The unlikely prospect of Libyan elections

The unlikely prospect of Libyan elections
7 min read
23 March, 2022
Analysis: Shifting alliances in Libya have reshaped the status quo, threatening the country's fragile political stability and raising concerns of violence as rival factions fight for control in Tripoli.

Now more than ever the Libyan parliamentary and presidential elections seem to be at risk of a soft military takeover – one that comes from inside the capital this time rather than from the eastern region.

The current Libyan Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, appointed last year as part of the UN-led peace process, has rejected the decision of the eastern-based House of Representatives to replace him with ex-Minister of Interior and fellow Misratan (from Misrata) Fathi Bashagha.

He made a bold promise to the three million Libyans who were ready to cast their votes last December that his government would deliver parliamentary elections in June, followed by a constitutional referendum and presidential elections.

Dbeibah made his promise of June elections official by notifying the UN Support Mission (UNSMIL) in a letter.

He explained his plan for the upcoming period of Libya’s political process and reiterated that his government would not leave office until parliamentary elections were held on 30 June 2022.

"Elections, if they were to be held in just over 100 days, need an uncontested authority that can secure the vote across the vast and divided territory of Libya"

However, elections need more than a letter of intention, especially in the case of a country as war-torn and politically disoriented as Libya.

Elections, if they were to be held in just over 100 days, need an uncontested authority that can secure the vote across the vast and divided territory of Libya – east, west, and south.

Yet for the time being Dbeibah seems to have only the west on his side, even though the advent of a rival PM, Bashagha, could leave him with half of the western region at most.

“Electoral security conditions are not quite there, to say the least, but the priority is to make headway on the legal front first," Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told The New Arab.

"Concretely, the Government of National Unity (GNU) cannot be expected to ensure security for voters and for candidates in many places, including in Barqa [East Libya].”

Harchaoui says that keeping Barqa in mind, it remains to be seen whether any international pressure will be exerted on General Khalifa Haftar and his sons, who have much sway over electoral security in eastern cities like Benghazi and Ajdabiya.

He argues that a new legal framework must be enacted and this is the priority for the GNU this spring.

Libyans demonstrate against the House of Representatives, demanding elections and calling for the respect of the country's constitution in Tripoli on February 11, 2022. [Getty]
Libyans demonstrate against the House of Representatives, demanding elections and calling for the respect of the country's constitution in Tripoli on 11 February 2022. [Getty]

However, whether the GNU will be able to organise a secure and transparent vote at the local level, let alone the national level, is seriously unlikely, casting doubts on the June deadline for parliamentary elections, explains Alessandro Scipione, the Head of MENA news desk at the Italian Agenzia Nova.

“It is equally true that there are millions of Libyans who have the sacrosanct right to choose their leaders after so many years of wars, conflicts, and mockery by national leaders and the international community," the Italian journalist told The New Arab

"However, we must be honest and tell the Libyan people that unfortunately it is impossible to organise a credible, transparent, and secure elections by June.”

Two Misratans vie for power in Tripoli

Earlier this month, forces supporting the parliament-elected prime minister Bashagha were deployed on the eastern entrance of Tripoli, prompting the UN mission in Libya to warn against any escalation and mediation efforts by military leaders.

Bashagha dismissed concerns of war and stated that the armed forces were intended to provide security for his government to settle in Tripoli.

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It is believed that Bashagha has secured the loyalty of some key revolutionary armed groups and influential personalities in his native city of Misrata, as well as in other communities in Tripoli.

“Western Libyans who support Bashagha today resisted Haftar in 2019-2020 but still feel enthusiasm for Bashagha. The key question now is whether they are numerous enough to tip the balance and cause Dbeibah to flee the capital,” explained Harchaoui.

“So far, the pro-Bashagha elements haven’t been sufficient for him to physically enter Tripoli. But this might still happen in the coming days or weeks; it cannot be ruled out. Moreover, armed group leaders like Abdelghani Al-Kikli, who fought Haftar, could switch and go pro-Bashagha at any minute. Those surprises are entirely possible.”

Scipione agrees that the two rival PMs could end up head-to-head for the government seat in Tripoli. He explained that there is a risk that fighting breaks out between the rivals, on a much larger scale than what was seen on March 11.

"Since the Libyan revolution of 2011 devolved into civil war, foreign actors have enjoyed an extraordinarily strong grip on the ongoing political process in Libya"

International options

Since the Libyan revolution of 2011 devolved into civil war, foreign actors have enjoyed an extraordinarily strong grip on the ongoing political process in Libya.

Both rival PMs are now boasting about their meetings with foreign ambassadors and officials, especially with the US ambassador who seems to have managed to convince Dbeibah and Bashagha to sit for a dialogue to determine how the process will move forward.

Scipione says that at the moment the institution that enjoys the greatest international legitimacy in Libya is the UN-backed Presidential Council, adding that its role should not be underestimated, especially in the dispute between two rival armed coalitions.

“Elections without reconciliation will not be successful, therefore, the role of the Presidential Council is crucial today more than ever,” he told The New Arab.

The Presidential Council’s influence on the political process has been very weak but council head Mohammed Menfi told several political parties that he would adopt a constitutional basis for holding elections if there was no consensus within the joint committee of the House of Representatives and High Council of State.

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“The US, the UN, and other centres of power, like Great Britain and Italy, may encourage the Presidential Council to declare a state of emergency, a legal move that would suspend the Parliament and the High Council of State," Harchaoui said.

"Such a drastic manoeuvre would enable the Presidential Council to issue new electoral laws via presidential decrees, in a way that bypasses the obstructionist influence of the two chambers.”

Harchaoui adds that in that eventuality it is possible to see a Turkish-backed countermove that could go after the very existence of eastern Libya’s security architecture.

“A geopolitical environment like the present one may be seen as an opportunity to cleanse Libya of any Russian presence. And if Haftar turns out to be inextricably intertwined with Moscow’s clandestine mission in Libya, then he may potentially be in serious trouble later this year,” Harchaoui told The New Arab.

Egypt, France, and Russia — the three main nations backing Bashagha’s government — designed their current strategy based on the assumption that Washington remains soft and the UN Special Advisor Stephanie Williams displays the same sort of complacency as her predecessor did last year.

"Electoral security in Libya remains unquestionably flawed, particularly in some municipalities, and the probability of elections in June remains slight"

“But 2022 is very different from 2021. As the Americans show firmness, Bashagha’s pro-Haftar government may end up in some serious impasse. That, in turn, may trigger the Haftar family into jacking up its aggressiveness and resorting to coercive moves like direct military pressure on Tripoli and a general oil blockade,” said Harchaoui.

As the June deadline for parliamentary elections draws near, the Libyan High National Elections Commission (HNEC) has not commented on Dbeibah’s promises nor on the initiative of the UN Advisor that proposes a new constitutional basis through a joint committee between the parliament and the High Council of State.

“The focus of some international diplomats in 2022 has been on encouraging Libyan institutions to produce a clearer, more robust legal framework for elections,” Harchaoui said, adding that in 2021 the HNEC did extensive work on logistics and organisation.

However, electoral security in Libya remains unquestionably flawed, particularly in some municipalities, and the probability of elections in June remains slight.

Abdulkader Assad is a Libyan journalist and political analyst covering the MENA region with a  focus on Libya.

Follow him on Twitter: @Abd0Assad