In the weeks after the appointment of the interim Government of National Unity (GNU) in Libya a few months ago, a rash of developments, endorsements, and new-found optimism suggested a nation finally on the move after years of conflict and division.
Painstaking efforts at conflict resolution by the UN and others culminated in the formation of a shadow parliament in the form of the relatively inclusive 75-member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), and the appointment of a temporary government headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, with the aim of holding legislative and presidential elections by Dec. 24.
Unfortunately, despite even rival interests being able to reach a consensus about the importance of holding these elections, the LPDF appears to have succumbed to familiar divisions.
The High National Election Commission (HNEC) set a July 1 deadline to receive formal constitutional assent and documentation it would need to organize the elections. However, after four days of talks in Geneva, the LPDF failed to reach an agreement on their constitutional basis.
Even an extra day of talks could not resolve issues surrounding which elections to hold, qualifications for candidates and when to actually hold them.
The disappointing outcome is a stark contrast to the LPDF’s initial successes — establishing a roadmap for elections endorsed by the international community and holding a relatively smooth election of Libya’s provisional government and presidency council.
Unfortunately, what was supposed to be an inclusive body, designed and empowered to operate as a representative of Libyan national will, is not unshackled from accusations of corruption and the myriad divisive entanglements that continuously threaten to plunge Libya back into chaos.
Regarding the elections, the LPDF has since split into three factions. One group remains committed to the existing roadmap, which the US Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) insists on.
The second group has called for both elections to be postponed at least until next year, while the third proposes holding only the parliamentary elections this year.
By their nature, these differing preferences are unlikely to find a middle ground, nor are their interlocutors inclined to do so, even with a deadline now extended to Aug. 1. After all, Libya’s lost decade marred with violence, bloodshed, and chaos has always been because political processes are repeatedly thrown into disarray, as is happening now in Geneva.
Ideally, Libya should not hold elections for their own sake or to appease a frustrated and impatient international community.
If Libyans are to head to the polls, it should be because they desire them and are galvanized to participate in the democratic process despite the potential risks ranging from attacks on polling locations to results sparking fresh conflicts when known antagonizers reject them.
However, reports from Geneva indicate that the divisions within the LPDF are not fueled by good-faith concerns about the constitutionality, security, and logistics of the December polls.
They also sidestep credible concerns about the eruption of violence in what would be a very fragile post-election landscape.
Instead, the latest fixations are on controversial proposals that no conditions be placed on presidential candidates, specifically concerning their military rank and dual nationality. This blatant attempt at facilitating warlord Khalifa Haftar’s candidacy is indicative of other influences at work.
There are foreign and domestic interests wary of the elections delivering a crippling blow to strategic years-long efforts to embed foreign interests in Libya’s post-conflict landscape.
Several external actors have deployed men, money, and munitions into Libya to influence its first democratically elected government and secure outsize benefits from the lucrative post-war reconstruction.
Others have also sought to establish strategic footholds on the Mediterranean and transform Libya’s infrastructure to function as an unchecked thoroughfare into the Sahel and Central Africa, where the French are currently seeking an exit.
The lack of a military solution to Libya’s crisis does not impede these objectives. Ironically, a peaceful political process under UN auspices, such as the LPDF and the GNU, actually affords these actors opportunities to influence Libya’s transition.
Manipulating constitutional foundations of future elections would be less costly and better serve their limited self-interests, which remain hostile to a fully functioning democracy taking root in Libya, and the re-establishment of its sovereignty.
The LPDF’s failure to reach an agreement is therefore unsurprising, given a similar lack of progress on meeting Berlin II demands for the immediate withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libyan soil.
A political process in disarray will not just be a major headache for Libyans, frustrated by the pandemic, frequent blackouts, food, and currency shortages.
It also sheds light on vulnerabilities engineered into the LPDF by an UN-led process in which the selection of its 75 members prized the inclusion of controversial figures who are now acting as spoilers in service of non-Libyan interests.
Should the LPDF fail to do its job, not only will it further undermine its legitimacy and that of the road map it produced, it will imperil any future constructive dialogue, delaying much-needed progress in Libya’s transition.
If Aug. 1 passes without an agreement, it will also impugn the credibility of the UN mission and highlight weaknesses in the international community’s resolve to facilitate Libya’s peace and stability. By then, it will be too late to replace the entire LPDF, let alone induce the notoriously uncooperative parliament and High Council of State to agree on a binding legal document on the elections — leaving a national referendum as the only recourse.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. ______________