Libya’s decision to postpone a landmark presidential vote has damaged efforts to rebuild a nation riven by conflict since the overthrow of strongman Moammar Al Qaddafi a decade ago. Foreign powers that waged a proxy war there still appear to support a transition to democracy. But the delay has weakened the authority of the interim government and left Libyans wondering if their country will slip back into violence, potentially disrupting vital oil exports and choking the economy. 

1. What lies behind the years of unrest?
Libya’s state institutions evaporated during Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship, so his removal left a void that was filled by a multitude of armed groups, many of them based on tribal affiliations. A succession of governments failed to restore order or stop weapons flooding into the country. National elections in 2014 that were supposed to unify Libya only split it down the middle, with a Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital, Tripoli, in the west vying with an eastern coalition of troops and irregular fighters known as the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar. Haftar secured major oil resources by extending his grip in the east and south before moving to capture Tripoli in 2019 with the help of Russian mercenaries. Turkey, backing the GNA, sent in troops the following year and Haftar’s men were forced to abandon the effort after battles that left more than 2,000 people dead and tens of thousands displaced. A cease-fire was declared in August 2020 after Egypt threatened to intervene. 

2. Why are the region’s governments so interested in Libya?

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates backed Haftar in the hope that he could end the chaos and defeat Islamist groups including the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — a sworn enemy of Egypt’s government. Turkey found common cause with the GNA as both had close ties to the Brotherhood. Russia also joined the fray, as part of a broader effort to challenge Western interests in weak Arab states. At first Moscow kept contacts with both sides while promoting Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, as a future president. In 2019, however, it also threw its weight behind Haftar. More than 1,000 mercenaries with the Wagner group, which is headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, entered Libya to support the general. Russia’s actions prompted the U.S. to push more forcefully for a peace deal. Western companies including France’s TotalEnergies SE, Eni SpA of Italy and Royal Dutch Shell Plc are considering investing billions of dollars to exploit Libya’s vast oil and natural gas reserves, as well as its potential for solar power. The country’s proximity to Europe makes it all the more attractive to them.  

3. How has the fighting affected the country?

4. What was the plan for the election?

Two months after their cease-fire declaration, the adversaries signed a formal truce at the UN in Geneva. In February 2021, Libyan delegates nominated a unified interim national executive to steer the country until a presidential vote. They chose eastern Libya’s Mohamed Mnefi to head a three-person Presidency Council and a businessman from the coastal city of Misrata, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, as prime minister. The vote was initially scheduled for Dec. 24 and almost 100 candidates put their names forward, including divisive figures such as Haftar and Saif al-Islam. Election authorities rejected about two dozen of them and others faced legal challenges. Days before the vote was due, the national election commission announced that holding it as planned was impossible because the election law was inadequate to deal with disputes over candidacies. It proposed a delay of one month, but the reunified parliament hasn’t approved a new timetable. 

Egypt, the UAE and Turkey have so far honored a pledge to support Dbeibah’s interim government and the plan to elect a new leader. While no one appears ready to abandon the democratic process, some observers have questioned the decision to allow divisive candidates onto the original ballot and are calling for a new electoral law and even a new constitution — a process that could take years. Some political players, including lawmakers, may quietly welcome a postponement that leaves their privileges and the country’s power structures untouched. Dbeibah remains as prime minister, although it’s unclear how long his mandate will last, while tensions persist between his administration and parliament. With the government unable to impose its authority nationwide, the true power brokers are the country’s restive militias.