Road to Libya’s elections is fraught with peril

Libya faces its ultimate test when it holds its presidential and parliamentary election in December

  
Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh delivers a statement next to his Italian counterpart at Chigi palace, premier's office, in Rome, Italy May 31, 2021. Gregorio Borgia/Pool via REUTERS

Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh delivers a statement next to his Italian counterpart at Chigi palace, premier's office, in Rome, Italy May 31, 2021. Gregorio Borgia/Pool via REUTERS

Presidential and parliamentary elections in December this year will be the ultimate test of whether Libya can return to some sort of stability after years of conflict. Tensions and rivalries among domestic and foreign actors have intensified amid competition for influence in what most observers believe will be a relatively stable post-election Libya.

However, rather than heralding a return to the semblance of normality, the prospect of Libyans heading to the polls to upend a decade-old status quo may just unleash more chaos. The road to Dec. 24 is fraught with risks that even the most radical mitigating efforts will never fully counteract.

A sense of weariness, unease and exasperation haunts conversations about the state of affairs in Libya. Hard-won progress achieved by corralling stakeholders into agreeing to basic and elementary common goals in the service of mutual interests is easily and frequently derailed. These setbacks come from troubling declarations and feigned outrage by local actors, aided in part by the Machiavellian maneuvering of their external backers.

Granted, most stakeholders acknowledge that elections are inevitable, even if squabbles about their constitutionality persist. This is a natural consequence of the fact that all sides agree there is no military solution to Libya’s debacle, and that the current landscape is unsustainable. The foundation has been laid for a negotiated political outcome, which should culminate in the December ballot — if it is ever held.

The failure to agree on the legality of the elections is now a political dispute between the House of Representatives, led by Aguila Saleh, and the High Council of State, led by Khalid Meshri. The latter would prefer to stick to the LPDF's Roadmap agreed on last year in Tunisia, while the former is seeking to operate unilaterally, particularly on appointments to key sovereign posts.

Each side accuses the other of obstruction, creating an opening for other actors, whose interests are not fully served by the LPDF, to position themselves and leverage their preferred candidates.

Notably, Russia is betting on the candidacy of Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, who has emerged from years of seclusion. The late Muammar Qaddafi’s heir seems to enjoy broad support from tribes based in central, western and southern Libya. Some polling data even places him in close second behind interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. In Moscow’s calculation, beyond legacy ties dating back to the pre-2011 heydays of the Qaddafi regime, Saif Al-Islam is perhaps a “safe” bet.

For Russia, the uncharacteristically risky geopolitical gamble of propping up Khalifa Haftar’s eastern hegemony has failed to pay off as well as it did in Syria, Venezuela and Belarus. Memories of Haftar’s failed 14-month offensive in western Libya, even with Russian military backing, have sapped confidence in Moscow that its ambitions for Libya will be realized should the ailing 77-year-old assume the helm. However, signaling its intent to back Saif Al-Islam’s candidacy this early is equally risky. Critics argue that Saif’s leadership role in the former regime are disqualifying, a view shared by Saleh. The HoR, which is essentially a Haftar surrogate now, has proposed an electoral law that prohibits Libyans wanted by the International Criminal Court from running for the presidency. It is an obvious shot across the bow for those in Saif’s camp to rein in their ambitions. Saif’s possible return threatens to attract the tribal base of both Haftar and Aguila.

All of this is emblematic of the Haftar-Saif dynamic, replete with its conundrums, mutualities and confusing allegiances, in which their representatives have coordinated to reject any conditions restricting their candidacies. Now, however, Russia pressuring Haftar to suspend his political ambitions in favor of Saif Al-Islam will make this dynamic go awry.

Saif's emergence risks splitting Haftar's self-styled Libyan Arab Army, which allied itself with remnants of Qaddafi regime security battalions headed by loyalist officers, and has since integrated them. But divided loyalties and the skirmishes that may ensue are the least of Haftar’s problems.

Russia is confident its plans for Saif Al-Islam will also be backed by Egypt and (surprisingly) Italy. For now, Cairo has declined to reveal its preferred candidate, opting instead to facilitate dialogue, cooperation and collaboration across the spectrum. It is a logical outcome given Egypt’s vested interest in its western neighbor’s stability, regardless of who Libyans elect to the presidency. A stable Libya is less of a security threat, and affords Egypt opportunities to capitalize on at least a quarter of the contracts to emanate from Libya’s post-conflict reconstruction and the return of millions of Egyptian laborers to Libya — an outcome put at risk by more conflict.

Even if Haftar’s external backers are able to sideline him or subordinate his political ambitions in favor of Saif Al-Islam, he will remain a relevant player in Libya’s post-election landscape. This assumes the elections do proceed on schedule, and no major security threats endanger Libyans trying to cast their ballots.

The frequent clashes between east and west are, for now, engineered to coerce other stakeholders into accepting Haftar’s candidacy. However, should Libyans resist this power grab through the ballot box, it is likely eastern authorities will challenge the results of elections mandated by an unelected LPDF, calling into question the legitimacy of the newly elected government.

Additionally, Haftar has already rejected the Presidency Council’s attempts to enforce its authority as supreme commander of the Libyan armed forces. The failure to disarm Libya’s myriad armed actors has given the warlord a coercive force of battle-hardened fighters. This will complicate any newly elected government’s plans to consolidate Libya's security apparatus as a necessary measure to force the expulsion of the thousands of foreign mercenaries within its borders and mostly allied to Haftar.

Already, beyond Haftar resisting the integration of the LNA into a single, unified security force, Aguila Saleh has also threatened to form a parallel government to the GNU, currently headed by Dbeibah. In another twist, former interior minister and current presidential candidate Fathy Bashagha is a possible prime minister to replace Dbeibah at the end of the year if elections fail to take place .

Bashagha and Saleh joined forces and presented themselves as candidates for the transitional government before Dbeibah and Mohammed Al-Manfi’s appointments as prime minister and chairman of the Presidency Council. This alliance has authored a proposal for the constitutional basis for elections, which the LPDF will vote on later. But this same proposal is based on a plan for the HoR to withdraw its confidence in the GNU, paving the way for the HoR to designate Bashagha as the new head of government.

In short, a new reality is taking shape in Libya as different sides gauge their interests and priorities in a constantly shifting landscape leading up to Dec. 24. Most stakeholders may have agreed to the elections in principle and are angling to participate in them but, so far, none have committed to respecting the results. It is worrying that the desperate push for elections is ignoring the very real possibility that even if they are held successfully and on time, Libyans will not wake up to a new dawn but a slightly different version of the status quo.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of AdvancedInternational Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

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