Pushing for December elections when compromise is so clearly impossible puts the future of Libya at risk
Even an extra day of talks couldn’t bring a compromise between the 75 Libyan delegates meeting near Geneva in June.
Despite presidential and legislative elections presently scheduled for 24 December, members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) cannot agree on the most basic tenets of elections:
when to hold them, what sort of elections to hold, and, perhaps most critically and worryingly, on what constitutional grounds they shall be held.
This, too, more than a month after the 1 July deadline for agreement on the constitutional basis that would underpin parliament’s adoption of an election law.
The international community’s failures in Libya The UN’s mission in Libya – UNSMIL – while sounding the right notes, has not helped the matter. It warned that “proposals that do not make the elections feasible” on the aforementioned date “will not be entertained”, while Raisedon Zenenga, the mission’s coordinator, encouraged delegates “to continue to consult among yourselves to pursue a workable compromise and cement what unites you”.
Major foreign powers too, while ostensibly committed to a solution to the ‘Libya problem’, have seemingly moved it down their list of priorities.
While the First Berlin Conference, held in 2020, was attended by heads of states, the 2021 iteration was a gathering of foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers.
Where the outcome of the conference was clear, was on the central importance of removing foreign military backing, foreign soldiers and mercenaries from Libya. Libyan and German foreign ministers Najla Mangoush and Heiko Maas stated their belief in progress on the issue.
Yet this – alongside upholding an arms embargo – was one of the centrepieces of the previous conference. Recent UN estimates put the number of foreign mercenaries in Libya at 20,000, many entrenched in frontline areas such as Sirte and Jufra. That such little progress has been made in the past 18 months is damning.
The extent of foreign influence – at the expense of the Libyan people – was acutely clear in July when Dbeibah was reportedly unaware of an agreement between Russia and Turkey to withdraw fighters. Jennifer Holleis was right to question how much say Libyans would have in decisions about their own future.
The protracted nature of the conflict in Libya – rumbling on as it has for nearly a decade now – has desensitised observers to the true cost of the turmoil. In July, Amnesty International reported that migrants in camps in Libya were forced to barter sex for water and food.
The international community ought to be stronger on providing surefire guarantees. Merely issuing a fifty-eight-point statement at such a crucial period for the future of Libya demonstrates how impotent major powers are in this situation.
Thus, despite glimmers of hope – and no more than glimmers – including the opening of the Sirte-Misrata coastal road at the end of July (a key tenet of a 2020 ceasefire), reconciliation in Libya remains a distant prospect.
Even the success of the coastal road’s reopening was overshadowed as clashes erupted in the west of the country. The impossibility of elections While Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the Misrati prime minister of the newly-formed Government of National Unity, vowed to work toward holding elections in December, the present security situation is far from amenable to holding safe and legitimate elections.
In the east, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), despite the failure of its 14-month assault on Tripoli last year, still holds sway, recently underscoring that his men will not be subject to civilian authority.
While increasingly marginalised internationally, Haftar commands sufficient wherewithal to thwart peace attempts. Ján Kubiš, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Libya, rightly argued that holding national elections on 24 December is imperative for the stability of the country.
At the end of July, Aguila Saleh, speaker of the House of Representatives, warned that a delay to the elections would return Libya to “square one” and the turmoil of 2011.
He also forewarned that failure to hold elections could result in another rival administration being established in the east. Saleh, for his part, blames the GNU, which took office in March as the nation’s first unity government in seven years, for delays, and for its failure to unify.
The importance of elections cannot be overstated – a chaotic poll that produces results deemed illegitimate would plunge Libya deeper into crisis. This was the case in 2014 when deadly clashes between Islamists and government forces erupted and Salwa Bugaighis, a prominent human rights activist, was assassinated.
A similar outcome is possible though, if elections are held under these less than optimal circumstances. The path forward Among the paths forward that would at least prevent regression, would be shifting the focus to other factors which would undoubtably contribute to much needed stability, namely establishing adequate constitutional foundations.
This immediate term solution would provide a legitimate legal basis for future elections as well as serve to unify the country. Unification and reconciliation efforts have thus far clearly failed in Libya, and miserably so.
Present disagreements over the constitutional basis will only deepen the crisis and increase already high levels of apathy evident from the 2014 elections, where turnout was below 50%.
Yet rather than turning to a new constitution per se, Libya has a ready-made solution: the reimposition of the 1951 constitution, a cause that has already been taken up by grassroots organisations. As well as providing a legitimate basis on which elections could be held, the 1951 constitution would serve as a unifying tool, reconciling a nation wracked by internal strife.
After a supremely destructive decade, the potential exists for the imposition of emergency rule alongside a technocratic government, overseen by a symbol of national unity, namely the Libyan Crown Prince in exile. Parliamentary elections could still move forward on their scheduled date with the post-election nomination of a Prime Minister.
Such steps would be in line with provisions of the constitution, and would be an important step toward restoring central rule and stability. As has been witnessed in disparate countries globally over time, technocracy is a particularly suitable form of government in times of crisis.
The restoration of central rule would also augur well for the reunification of the divided military, a crucial step in Libya’s path forward.
As well as the concrete benefits detailed above, the reimposition of the 1951 constitution would have a less tangible but equally important effect: serving as a point of national unity to transcend the divisions that have proven so destructive.
King Idris, who ruled from 1951 to 1969, acted as a symbol of unity; Mohammed as-Senussi, considered by Libyan royalists as the legitimate heir, would play the same role.
Where the international community has failed – and even exacerbated the issues that wrack Libya – Libyans have the potential to pave their own path forward by campaigning for the return of the 1951 constitution.
Considering all that they have been through, it is indeed a chance the Libyan people deserve.
Mitchell Riding is an analyst at CRI Ltd, a boutique London-based intelligence consultancy, and is also a researcher with Wikistrat. Mitch previously worked on the Europe and Eurasia Desk at AKE, where he also covered Afghanistan, and for Oxford Business Group, where he contributed to reports on a broad range of emerging and frontier markets.