The 2011 Arab Uprisings, which began in neighboring Tunisia, led to the ousting of longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, plummeting the country into chaos and widespread violence. Since then, Libya, after a NATO intervention in 2011, underwent major civil strife and witnessed polarizing divisions between the east and west of the country that rendered it a de facto failed state. The east has been under the control of warlord General Khalifa Haftar while the United Nations (UN) has struggled to establish a UN-supported government, known as the Government of National Unity (GNU), that had control over the entire country as mandated by the UN Security Council in 2014.
Following Haftar’s 2019 military attempt to take over Tripoli—and thus gain control over the country—the UN Support Mission for Libya declared a ceasefire agreement between the West’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which was accepted and implemented on August 21, 2020 by the two rival parties. This long-awaited agreement established a consensus between the UN, GNA, and LNA to create a political track for elections in 2021. Those elections could be just around the corner.
The International Conference for Libya, a ministerial-level summit, was held in Paris on November 12 to discuss the upcoming elections. It was attended by Western and Middle Eastern leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and US Vice President Kamala Harris. The consensus was that the Libyan elections must run their due course on December 24. Vice President Harris co-signed a joint statement made by the summit’s participants and endorsed by the UN, which stated that it was vital “for all Libyan stakeholders to commit unequivocally to the holding of free, fair, inclusive, and credible presidential and parliamentary elections” on December 24 .
It is evident that the United States wants a credible government in Libya and that this would be best achieved through free and fair elections. Additionally, the US appears eager to back a future Libyan government, as this will give the Joe Biden administration the means to counter an estimated two thousand Russian mercenaries, which have backed Haftar throughout the civil war. Further emphasis on the necessity to back a government capable of expelling foreign mercenaries was expressed by France’s president, who said that “Turkey and Russia must withdraw without delay their mercenaries.” The US and France seem to agree that once an official government is elected, Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group will be compelled to leave Libya.
However, not all international parties agree that holding elections this month is a wise decision. Human Rights Watch (HRW), a human rights-focused international non-governmental organization, has expressed its concerns over intimidation and coercive tactics, which it believes armed groups in Libya are using to sway the vote. HRW is also distrustful that Libyan authorities will commit to holding foreign fighters accountable for the atrocities committed during the past decade of civil unrest.
Several think tank experts are also wary that these elections may prove more detrimental than beneficial. Benjamin Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls for “postponing the elections for a certain period until several critical issues are resolved.” He argues that a return to civil war is far more likely if elections are held on the planned date. Tarek Megerisi, a North Africa specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, criticizes the international community’s stance on the matter, citing that world leaders favor going to the polls instead of backing a fair “process.”
As it stands, the electoral process shows far too many cracks, as it hinges on a constitution that is rejected by many. Approved in 2017 by the Constitutional Drafting Assembly, it was rejected by the House of Representatives, the Tobruk-based internationally-recognized parliament in the east, and also created large disappointment among the many minority groups present in the country, who did not feel included in the drafting process. More significantly, it’s unclear whether both presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on the same day. Finally, the presidential candidates list is proving to be a problem itself.
An important argument also raised by those who oppose holding elections at this time focuses on a disconcerting list of presidential candidates. Not only is it a gargantuan list comprising of nighty-eight potential candidates, it also holds at the very top some of the most controversial people in Libya. Among the top front-runners is General Haftar, who is accused of gross human rights violations and considered a war criminal, especially by western Libyans. Then there is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son and “dauphin” of the overthrown Libyan dictator, whose candidacy makes a mockery of the 2011 NATO-led intervention and the successive arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, which accuses him of committing crimes against humanity.
Although Libya’s electoral committee had initially disqualified Saif al-Islam’s candidacy in November, he was later reinstated after a court of appeals in the southwest of the country overturned the decision. Last but not least, the current interim Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, who upon his February nomination of the UN-led GNU, pledged not to run as a candidate—is now running for election.
Despite these poignant arguments, the European Union, United Nations, and United States still believe that it is vital that the elections are held on December 24 or shortly thereafter to resolve some of the many technical difficulties, such as the lack of a constitution. Without strong popular engagement, there can be no official authority with enough legitimacy to rule over Libya. However, those in favor of holding the elections sooner rather than later might do well to consider all the arguments for postponing them.
Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.