2.5 The Qadhafist Problem
At the time of Libya’s parliamentary elections in 2014, most Qadhafi loyalists were out of the game. Over the seven years that followed, however, they staged a comeback of sorts.
After slowly rebuilding influence, the resurgence of the “Greens” — or Libyans who, in 2011, favored a survival of the Qadhafi rule — would be accelerated upon the HoR’s passage of an amnesty law in July 201515.
As yet leaderless, acolytes of the movement henceforth managed to penetrate key national institutions, establishing footholds within the Government of National Unity cabinet in Tripoli, as well as within the advisory and security circles of Khalifa Haftar.
At a grassroots level, meanwhile, Qadhafists enjoy a visible presence in secondary municipalities such as Ghat and Awbari in the south, Sirte and Bani Walid in the center, or Tobruk in the east.
Due to their internal divisions and lack of a national figure, though individual Qadhafists restaked their claim as a scattered force across the Libyan political theater, they were never seen as standing any chance at capturing the presidency.
The closing weeks of 2021 altered that perception, however, when Saif al-Islam Qadhafi resurfaced to announce his intention to run for president16. Angry at the entire post-2011 political elite, many young Libyans responded positively to Saif’s reemergence.
For much of that post-2011 elite, however, his entrance into the race was utterly unacceptable. Though unlikely to mount a serious challenge to Dabaiba in particular, the mere presence of Qadhafi’s on the ballot — a man still wanted by Libyan and international enforcement, and a man whose father abhorred representative democracy — was immensely disruptive.
So too were the actions of other Libyan networks loyal to Muammar Qadhafi’s ideology though uncommitted to his alleged son-as-heir. In a January 2022 testimony, High National Election Commission’s president Emad Sayeh suggested that his agency had been flooded by an abnormal number of presidential candidacies, a volume that contributed to undermining the High National Election Commission’s work.
Among those candidates, many were Qadhafists. Similarly, many of the new political parties created in 2021 were founded by Qadhafists. The very existence of these currents in today’s Libya constitutes a conundrum for any presidential election. This is because contempt for pluralism, political parties, and representative democracy writ large, is a keystone of Qadhafist ideology.
Any Green candidate doing well within the context of presidential elections will not only be perceived as a threat by the other candidates, but will also elicit the acute distrust of large swaths of the country’s body politic.
Many Libyans suspect that any politician with a history of loyalty to, or complicity with, Muammar Qadhafi will be bound to use any democratic opening as a mere step towards restoring a system whose anti-democratic and anti-liberal nature is still vividly resented by a large percentage of the population.
Now that some of the most prominent features characterizing Libyan behavior vis-à-vis the December 2021 electoral attempt have been dissected, we must shed light on how foreign states subverted, damaged, or interfered into, that same attempt.
2.6 Incessant Foreign Meddling, 2017- 2021
The tragedy of Libya’s election failures in December 2021 was not authored by indigenous hands alone. As Section One already intimated, the interventions of various foreign actors, too, shaped the final outcome.
Most impactful amongst those meddling in Libyan affairs during the crucial months and years leading up to the planned elections were four countries: Egypt, France, the UAE, and Russia.
Egypt, France, and the UAE From a fairly early date, Khalifa Haftar and his main foreign backers — Egypt, France, and the UAE — recognized the utility that the language of democracy could proffer a bid for power.
As early as 2017, the field marshal was seen attempting to commandeer pro-elections sentiment for his own purposes. Then as in years later, the Haftar camp put special emphasis on presidential elections, despite the authorities of such an office having yet to be constitutionally defined.
The rebel commander and his supporters also made a point of trying to speed up the election timeline. They did so not because they were compelled to see democracy restored more swiftly, but because they knew that their rhetorical jolts would suppress or divert the mediation initiatives being led by the U.N. — initiatives they feared would not redound to the field marshal’s benefit — while helping Haftar present himself as the true champion of the Libyan people.
Egypt and France — along with the UAE, on some occasions — played critical roles in these ploys throughout. During the two years preceding Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, the three powers worked to undermine the U.N.’s efforts by launching independent political dialogues under their own supervision. They leveraged these sidetrack discussions to push their “rush to presidential elections” storytelling.
In May 2017, an Abu Dhabi orchestrated encounter saw both Haftar and his Tripoli rival Serraj verbally promise presidential elections within months. It is later within the context of that diplomatic initiative that Haftar demanded an amendment to the LPA so as to ensure presidential elections be held in early 2018.
Egypt and France soon threw their weight in, and waged, in coordination with Abu Dhabi, a diplomatic push for early general elections. This rhetorical campaign must be juxtaposed with the fact that Abu Dhabi, France and Egypt propped up Haftar’s non-stop military campaign in Benghazi, in eastern city Derna, in Libya’s south, and, beginning in April 2019, in the greater Tripoli area.
Beyond the wanton destruction and population displacement, the most immediate effect of the April 2019 attack was to cancel the U.N.’s Ghadames Conference, where it was hoped a final formula for the electoral process could be hammered out.
Though certainly a blunter instrument than the diplomatic interventions of the previous two years, the support given to Haftar’s attack on Tripoli by his foreign patrons followed an identical rationale in the end: the thwarting of the U.N.’s multilateral, inclusive approach, in the hope that this would allow an authoritarian friendly to those same foreign patrons’ interests to seize national power. This reality was not lost on senior U.N. officials.
As one speculated, “I guess the reason Egypt and France were so adamant about the urgency of presidential elections is simply because they had already nudged themselves onto Haftar. They probably thought that presidential elections would see him win nationally.”
Another former U.N. hand interpreted the interference less generously, viewing all their talks of early elections as a deliberate ploy to prevent any elections: “In 2018, the Egyptians made clear that they did not support elections in Libya.” A free and fair vote next door seems to carry an unacceptable amount of uncertainty for the Egyptian government.
“The real problem has been — and remains — that the countries most involved in Libya would not facilitate elections unless they know in advance who would win them,” summarized a former senior U.N. official. As for Paris’ policy of assistance to conservative Arab governments interfering in Libya, one interlocutor highlighted the divisions within the French state.
In their recollections, the French ministries of foreign affairs and defense were genuinely supportive of the U.N.’s step-by-step approach, but the Elysée Palace’s diplomatic cell, upon Emmanuel Macron’s ascension, developed a different outlook.
Critical in these regards was Paul Soler, assuredly the most influential voice within Macron’s circles when it comes to Libya. An unwavering supporter of Haftar, Soler has played pointman for French policy on Libya and, in that context, leveraged the country’s close relationship with the UAE and Egypt, almost always sidelining the French foreign service in the process.
If not fooling anyone about their true intentions, Haftar’s non-Libyan partners nevertheless continued the same tactics once the U.N. renewed its mediating efforts in the aftermath of Haftar’s defeat in Tripoli. This was evident at the Berlin Summit of January 2020.
As a U.N. official recounts, there was consensus at the time that “elections in a broad sense ought to be pursued as part of the U.N. peace process. But the participants who went out of their way to heavily insist on the need for presidential elections — in addition to the parliamentary elections — were the Egyptians and the French.”
As in the past, this insistence reflected a desire to increase the probability of Haftar or one of his allies reaching the presidency before Libya adopts a permanent constitution. And as in the past, it made things more difficult for all those sincerely attached to peace and democracy in Libya.
One final act of the French in particular is worth highlighting as relates to the December 2021 failure: their immediate and full embrace of Aqila Saleh’s electoral laws. On September 11, Macron’s government gave its public backing to the HoR Speaker’s unilateral move25.
Once France — a prestigious Western democracy with a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council — had intervened so unreservedly to give its blessing to Saleh’s legislation, all other Western powers became less likely to press the HoR Speaker for much-needed amendments.
This is why few were surprised by the Biden Administration’s indolent complacency on the same issue during that crucial month of September 202126. At a time when the controversy associated with Saleh’s September 8 law was tearing Libyans apart, these two foreign states’ endorsement functioned to push the North African nation farther away from the conciliation and patience it needed, setting it on a course from which there would be no return.
In many regards, Paris and Washington helped seal the fate of 2021’s elections. Needless to say, during that same pivotal month of September 2021, the head of Egyptian diplomacy praised Saleh’s law, making it even more difficult for any other nation to ask for any amendments.
Russia, of course, has also played a role in proceedings. Since 2017, and independently from its tight partnership with Haftar, Moscow has quietly dedicated part of its growing sway in Libya to promoting the attractiveness of a return to the pre-2011 era.
“What’s critical [with regard to Libyan elections] is ensuring that representatives of all leading political forces can take part in the elections,” said Russian Deputy Representative to the U.N. Dmitry Polyanskiy a month after the doomed elections of December 2021.
Similarly, in the preceding months, Russian officials insisted on the elections’ “inclusive” character. The “inclusivity” here always alludes to the candidacy of Saif al-Islam and other Greens.
Although these currents present many weaknesses as a viable political force, Russia cynically works to build up the image of Saif al-Islam Qadhafi and Qadhafists in general. The policy is not pursued out of the belief that Greens can actually rule Libya.
Rather, it is mainly designed to discredit the wider electoral process by injecting into it an agent provocateur of no equal. One significant driver behind Moscow’s calculus is a desire to tarnish the image of the United States in the Middle East and Africa, including on an ideological level.
In that regard, relatively modest Russian support for Qadhafists in Libyan politics always generates big rewards. In the same way a successful vote would constitute a victory for American diplomacy, a discomfiture like the only seen in late 2021 is good news for Russia, who not only maintains a military presence in Libya but also makes a point of attributing the North African country’s troubles to Washington’s liberal democratic aspirations in the region.
Thus, Russian exploitation of the Qadhafist problem described earlier in this report will likely continue — especially knowing that the policy offers the extra benefit of helping Moscow keep Haftar, its other partner in Libya, in check. The field marshal considers any eventuality whereby the Qadhafists acquire greater visibility as an independent force, an existential threat.
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.