All the Libyan stakeholders must place the welfare of their country first if they are to capitalise on the opportunities given by the postponement of last year’s elections, writes Ahmed Eleiba.
The extension of the current political process in Libya offers hope that this interim phase still has a chance to prove an exception to its four predecessors.
Thus far at least, the failure to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya on 24 December, as was originally scheduled in the roadmap put into effect last year, has not cast the country back to military escalation and civil war.
Certain legal and political mechanisms are in place to ensure this phase’s continuation, including some civil-society initiatives, and key regional and international stakeholders are determined to contain the crisis and build on concrete achievements since the landmark ceasefire in October 2020.
It appears that some Libyan political actors have learned the lessons from the previous decade and realised the need to set national interests above narrow personal or partisan ones. But there still remain opportunistic, self-serving forces that think they can capitalise on the confusion following the postponement of the elections and may want to derail attempts to set the political process back on track.
Among them are forces believing that their interests are better served by trying to revive the pre-2021 phase under the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Any attempt towards this end would be unrealistic and extremely risky. In addition to dragging the country to a new precipice, the current balance of power would not be in its favour.
Two main camps have emerged since the elections were postponed. One camp wants to extend the current interim phase for six months and focus on remedying the problems that led to their postponement, most likely by implementing recommendations made by the parliamentary roadmap committee that include introducing amendments to the presidential elections law, settling legal challenges to some presidential candidates and sorting out administrative problems regarding voter registration cards.
The other camp believes that the problems go deeper and is calling for a two-year extension. It says there is no constitutional basis for the elections and wants to reopen controversial issues such as whether or not to hold a referendum on the constitution before they take place.
The first camp believes that the impetus the electoral process has generated and the hopes that the Libyan people have pinned on the elections as a step towards stability are too important to waste. The UN Support Mission (UNSMIL) in Libya supports this view, fearing that a two-year extension and tensions raised by wrangling over contentious issues, such as the constitutional referendum or whether or not to hold just parliamentary elections and defer the presidential ones, would mean postponing the elections indefinitely with all the dangers that would court.
The second camp has also argued that Libya’s military should be unified before the elections. However, the first dismisses this as a pretext since the question is no longer as controversial as it once was given the rapprochement between the western and eastern military commands in the framework of the UN-sponsored 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC).
Two phases can be envisaged. The first benefits from the important gains made during the implementation of the roadmap last year and might be termed a containment scenario. Despite the bumps and pitfalls along the way, such as differences between the two executives (the Presidency Council and the premiership) and tensions within the government itself, the roadmap is still generally accepted among all the players despite divergent views.
One test, however, will be whether the current government continues as a caretaker government. Forming a new government could take time and stir tensions over procedural and other questions. A major stumbling block is current Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dabeiba, who decided to run for president despite his pledge not to owing to the fact that his nomination violated Article 12 of the Electoral Law.
While UNSMIL has stated that the decision on whether to form a new government is a domestic concern, its acting head, Stephanie Williams, fears that the contention surrounding forming a new government will cause people to lose sight of the main aim: the need to hold elections.
The Presidency Council supports this view, returning the problem to the prime minister, who favours a much longer extension and a constitutional referendum before the elections take place.
The unprecedented meeting in Benghazi of presidential candidates shortly before the postponement of the elections was made official also appears to favour sustaining the momentum of the political process. Foremost among the participants were Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar, who issued the invitation and surprised observers who had predicted he would trigger a crisis, and former interior minister Fathi Bashagha, once among Haftar’s most vehement critics.
The most important aspect of this initiative was that it came from within, boosting the rapprochement between the rival military commands and aiming to preempt factors that could lead towards a backsliding into war.
However, the views of the Western militias, such as those based in Misrata, should not be underestimated. Some observers fear that these militias, which claim to represent the “forces of the revolution,” may take military action to forestall the elections in the coming period.
In addition to notching up the rhetoric opposed to UNSMIL and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, the militias have begun to align their views with the current prime minister, especially on the question of the constitutional referendum. They also oppose steps to form a new government to replace Dabeiba’s.
Libyan sources have reported that Dabeiba, acting in his capacity as acting defence minister, ordered the Misrata militias, generally aligned with Islamist forces, to come to Tripoli to support him in his bid to remain prime minister. As a result, the containment scenario faces challenges such as potential military escalation in western Libya and attempts to thwart the rapprochement between the eastern and western chiefs of staff.
The second phase, which could be termed “roadmap II,” would involve establishing rules for the extended interim process and curbing the threats to the political process that have loomed in the wake of the postponement of the elections. Mechanisms such as the roadmap committee and UNSMIL and national initiatives such as the Benghazi meeting mentioned above would serve this purpose, which aims to rectify flaws leading to pitfalls in the first roadmap.
Roadmap II would thus not change the goals of the political process, but rather would clear the path towards achieving them and avert the risk of a much longer extension.
The success of this scenario is contingent on the efficacy of the mechanisms that shape it. The roadmap committee is meeting with key bodies such as the Higher National Elections Commission (HNEC), the Higher Council of State (HCS) and UNSMIL preparatory to submitting its recommendations to parliament.
It seems dependable in the light of the clarity of its task and its relative freedom from political polarisation as a technical committee, distinguishing it from the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which is a more politicised body. The roadmap committee can therefore be expected to base its decisions on more objective criteria and, as a parliamentary committee, it can compel the House of Representatives to live up to its responsibilities.
Another critical factor will be how much support there is for the greater national interest. Unanimity is an idealistic goal given the nature of the Libyan political situation, but the emergence of constructive initiatives offers hope that the Libyan players will be able to rise above the most divisive issues in order to avert a backsliding into war and promote the political process.
Equally crucial to the success of the process will be the need to curb foreign meddling. The parliament’s denunciation of a British intervention in favour of the Dabeiba government to the extent of considering declaring the British ambassador persona non grata is the type of stance that should be extended to other outside meddlers.
It should apply to those parties responsible for perpetrating the presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya and attempting to obstruct the political process.
What is clear is that the current extension to the roadmap is a last chance for the country. All Libyan stakeholders must now place the welfare of their country first if they are to keep the electoral setback from degenerating into disaster.