Before the elections debacle in December last year, it was fairly evident that the prevailing interest among Libya’s political elite was sidelining the will of a plurality of Libyans who sought to choose their representatives in hotly contested polls. Since Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011, Libya has had at least nine governments and two civil wars but no presidential vote.

After a decade full of setbacks, violent conflict and political instability, a troubled UN Support Mission in Libya, bereft of accomplishments, resolved to seize any seemingly credible chances of making some or any progress. The result was a highly touted inclusive process to unify disparate voices and interests, ultimately herding them toward the outcomes and tenuous compromises typical of early-stage democratization. Unfortunately, barreling toward elections despite the lack of a solid constitutional framework or a consensus view on the idea of holding presidential elections in a heavily disputed context meant that the entire endeavor was doomed right from the start.

Beyond issues with the constitution or lack thereof, Libya’s mostly nonexistent or ineffectual governance systems also meant that there was no credible way to maintain the integrity of the vote, let alone implement the results. In addition, the persistent interference and inclusion of actors operating on questionable or expired mandates also marred what was already a deeply flawed process. After all, known detractors essentially had full access to, and palpable influence over, efforts that would ultimately strip them of their power.

Naturally, the elections will fail to materialize and are now indefinitely postponed. The principal causes were the row over the eligibility of controversial candidates and whether the country should even have presidential elections at all. The revolutionaries remain wary of electing a president during a fragile transition period that has yet to finalize a permanent constitution.

Others, however, argue that presidential elections are the only way to ensure Libya remains governable despite being overrun by foreign forces and a dizzying range of heavily armed local militias. Yet, paradoxically, the presence of armed actors elevates risks of an upsurge in violence if presidential elections go ahead as planned. After all, most militias would resist laying down their arms — and the access it gives them to Libya’s wealth — in favor of a duly elected national government they cannot control.

Most of these factors impacting the likelihood of holding elections have been well-known since at least 2012. The international community sought to resolve some of the contentious issues preventing the two sides from reaching a consensus by throwing its weight behind the Libyan Political Agreement and the Berlin Process, culminating in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s formation. Had the UN insisted on bridging gaps rather than pursuing an arbitrary Dec. 24 deadline for simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, it would have resulted in far more progress than the current backtracking.

The UN is yet again insisting on a new roadmap, with the same actors involved and no attempts to resolve the well-documented foundational issues that derailed last year’s vote. As a result, only prolonged political malaise awaits Libya if the international community and local actors do not address glaring pitfalls in subsequent roadmaps to build more resilience into a very fragile process.
Unfortunately, what lies ahead is an unforgiving landscape.

Firstly, the UN Support Mission in Libya lacks considerable maneuvering room since developments in the political track of Libya’s transition could derail progress in its military track, which is so far credited for a landmark, mostly intact, October 2020 ceasefire. Any moves to exclude known harmful actors and polarizing figures, or even purge controversial elements during protracted negotiations, would likely have catastrophic ramifications. It will upend the relative progress at unifying Libya’s state institutions and lead to the worst possible outcome, i.e., a return to sporadic violence in a country swarming with small arms and light weapons.

What awaits Libya is another decade of division — not between contrasting ideologies of what a post-Qaddafi Libya should be, but between the Libyan people who want elections and a ruling elite which does not.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Secondly, December’s fiasco emboldened factions in both east and west to further entrench themselves in power even more, at almost any cost and by any means. In the east, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives has since named a new prime minister, ex-presidential candidate, Fathi Bashagha, in a bid to replace the now polarizing interim premier of the UN-recognized Government of National Unity, Abdelhamid Dbeibah.

Next week, the House of Representatives will convene a session to confirm Bashagha’s interim Cabinet, unfazed by Dbeibah’s refusal to hand over power without national elections — which the Government of National Unity and UN hope will take place this summer.

Thirdly, tapping Bashagha as the interim head of government serves a dual purpose for the eastern-based Parliament. It shrinks the pool of contenders for a future presidency. It will also evenly split militias based in Tripoli and its surrounding areas between those who bet on continued Turkish support for the UN-recognized Government of National Unity and those loyal to the former interior minister.

Should most actors, both in and out of Libya, side with the House of Representatives’ unilateral moves or equivocate in their reactions, it would clear Khalifa Haftar’s pathway to the presidency. It would also assure Aguila Saleh’s continued monopoly on leading a legislative body that rubber-stamps the Haftar agenda. After all, not only has the House of Representatives presented a counter to the UN’s plans for June elections, it also voted in favor of the creation of a new electoral commission and the appointment of a committee comprising the country’s three regions to draft a new constitution.

If these developments go unopposed, the Haftar-Saleh bloc will essentially control the presidential and parliamentary elections and author the foundations of a post-Qaddafi Libya without input or consultation from the Government of National Unity or the High Council of State.

This total exclusion of the “opposition” echoes the Haftar-Saleh inner circle’s thinking that the House of Representatives can simply sidestep the Government of National Unity and ignore the urging by Western governments to keep the status quo until the elections. However, the biggest concern is that if unilateral moves, flawed legislative processes and political jockeying fail to further the Haftar-Saleh bloc’s interests, the next step will be a force of arms to achieve militarily what could not be assured politically.

Shortly after Saleh’s announcement last week on Parliament’s controversial approval to install Bashagha as the new national unity prime minister, some militia forces in Tripoli reportedly surrounded government offices and buildings held by forces loyal to the Dbeibah-led Government of National Unity.

Overall, however, the rising political tensions have not translated to any noteworthy movements by most militia forces on the ground nor elicited strong reactions among Libyan civilians save for a small, hundreds-strong protest in the capital criticizing Parliament’s decision. It adds new concerns that should conflict break out again, it would not be similar to the previous violent altercations.

After all, the October 2020 ceasefire drastically altered the landscape, with new ties emerging between friends, foes and like-minded interests. However, things could change once an incoming Bashagha government is actually handed the task of governing and encounters serious opposition from an incumbent still buoyed by support from the UN, the West and Turkish military largesse. But, for now, the decisions or moves by external actors in response to the latest developments will likely have far more influence than the political wrangling between Libya’s ruling elites.

Meanwhile, a beleaguered Dbeibah vowing to only hand power over to a nationally elected government unilaterally extends the transition authority’s mandate. His decision is not unlike the eastern-based Parliament insisting on its continued authority or capacity to legislate, even though its mandate expired nearly seven years ago. In fact, the move to tap Bashagha to succeed Dbeibah might also not be legally sound since the appointment was not in consultation with the High Council of State.

However, aside from questions about the legitimacy of the Government of National Unity governing past its supposed expiration date, Dbeibah’s credibility is also in question after breaking a pledge not to field his candidacy for the presidential elections following his appointment to the premiership in February last year. It adds to more controversies associated with the Dbeibah cabal ranging from vote-buying, bribery, cronyism, corruption and money-laundering.

Predictably, the end result is even more political uncertainty and turmoil in a bifurcated Libya led by two prime ministers and parallel administrations deeply vested in undermining each other while tightening their grips on power. Rather than the betterment of a traumatized Libyan populace ravaged by war and exasperated by intransigence, the ruling elite now plays musical chairs to the tune of the perpetual misery of all but a connected few. Meanwhile, a rudderless UN insists on deeply flawed roadmaps that do very little to resolve the issues that collapsed last year’s vote or shore up Libyan institutional capacity to hold the vote credibly, and seamlessly implement their results.

Ultimately, what awaits Libya is another decade of division — not between contrasting ideologies of what a post-Qaddafi Libya should be, but between the Libyan people who want elections and a ruling elite which does not.


Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington D.C. and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. 


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