and militias preventing election observers and polling staff from conducting preliminary operations.
This period, and each that follows, is also likely to see an increase in terror attacks by the Islamic State and other jihadist factions that specifically target HNEC sites and operations.
Any progress toward a cohesive government is a threat to these groups, and they will attempt to block such a government from coming to fruition.
These violent incidents may cause delays and inhibit HNEC access to multiple parts of the country, but unless they escalate into broader conflict, it is not clear that they will prevent elections from being held.
Major factions, however—if they believe that a rival presidential candidate who would severely threaten their interests is likely to win—may indeed attempt to launch larger-scale military campaigns that prevent elections from being held altogether.
Because the most powerful of these factions have enough force to control their localities but not enough to control the country, this scenario could easily result in the further, if not permanent, fragmentation of Libya.
Like the June 2014 elections, Libya’s next elections may very well be wrought with election-day violence. Given that the HNEC will need to rely on a patchwork of militias to provide security for elections, security and cooperation will be inconsistent across the country.
In a number of geographic areas, militias and spoilers may severely impede if not outright block voters, HNEC staff and operations, and independent election observers. Particular areas of concern will in part depend on which camp or camps pre-election conditions favor.
In the east, as long as Haftar remains at the helm of the LNA and can manage the coalition, he will likely be able, if he chooses, to ensure that the HNEC has access to Cyrenaica.
But if the LNA becomes less cohesive—in the event either that Haftar is forced to step down for health reasons or that his grip is loosened due to other developments—the HNEC will have considerably more difficulty managing hyperlocalized fragmentation as Libya goes into the elections, and will struggle to engage with disparate factions.
The eastern federalists, in particular, are opposed to elections that reinforce any Tripoli government’s authority and will have the incentive to prevent the HNEC from conducting operations.
If election-day obstruction and violence are widespread, the disruptions will surely skew the electoral results and contribute to follow-on violence after results are announced.
If Misratan, Tripoli, and Zintani militias believe pre-election conditions will allow them to remain in good standing with the next government, and thus expect to receive favorable status in the future, they likely will continue cooperating with HNEC operations on election day.
However, should pre-election conditions bode poorly for these factions, they too have the capacity to inhibit HNEC operations in the capital and other localities across western Libya.
The announcement of elections is a crucial flashpoint that may spark violence—the nature of which will depend on the results.
No matter the outcome, multiple factions will likely contest the results, degrading the electoral legitimacy of the next government, which, like the previous governments, will struggle to control the country.
This will result in an environment that is ripe for continued and escalating violence.
Outcomes and Risks
The risks of violence and conflict surrounding Libya’s next elections depend heavily on who wins the presidency and parliament and how well winners can incorporate, coerce, or sideline their opponents and competitors.
As noted earlier, the success or failure in reaching a constitution will also have considerable bearing on the levels of electoral violence.
Without a constitution in place, or with a weak and disputed “constitutional basis,” the powers and term limits of the president and parliament will be poorly defined, making competition over these bodies fiercer and contestations more likely.
Beyond these factors, the sequencing of the elections themselves is also important.
On the one hand, if parliamentary elections are held before presidential elections, the new body—especially if it is balanced between factions—could be more inclined to remain intact, as those factions will not yet know whether a president friendly to their interests is coming to power.
On the other hand, if presidential and parliamentary elections are not held concurrently, the first election will give losing factions an indicator of their standing and may prompt them to employ violence to disrupt the second election.
The following is not an exhaustive list of outcomes by any means but rather an examination of particularly consequential plausible outcomes.
It is not yet clear who will run for the presidency. Although it is not yet clear who will run for the presidency, it is likely that eastern and western factions will attempt to consolidate around respective candidates.
The more effectively these camps consolidate and, more important, ensure that militias will allow their supporters to vote, the more likely their candidate is to win.
Whether the winner is a compromise candidate or a hard-line candidate (from any camp) will be a determining factor in the scope and nature of violence after results are announced and the trajectory Libya will take after elections.
Figures new and old could of course emerge and reemerge, but some early indicators point to potential contenders for the presidency. From the east, Haftar is among the most likely candidate, but his running would likely create its own set of complications that increase the risk of violence.
Beyond grievances against Haftar—particularly in the west—and concerns about the field marshal’s health and age, technical challenges also surround his candidacy.
If the current constitutional draft is passed, Haftar would not be eligible to run unless he renounces his US citizenship one year before announcing his candidacy.
Eastern factions could attempt to modify the current constitutional draft, find another constitutional basis for the elections, or hold elections without a constitution in place, but the HCS and its militia backers would likely resist these efforts.
These challenges notwithstanding, the real possibility exists that eastern factions will consolidate around Haftar. Former Libyan Ambassador to the UAE Aref Ali Nayed is also a likely contender from eastern factions.
As ambassador from 2011 to 2016, Nayed is regarded as diplomatically savvy and has reportedly been establishing connections with western governments and foreign policy establishments to increase his international standing and support.
Nayed has openly expressed his inclination toward the Arab Quartet—the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain—over Turkey and Qatar, calling the latter two countries supporters of terrorism.
HoR President Ageela Saleh Issa is another likely eastern contender. In summer 2018, Saleh repeatedly called for presidential elections, even attacking his own HoR as an invalid body and calling elections the only remedy.
Saleh may see an opening for himself given the challenges to Haftar’s candidacy.
From the west, Khaled al-Mishri rose to prominence in April 2018 as the HCS’s new leader, unexpectedly winning its competitive internal elections by a wide margin.
Coming from the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Mishri may face difficulty on the national stage, drawing fierce opposition from multiple factions.
However, thus far, al-Mishri has presented himself as a mainstream figure, reaching out to eastern factions by meeting with Saleh in April 2018, proposing to send a thirty-member HCS delegation to meet with the HoR in Tobruk, and offering to come to Tobruk himself in June 2018.
Other western contenders could include prominent Misratan figures such as Ahmed Maiteeq, former GNC prime minister (before the 2014 split) and current deputy prime minister of the Presidency Council, and Abdulrahman Swehli, former head of the GNC and High Council of State.
Maiteeq is widely regarded as a moderate. Swehli has a mixed reputation, previously an aggressive advocate for the Political Isolation Law but also cooperating with UNSMIL’s unity efforts—most notably heading the elements of the GNC that accepted the GNA and reconstituted themselves as the HCS.
Aligned with the more internationally oriented Presidency Council and High Council of State as well as with powerful Misratan militias that have convening power in the west, both Maiteeq and Swehli have better standing than overtly hard-line figures like current GNC Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghweil and former GNC President Nouri Abu Sahmain, neither of whom have international access, given the GNC’s now-defunct status, or connections to militias that would allow them to project authority.
Because alliances and purported ideologies are highly fluid in Libya, each of these candidates, and others that may emerge, could act as either compromise or hard-line candidates despite previous stances. It is important to assess these figures based on their continued actions and outreach to potential opponents.
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.