Jonathan M. Winer
The surprise announcement on Nov. 24 by U.N. Special Envoy for Libya Ján Kubiš of his resignation, effective Dec. 10, has left the critical U.N. Mission in Libya rudderless a mere two weeks ahead of the Dec. 24 date of Libya’s first round of voting for president.
There are currently 73 presidential candidates certified by Libya’s election commission as having qualified to run, with another 25 disqualified for being dual nationals or, like Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the late dictator’s son, subject to criminal cases. Disqualifications are ongoing: On Nov. 28, the interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh was added to the list of the disqualified, although warlord Khalifa Hifter’s candidacy remains.
With this number of candidates, no one will receive even close to a majority in the first round, making negotiations on what’s next inevitable, and the consequences of the first round uncertain.
Both the uncertainty and the need for further deals were intended from the start by the wily House of Representatives (HoR) Speaker Aguila Saleh, who hand-designed the election law so that he would retain multiple later opportunities to mold the outcome to his liking before any new government is seated, an approach that Kubiš backed, landing Libya in its current straits.
Officially the second presidential round and parliamentary elections are scheduled for Feb. 14, 2022, 50 days after the Dec. 24 first presidential round. In practice, every uncertainty about what could happen during that period has now been amplified by the U.N.’s unexpected need to replace Kubiš.
British diplomat Nicholas Kay has been the main name mentioned. Kay has had postings in difficult places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan, but not Libya. Having to parachute anyone in less than a month before Libyan elections who lacks recent country knowledge does not reflect well on the outgoing U.N. special envoy or the institution that selected him just 10 months ago.
The U.N. would do better to bring back either of the last two chief U.N. envoys, Ghassan Salamé or Stephanie Williams, to serve on an interim basis until the conclusion of the electoral process.
The U.N. disruption places additional responsibility on such shoulders as U.S. Ambassador and Special Envoy Richard Norland, the U.S. lead on Libya since August 2019, and his counterparts, who might at this point consider forming a permanent contact group to take the lead on and provide continuity for further mediation with the Libyans.
While prominent Libyans and internationals alike continue to profess commitment to the sanctity of the elections, protests, kidnappings, armed blockades, and similar disruptions are ongoing threats.
On Nov. 26, gunmen shut down a Libyan court to prevent Seif al-Islam Gadhafi from filing an appeal of his disqualification there, providing a trenchant example of the use of physical force to halt a lawful election process.
Relentless, unified international pressure on Libyans whose actions threaten the elections will be the minimum requirement needed to keep the electoral train from derailing before it reaches even the first station on Dec. 24.
Jonathan M. Winer – Non-Resident Scholar