Though a vast majority of Libyan citizens wish to choose their leadership peacefully through a free, fair, and credible vote, odds are against them. The half-life of 2021’s missed opportunity may be long indeed, its causes found in the confluence of U.N. weakness, the shortcomings of domestic leadership, and egregious foreign meddling.
In the final instance, Libya’s democratic project faces not merely technical difficulties, but also political ones. Powerful players both within and outside the country evince a commitment to subverting and weakening the electoral process. Concerning the former, Aqila Saleh stood above the rest in 2021.
Ignoring many rules, informal ethical codes, and legal procedures, the Speaker looked after the interests of Haftar as a presidential candidate, just as he looked after his own, working to obstruct the election of a new parliament unless he is certain he’ll preserve the means of exerting major influence on Libyan politics.
The moral hazard that Saleh embodies remains active today and thereby represents one of the factors most detrimental to Libya’s electoral prospects. As for the international dimension, Libyans and foreign diplomats alike point to Egypt as a destructive force par excellence.
Often assisted by the government of Emmanuel Macron, the Sisi regime has proved deft in leveraging diplomatic clout and relations inside Libya to undermine a return to the polls.
At the same time, one need note that Turkey is far from innocent. Libyan actors close to Ankara — interim Prime Minister Dabaiba and, separately, HSC president Khaled al-Meshri — after all, can hardly be said to have advanced the cause of Libyan democracy. Zoomed out, the combined effect of foreign interventions in Libya has been to consolidate the positions of two competing strains of authoritarianism: the messy horizontal arrangements improvised by Abdulhamid Dabaiba in Tripoli, and the more tyrannical, more vertical one directed by Khalifa Haftar in the eastern province.
Both systems are antidemocratic; both are unstable; both are corrupt. The Road Ahead The High National Election Commission’s suspension of the electoral process via the invocation of force majeure clauses in early December 2021 put an end to Libya’s most recent attempt at a democratic restart.
The High National Election Commission’s decision was largely attributable to Aqila Saleh’s passage of two flawed electoral laws in September and October of 2021. Among other things, Saleh’s texts furnished no clear protocol for determining eligibility for office; this guaranteed a crisis of confidence as the most polarizing candidates — Dabaiba, Qadhafi, and Haftar — could neither be excluded nor included in an authoritative, unequivocal fashion.
More importantly, the laws trampled a hallmark of the U.N.’s roadmap: the simultaneity of legislative and presidential elections. They also failed to set forth a workable timeline for the High National Election Commission to be able to do its job and make the vote happen, thus further condemning the process to collapse.
Looking ahead, the outlook appears bleak for Libya in the short to medium term. There are talks of reviving the electoral process, though the path is murky. Knowing that the HoR and HSC have yet to legislate a proper legal framework, Presidential Council head Mohammed al-Menfi said he might invoke emergency powers.
Though this, in theory, might allow Menfi to impose electoral outlaws overriding those previously passed by Saleh, the entire gambit remains far-fetched as it would risk outright war, even if one assumes immense diplomatic backing from foreign states for the very weak Menfi. Anticipating this sort of intervention by the Presidential Council or others, Saleh installed 45 additional advisors — all loyal to the Speaker — onto the Supreme Court in August 2022.
The former High Judicial Council president, who attempted to resist, ended up leaving the following month. These developments mean that, legally, Saleh is even more powerful at the time of writing than in 2021.
As is such, a fragile and dangerous state of paralysis is likely to prevail in the months ahead, always threatening to tip back into violence. In the final instance, unless a fortuitous alignment of brave domestic leaders and committed international partners should come into being, it is difficult to see how democracy will return to Libyan shores.
On that last point, it must be underscored that nothing in this report has established that Libya’s electoral impasse is immutable. To the contrary, the fact that actors had to work so hard to prevent elections in 2021, proves that elections are possible in present-day Libya.
More specifically, we have demonstrated that some external meddlers played a major role — as opposed to merely a supporting one — in precipitating December 2021’s debacle. This means that external actors could, also, help resolve the current impasse.
If, for one reason or another, influential foreign states come to perceive as beneficial to themselves the occurrence of elections in Libya, the probability of such an event materializing will increase dramatically.
Should nations like Turkey and the United States deploy slightly greater efforts than in 2021 towards Libyan elections by hammering out intelligent compromises with Egypt and others, things may change rapidly.
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.