The announcement, with great fanfare late last year, that Libya would hold elections in 2021 was meant to be the highlight achievement of a political dialogue brokered by the United Nations that aimed to end a decade of chaos in the country.
But nearly nine months later, there has been little to no real progress in organizing the Dec. 24 ballot, which is now just four months away. Instead, Libya’s warring political class and the rival countries that back their dead-end power struggle have done everything to scupper the prospect of a free and fair vote.
Their petty politicking has now put Libya in a Catch-22, whereby any election would be so flimsily regulated, so hotly contested and so thoroughly delegitimized that it would likely end in war. But simply canceling the elections would likely recreate the national division and very conditions that led to Libya’s collapse and civil wars in the first place following the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
If the outside powers still invested in Libya, like the United States, want to stop that Pandora’s box from reopening over the Mediterranean, they need to replace a broken U.N. process, which relies on the good intentions of villains, with more hands-on mediation that can set a more realistic roadmap, before it’s too late.
Some of the participants at the U.N.-backed Libyan Political Dialogue Forum—which hosted meetings in Tunis and Geneva “to restore Libya’s sovereignty and the democratic legitimacy of Libyan institutions”—say privately that the electoral announcement came as a surprise, especially considering it was unveiled at the start rather than the end of the U.N. dialogue, and timed to coincide with Libya’s Independence Day.
They even cast it as a desperate play to reenergize the flagging talks and refocus a forum of venal characters with their own interests at stake. If so, it seems to have done its job, and more. The elections have become the event on which the entire U.N. process now hangs, as they provide the promise of legitimate leadership to a country that has lacked it for almost 10 years.
Of course, many Libyans, who have been hugely frustrated by a parasitic and seemingly immovable political elite, see this all as a long-awaited moment of change. Libyan military groups claim elected authorities are the sole body with the legitimacy to bring peace, remove the foreign mercenaries who still scourge Libya, and build national security institutions.
Waiting for Libyan leadership with electoral legitimacy has also been the sticking point for everything from a national reconciliation process, overdue economic and governance reforms, and a new, permanent constitution.
Libya is in a Catch-22, whereby any election would be so flimsily regulated, so hotly contested and so thoroughly delegitimized that it would likely end in war. But simply canceling the elections could recreate the very conditions that led to Libya’s collapse.
Perhaps it is the potential of these elections to bring stability and progress that has made Libya’s competing elites and their foreign backers so desperate to undermine them. They all ultimately depend on chaos, division and the specter of another civil war to continue looting the country and playing for absolute power.
Despite the stated election plans, Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives, which has been based in Tobruk since 2014, has failed to produce the required legislation to establish an electoral process that would end its seven-year run, despite having basically no other official business to attend to over the past eight months.
The speaker of the parliament, Aguila Saleh, has been trying to amass enough power and control over spending in eastern Libya to make himself the region’s de-facto king, drawing support from countries like Greece and Egypt.
Similarly, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, who was appointed in February following the U.N. talks purely to oversee the design and implementation of the elections, has spent none of his time doing that. Instead, he has been planning a massive but dubious reconstruction drive, and leveraging participation in it to buy enough international support for him to stay on as prime minister.
While Turkey was a seed investor in this Trumpian vision for Libya, with a slice of Libya’s oil wealth the main prize, other countries like Italy seem to have been seduced by the opportunity of big contracts and a temporary peace, despite only just recovering from making the exact same mistake five years ago.
Rather than living up to the promise of the U.N.-backed dialogue, Libya is instead settling back into a status quo of stagnation. The political elites in Libya’s divided east and west conveniently blame each other for not making progress on anything that matters, while always managing to cooperate when it comes to corruption.
The guileless Saleh is already laying the groundwork for reconstituting a parallel government to rule eastern Libya and pulling the rug from under Dbeibeh, who Saleh will blame for the failure to hold elections, in the hopes of delegitimizing Dbeibeh enough to replace him with a more pliant politician.
But more likely, if that happens, it will lead to another division of the parliament and localized conflicts around the country, as politicians and armed groups seek to take advantage of the new order.
The fatalism over the electoral process has driven Khalifa Haftar, the strongman who has been trying to conquer Libya for the past seven years from his base near Benghazi, to project himself as Libya’s greatest and unlikeliest democrat—with an asterisk, of course.
He is the only one still pushing for elections, so long as there are no conditions that would stop him from running for president, and no framework that would contain the powers of that presidency in any way. With his army now propped up by foreign mercenaries, and security in areas under his control crumbling, this is a Hail Mary to retain relevance and get back into power.
Haftar may not be able to win a war, but he believes he can stuff enough ballot boxes for an election victory akin to that of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who backed his breakaway movement in the first place, or Russian President Vladimir Putin, who keeps it alive.
But he’s not the only one allured by the promise of an all-powerful presidency through a flawed election in a lawless land where militias reign. Every outside country involved in Libya will put forward their own candidate, each one similarly dubious, while gaming the electoral process however they can, whether through disinformation, outright bribery or other forms of strong-arming.
The election, then, will lack genuine legitimacy and popular buy-in, while pitting the same Libyan belligerents who have divided the country over the past decade in another zero-sum conflict.
With no way of peacefully resolving an electoral dispute, and no wider political framework that would lead Libyans to believe it is anything other than the start of another dictatorship, the entire process is a Molotov cocktail in a country full of weapons and mercenaries.
The United States and Europe should be troubled that both roads opening up before Libya—holding a hasty and volatile election, or canceling the vote—could lead to war.
The last decade has proven, repeatedly, that instability in Libya also directly leads to instability all around Libya, from neighboring Chad and further into the Sahel, to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The only way to avoid another round of disastrous unintended consequences is to take the initiative, instead of playing to the delusion that everything is fine with Libya’s political dialogue and the election timetable.
The United States and countries in Europe should not wait for the arsonists to make the first move. Instead, they should jointly recognize the disappointing results of the U.N. dialogue and build a more inclusive and substantive process to move things forward, while reminding Libyans like Haftar and Saleh of the sanctions legislation put in place for spoilers.
That better process could begin at the upcoming mandate renewal for the U.N.’s support mission in Libya, UNSMIL, on Sept. 15. Under American and European pressure, the U.N. mission’s renewed mandate should focus, first and foremost, on convening an “expert assembly” of Libyan jurists and legal experts—rather than unpopular and consistently self-serving politicians—to organize elections on a longer timeline with a more robust legal and constitutional basis. Better to postpone the vote and get it right than cancel it and deal with the blowback.
At the same time, the U.S. should push for a NATO role in sponsoring the slow process of reunifying Libya’s military, which Haftar is currently doing everything he can to kill if he can’t control it. With NATO’s support, Europe and Turkey would be on the same page in Libya, rather than backing rival sides.
(Turkey has most forcefully backed the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, and Italian troops have trained its government-aligned forces, while France has generally supported Haftar.)
They could then refocus their efforts on pushing Russia and its mercenaries out of Libya, which would help stabilize the country.
Libya could never get out of its catastrophe on autopilot, but that’s exactly what the plans for the December elections have looked like. If Libya is to be pulled out of its destructive cycle, it will require more hands-on diplomacy, forceful mediation and a focus on legitimacy, which this fatally flawed electoral process simply cannot deliver.
Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.