Jalel Herchaoui

Executive Summary

In 2021, Libya’s U.N.-backed election plans collapsed due to technical difficulties, yes, but also politically-motivated maneuvering. Powerful players both within and outside the country moved to subvert and weaken the electoral process.

At the top of the list of the Libyan actors implicated in these outcomes is Speaker of the House of Representatives Aqila Saleh. Saleh’s negative interventions—which received active diplomatic support from Egypt and France—ran counter to the spirit of the U.N. roadmap and inspired confusion and animus within the political field.

On the other side of the political divide, Libyan politicians backed by Turkey — interim Prime Minister Dabaiba and, separately, HSC president Khaled al-Meshri — contributed to hurting the electoral process, too. Dabaiba, who had earlier promised U.N. officials that he would not run for president, reneged on his pledges. In addition to flouting U.N. rules, he also violated aspects of Saleh’s electoral law.

The sitting Prime Minister’ behavior added much to the atmosphere of distrust that ended up compromising the electoral process. As for Meshri: he promoted the holding of a constitutional referendum instead of working on ways to make the elections materialize within the agreed-upon U.N. roadmap.

These schemes unfolded at a time when the U.N.’s own capacity as mediator and facilitator on Libyan affairs showed exceptional vulnerability. Indeed, crucial mistakes committed by the organization are certainly responsible for 2021’s election failures as well.

Beyond the shortcomings of incumbent Libyan officials and the U.N.’s lapses, the 2021 experiment also revealed the extreme political fear that Saif al-Qadhafi, the late autocrat’s son, inspires amongst the country’s post-2011 elites.

The presidential ambitions of Saif al-Qadhafi, despite his weakness on the ground, divide not only Libyans but also foreign states. Russia, which is militarily present in Libya, wishes to see Saif run for president, while Washington doesn’t. This obstacle may potentially reappear in future attempts at elections even if the other issues are addressed.

Key Findings

Libya’s incumbent political elite’s attitudes toward free and fair elections contrasts starkly with the outlook of ordinary citizens. The latter hope for and support elections. The former, whose earnest cooperation is necessary for a successful electoral process, fear losing their existing privileges.

Among the Libyan politicians who were in a position of power in 2021, none proved genuinely committed to working towards a successful electoral process. In fact, many applied themselves to contributing negatively to the experiment — by either attempting to subvert it or simply sabotaging it.

The most formidable hurdle on the road to elections was the exceedingly frail, ambivalent, and defiant character of the electoral laws, which Speaker of the House of Representatives Aqila Saleh wrote and imposed without any parliamentary vote. Saleh’s negative intervention received active diplomatic support from Egypt and France. Meanwhile, the U.N.’s performance as mediator and facilitator showed exceptional weakness, which helped precipitate the process’ collapse.

Interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba also took actions that helped undermine the electoral process. The same can be said of Khaled al-Meshri, the High State Council’s president. Instead of general elections, Meshri promoted the holding of a constitutional referendum in December 2021. Both Dabaiba and Meshri are backed by Turkey.

The existence of political currents faithful to Muammar Qadhafi’s ideology presents a potential impasse for presidential election in Libya in the years ahead. This is particularly true with regard to Saif al-Qadhafi, the late autocrat’s son, whose presidential ambitions divide not only Libyans but also foreign states. Russia, which is militarily present in Libya, wishes to see Saif run for president, while Washington doesn’t.


General elections in Libya, slated to take place in December 2021 as part of the U.N.-backed political dialogue, failed to materialize. A previous attempt, spearheaded by France, had also come to naught in 2018.

Seen in hindsight, the missed opportunity in 2021 would become especially gutting because in the lead-up, the country had experienced the rarest of alignments: an absence of large armed clashes and a single government — the one seated in Tripoli claiming sovereign authority.

After the disappointments of late 2021, Libya’s institutions unsurprisingly continued to fragment while tensions between competing armed factions rose to a boil. On the diplomatic front, ostensible hand-wringing was the response of the day; beyond issuing boilerplate statements on the need for Libyan leaders to re-commit themselves to adopting a constitutional basis for “early” presidential and parliamentary elections, foreign states of influence exhibited little interest in articulating serious plans.

Come August 2022, a senior Tripoli-based European diplomat candidly admitted that “There are no prospects for elections.” Another senior diplomat opined that “No Libyan politician truly wants elections.”

This report attempts to identify the primary drivers behind Libya’s failed elections of 2021. It highlights three specific causes as being most salient to the outcome in question. The first is the missteps of the U.N. itself, whose leadership will be shown to have made several notable mistakes during the months preceding the scheduled elections.

The second is the shortcomings of incumbent Libyan officials, whose selfishness, myopia, and opportunism proved a massive hindrance to progress. The third is foreign meddling: While certain nations, like Germany, displayed relative earnestness in their support for elections, their efforts were ultimately overwhelmed by those of Egypt and France, both of whom acted to undermine the electoral process.

Other nations, like Turkey, dedicated little of their sway in Libya to the issue of December 2021’s elections, remaining largely unconcerned, as the project crashed.

The report is organized into two sections. To set the stakes and situate the reader in time, Section One begins by laying out why elections matter in present-day Libya before proceeding to a review of the country’s recent history.

This retrospective will cover significant political and military developments between 2011 and 2021. Having brought everyone up to speed, Section Two turns to analysis. Herein, we dissect the three causalities introduced above and show how each contributed to the disappointments of 2021.

A conclusion will then recapitulate our findings and furnish a sketch of the road ahead for Libya. The data upon which the claims in this report are based was gathered from a number of sources.

The author consulted both the academic literature as well as local and international media. He also conducted roughly twenty semi-structured interviews between March 2021 and September 2022 with relevant principals and individuals possessing first-hand knowledge of U.N. mediation efforts.

Interviewees include diplomats, mediators, planners and a number of Libyan political actors and observers. For the sake of collecting the most candid testimonies, interviewees’ anonymity has been preserved in almost every case.


Jalel Harchaoui is a political scientist specialising in North Africa, with a specific focus on Libya. He worked on the same topics previously at The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, a Geneva-based NGO, as well as at the Clingendael Institute, based in The Hague. His research has concentrated on Libya’s security landscape and political economy. A frequent commentator on Libya and Algeria in the international press, he has published in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Politique Étrangère, Foreign Policy, and Small Arms Survey. An engineer by trade, Jalel holds a master’s degree in Geopolitics from Paris 8 University.


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