The Libyan presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2021 were postponed indefinitely amid rising tensions. The planned elections had raised hopes of breaking the deadlock and reunifying the Libyan people to bring stability and prosperity, but they failed to materialise.
Consequently, the re-emergence of a Haftar-backed cabinet, challenging the UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU), has led to renewed polarisation and sabre-rattling. The said cabinet is led by former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.
There are simply too many drivers of political instability in the country, including a lack of consensus on critical issues, such as the reunification of institutions, the constitution, economic reform and security sector reform.
Haftar has reportedly ordered the suspension of Libya’s oil exports. Most recently, Libya’s National Oil Corporation announced the suspension of production at a major oil field in the country’s south, declaring a “force majeure” due to a protest at the site. The eastern tribes and militias, who are aligned with Haftar and want power transferred to Bashagha, have otherwise threatened to continue to disrupt oil facilities in the country. Libya produces 1.3 million barrels per day and the closures took out about 600,000 b/d of its output last week.
Haftar might have been encouraged by his external backers, mainly Russia, to use this as an opportunity to put economic pressure on the authorities in Tripoli…
Libya ranks as the largest oil economy by proven reserves in Africa. As hydrocarbons are the country’s primary source of economic growth, commercial activities have been severely affected by the perpetual conflicts around oil infrastructure over the last few years.
After Libya’s long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011, some Libyan actors have – from time to time – stopped oil production and used oil blockade as a political weapon to put pressure on the authorities in Tripoli. For instance, in January 2020, eastern tribes and militias supported by Haftar’s LNA halted exports from five key oil terminals, which severely cut the country’s crude production, in an effort to choke the previous administration’s revenue. According to the NOC, this has resulted in approximately $10bn in financial losses. Haftar has tried to use the oil blockade as leverage against the Tripoli governments in the past.
Mohamed Oun, Libya’s oil and gas minister in the UN-backed GNU, recently said the blockades would not have happened without the cooperation of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which is under the control of Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar might have been encouraged by his external backers, mainly Russia, to use this as an opportunity to put economic pressure on the authorities in Tripoli and on Western countries, primarily those that import oil and gas from Libya, such as Italy and Germany.
Due to the war in Ukraine, energy prices have surged significantly. As a result, the Western countries expected the OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) to boost production as high energy prices have contributed to soaring inflation worldwide. Given that Libya has the largest oil reserves on the continent and the ninth-largest known reserves in the globe, the potential decline in oil production could lead to a further surge in global energy prices.
Prospect for drawing up a new constitution
Recently, under the auspices of the UN, representatives of Libya’s two rival governments began talks in Egypt seeking an agreement on the constitutional basis for fair, credible and transparent elections in the coming months.
The UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser Stephanie Williams stated that “the Libyan public believes that the ultimate solution to the issues that continue to plague Libya is through elections, held on a solid constitutional basis and electoral framework that provides the guardrails for an electoral process”.
Many Libyans seemed eager to take to the polls as 2.8 million of them had signed up to vote. Holding free and reliable elections requires a conducive political and security environment where all people can participate and engage in the political process and support paths of democratic transition.
Following the civil war, there is no evidence that elections can overcome the problems of state weakness and political division. For instance, in 2014, Libya had the second parliamentary election in the post-Gaddafi period, but this did not resolve the issues. It only exacerbated the country’s political, military, and economic stability. As a result, the fighting between militias escalated and split Libya into two halves (each with their own government) and accelerated the country’s fragmentation. Therefore, the timing of the post-conflict elections – alongside coordination with the selection of a constitution – and the security situation in the country directly affect the prospect of workable post-conflict democracy emerging.
In the wake of civil war, a settlement on constitutional design should precede elections, which otherwise are likely to provoke conflict. Thus, having a firm consensus on a constitutional basis is the necessary first step for holding the polls. The interim, a constitutional convention, should establish how Libya’s governance will be formed, including central authority, presidential, parliamentary and electoral rules.
The recent talks in Egypt, under the UN sponsorship, might have contributed to increased optimism about a restart of the process of political negotiations. The talks are expected to continue next month as the UN pushes for a consensus and a constitutional framework that can provide a basis for holding elections. However, there is little hope that the talks could make significant progress in resolving the existing issues, including reaching a widely accepted constitution for the polls, as there has been no agreement yet.
What is more likely is that Libya will continue to be in disarray. Both rival parties, especially the eastern part, seem to be sticking to their personal political and economic interests. They may be much less likely to cooperate with the UN-backed peace process to reach long-lasting political stability. Therefore, holding free and fair elections in the coming months seems unlikely.
Ferhat Polat ـ a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He produced several papers primarily centered on the Libyan Conflict. He is mainly interested in the Middle East and North Africa politics, with a particular focus on the Libyan Conflict and Conflict Resolution.