TUNIS/TRIPOLI- Eight days before Libyans were meant to cast presidential votes, there is utter confusion over the fate of an election that has not yet been formally delayed but that even an electoral official now says will be impossible to hold on time.
The planned Dec. 24 vote, along with a parallel election for a new parliament, was meant to help end Libya's past decade of chaos by installing a political leadership with national legitimacy after years of factional division.
However, the process has been dogged since the start by bitter disputes over the election's legal basis and fundamental rules, including over the eligibility of deeply divisive front-runners, that have never been resolved.
On Saturday the electoral commission said it would not announce the final list of eligible candidates, drawn from the 98 who registered, until after legal discussions with the judiciary and parliament.
Amid continued arguments and fears for electoral integrity after major security incidents, a member of the elections commission on Thursday told regional Al-Jazeera television that a Dec. 24 vote was no longer possible.
Few of the Libyans Reuters spoke to on Thursday believed the vote would happen on time, though many expected only a short delay. "It will be postponed for a maximum of three months," said Ahmed Ali, 43, in Benghazi.
Rival candidates and political factions have been exchanging recriminations, accusing each other of trying to block or manipulate the electoral process for their own advantage.
International powers pushing for elections along with the U.N. have maintained their stance that polls must go ahead but this week stopped referring to the planned Dec. 24 date in public statements.
Over recent weeks very large numbers of Libyans have collected their ballot cards and thousands have registered to be parliamentary candidates, apparently signifying widespread popular support for an election.
Tim Eaton of Chatham House, the London think tank, said Libya's political bodies were not ready to publicly say the vote would not happen for fear of being blamed for its failure.
"It's pretty clear that the legal wranglings cannot be resolved in the current circumstances," he said. "No one thinks this is happening on time, but nobody is saying it."
It left a choice between short delays to find fixes to push the elections over the line or longer delays to reshape the political road map, which could also include replacing the transitional government, he added.
Since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has had no political stability and in 2014 the country split between warring eastern and western factions.
Oil company employee Ali Saad, 66, said he wept for Libya's future. "Even if the elections are postponed, I hope it will be with an agreement and rules that can be worked on, because otherwise things will be tense and the consequences will be dire."
Analysts and diplomats say a return to direct warfare between eastern and western sides, both now well entrenched and with significant international military backing, appears unlikely for now.
However, they say there is a bigger risk of tensions erupting into internal factional warfare within either camp, particularly in Tripoli, where armed forces are more diverse and political divisions are more open.
On Wednesday night, an armed force surrounded government buildings in Tripoli, apparently in response to a decision to replace a senior military official, but there was no fighting and a security source said the situation was being resolved.
In the southern city of Sebha there were fierce clashes early this week between groups aligned with rival factions. Last month the electoral commission said fighters had raided voting centres, stealing ballot cards.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall in Tunis, Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli and Ayman al-Warfali in Benghazi; Editing by Giles Elgood) ((email@example.com; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org))