2.3 The boldness of Aqila Saleh
Among the many hurdles on the path to December 2021’s general elections, the most formidable was the exceedingly weak character of the electoral laws that a small group of MPs — led by the Speaker of the HoR, Aqila Saleh — designed and rammed through without a proper parliamentary vote.
After the LPDF’s failures to propose electoral laws in the summer of 2021 left Libya’s electoral ambitions in limbo, Saleh steered the process down a culde-sac. As discussed in Section One, Saleh issued a law in September 2021 relevant to presidential elections, aware that the U.N. and members of the international community were anxious to see some kind of electoral framework put forward even if it transgressed the U.N.’s own prerequisites. The law contained many important idiosyncrasies.
It established that presidential elections would need to occur prior to the holding of parliamentary ones. It established that a majority was needed to win the office and that a second round run-off between the two vote getters would be held in the event such a majority was not secured in the first round.
Yet the law did not guarantee that said second round would take place within a reasonable amount of time. While scanty and vague in many regards, Saleh’s law also included considerations of a constitutional character, including provisions defining presidential powers and term limits.
Crucially, and unsurprisingly in view of Saleh’s relationship with Haftar, the law allowed active-duty military officers to run for the presidency. Furthermore, the law granted the HoR the authority to accept or reject the election results, even if the High National Election Commission deemed voting void of any irregularities.
Lastly, the law defined a single national voting jurisdiction, doing away with the three-district system delineated in a 2018 constitutional referendum law and ratified in January 2021.
From behind the scenes, Saleh also oversaw the passage of a law in October that was to govern parliamentary elections. Amongst the law’s most visible peculiarities were its forbidding of party lists, a measure guaranteeing a fractured parliament.
Of greater importance was the law’s non-specification of the maximum amount of time that was to separate the holding of parliamentary elections from the first round of the presidential elections.
In conjunction with Saleh’s September law on presidential elections, the October law’s lack of enforcement on timing left the electoral process without any binding anchor points.
Theoretically, this would have allowed Saleh, should he perform poorly in the presidential election, to simply stonewall the holding of a vote on parliamentarians, thereby protecting his post as Speaker.
Less abstractly, it vested the entire process with incoherence and debilitating conflicts of interest, making it far more difficult (i) for the various political factions in Libya to come together over the terms of competition, and (ii) for the High National Election Commission to do its job.
The problems inherent to Saleh’s electoral laws go a long way toward explaining why the High National Election Commission froze the election process three weeks before the December 24, 2021 deadline, to the great chagrin of many citizens. And yet, although Saleh carries much of the responsibility for this outcome, he is not the sole Libyan political actor at fault.
2.4 Dabaiba Did His Part to Sabotage the Elections
Abdulhamid Dabaiba, too, must share in the blame for the disappointments of December 2021. The Turkish backed interim Prime Minister’s culpability stems from a number of actions, such as his reversing of a pledge he made within the scope of the U.N. proceedings.
As part of the LPDF’s February 2021 designation process in Geneva, Dabaiba, like all the other candidates for the executive authority via, issued a written promise not to run for the elections later that year. Once he won the prime ministership however, it didn’t take long before Dabaiba would begin projecting himself as a leader president-in waiting.
As early as spring 2021, his wealthy uncle and eminence grise Ali Dabaiba — one of the seventy-five delegates in the LPDF committee — tried to sway the mediation process in Geneva. When it became apparent that the U.N. was struggling to shepherd the LPDF committee towards any agreement on the constitutional basis, some delegates demanded a constitutional referendum and, thus, a deferment of all elections.
At this occasion, Ali Dabaiba emerged as one of the most vocal advocates of postponement, according to both an LPDF delegate and a former U.N. official present. Needless to say, a postponement of the December 2021 elections meant that interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba would stay in power beyond the scheduled end of his term.
On August 12, 2021, Abdulhamid Dabaiba gave a much-noticed speech in Leptis Magna, the prestigious Roman ruins site located to the east of Tripoli. Attended by thousands of young citizens, Dabaiba cut the figure of a man who most certainly saw himself fit to lead the nation as president. He also made the point of having Sadeeq al-Kabir, the governor of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), on stage with him.
Al-Kabir’s personal closeness to the Dabaiba family goes back to the Qadhafi era. His presence on the day constituted a tacit endorsement of Dabaiba’s presidential ambitions, and a violation of the political neutrality expected of a technocrat of his status.
As it is Kabir who controls Libya’s public coffers for all effects and purposes, his accompaniment of Dabaiba was also interpreted by some as an attempt to communicate to the public that should they give the presidency to the interim Prime Minister, they could expect social stipends, civil-servant salary raises, and other cash bonuses to come their way.
Dabaiba’s flirtations with the presidency made a slew of Libya’s most prominent political players — Saleh, Haftar, and Bashagha especially — gravely uncomfortable. It breached, after all, the spirit of fair play that was going to be necessary in order for elections to go forward: a pact amongst the country’s most ambitious leaders to comply with the LPDF roadmap for the good of the country.
To the contrary, Dabaiba’s moves encouraged his rivals to plot their own entrances into the race with an equally ruthless disregard for the U.N.-sponsored process. The probability of elections materializing at all was the collateral victim.
As it ultimately played out, Dabaiba made his intention to run for the presidency explicit in November, taking a leave from office thereafter to commence campaigning. Although unhelpful in several regards, it should be acknowledged that Dabaiba was not an all-out enemy of the electoral process.
His government supported the High National Election Commission, contributing 95 million dinars to its total budget of about 500 million dinars (the balance came in the form of foreign donations).
“Dabaiba’s Government of National Unity facilitated the work of the High National Election Commission,” recognized reluctantly a former High National Election Commission official, despite his antipathy for the interim prime minister.
“The Dabaiba government provided many of the necessary resources, also the security, planning, and so forth.” On the other hand, his candidacy — and the behind the scenes role played by his uncle at the LPDF — corroded the elite consensus building that was required for elections to be a success.
If not Saleh’s equal in hurting Libya’s hopes for a return to the ballot box, then, Dabaiba was hardly guiltless.
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.