It is impressive how the war-torn Libya is still insisting on standing again on its feet as a strong sovereign state, despite the severe internal divisions and hefty external interventions. In about one month, on the 24th of December, a number slightly more than 2.5 million Libyan voters, in 75 electoral centers spread over 13 electoral districts, are expected to line up before ballot stations to vote on a new president of state. One month later, the same voters will be mobilized to elect their representatives to a fresh new parliament; thus, laying the foundation stone of their new state. Yet, they have to be wary of the many hands warming up to destroy their dream and bring the country back to the point of civil war.
The presidential elections scheduled to take place in December will be the first ever democratic practice of such a kind, in the entire political history of Libya. In itself, that is an issue worth celebration. The main goal of the elections is to bring the long-aspired sense of security and stability to Libya, the North African country that has been suffering from civil war, armed militia, and terrorism for almost a decade. However, the indirect, but greater, goal of stabilizing Libya through a democratic process is to bring the regions influenced by Libya’s turmoil back to sanity under the international law and norms. That includes northern Africa, central Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean.
However, all these remain flowery wishes, as long as the deep divisions among the Libyan tribes, political factions, and military factions in eastern and western territories, are not resolved. Elections and voting are democratic practices that cannot stand still on the shaking ground of the extremely divided political scene in Libya. One lesson learnt from the post Arab Spring transitions is that pushing for elections as a pre-step to instating security and stability is not a working solution. On the contrary, in certain cases this method negatively backfired. The type of democracy, which is dependent on ballot boxes, is a political practice that requires a tough ground of social unity and national security to sit upon. Otherwise, it may fail in a way that destroys the whole political solution process and magnifies the many existing tragedies of Libya.
Nevertheless, there still a probability that the presidential elections may not be successfully convened. Despite huge pressures from the international community to make the elections happen on due time, several internal voices, especially in Tripoli, have been calling for postponing elections due to clear flaws in the Elections Law that may further enhance the internal divisions and hinder the political solution process.
The most prominent of these voices is Khalid Al-Meshri, the Chairman of the High Council of State, and a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood group in Libya. But most involved actors, inside and outside Libya, are not seriously taking his appeals. Some local media accused him of trying to obstruct the political solution process because his Islamist group, with shrinking popularity, has very little of a chance to be part of the future state.
Yet, the shockingly abrupt resignation of Jan Kubis from leading the United Nations mission in Libya, exactly one month before the due date for elections, raises serious concerns about the potential of these elections to succeed.
On the 24th of November, the United Nations’ spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, confirmed that the Secretary-General's Special Envoy and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Jan Kubis, has submitted his resignation to the Secretary-General, who accepted it with regret. Kubis has not provided a clear reason why he decided to resign at this critical timing.
On the evening of the same day of his resignation, Kubis presented the monthly briefing on the situation in Libya to the UN Security Council. In the speech, Kubis called on all Libyan parties to show commitment to holding the elections on time and to accept the election results however they turn out to be. He, also, warned of a potential dispute that may escalate to a violent conflict, if the elections are postponed.
Kubis asserted that the parties rejecting the holding of the elections, at the time being, are questioning the authenticity and legality of the Elections Law. This raises fears of erupting a new war in light of the polarization witnessed in the western region, and the capital in particular, which may affect the electoral process. Finally, Kubis expressed concern about the presence of foreign mercenaries in Libya, who pose a threat to Libya and all neighboring countries.
Whatever the real reason for Kubis’ swift quit is, his withdrawal may open a gap that may further complicate the political scene in Libya. Replacing him will take at least a week, until a new representative is selected and then unanimously approved by the UN Security Council. During this period, the preparations for elections will continue, but without proper international supervision. That means increased potential of fraud and forgery, voter manipulation, and even violent clashes between the militias supporting certain candidates. Most observers are concerned that the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) decision to exclude some ineligible candidates from the presidential race may stir violence to a degree that will be hard to control.
On the morning of Kubis’ resignation, the embassies of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States in Libya issued a joint statement urging the Libyan people to actively participate in the coming elections in December. The five embassies expressed their full support for the authorities responsible for the judicial review of the potential presidential candidates, and called on all actors to respect the HNEC’s decisions, in that regard. The five embassies called on all Libyan parties to commit to holding free, fair, inclusive and credible presidential and parliamentary elections on December 24, and urged all international actors to encourage and support the democratic transition.
A SURFEIT OF CANDIDATES
Let’s hope the voting process will be as peaceful and democratic as the international community desires it to be. But, realistically speaking, the initial list of the names of the potential presidential candidates, who registered themselves with the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) in the past week, is a clear indicator that this election is going to be a mess. In only one week, 98 people, including two women, submitted their papers to HNEC to join the presidential race. The very stretchy provisions for presidential candidates in the Elections Law allowed almost any person, above 40 years-old, to run for elections.
Among the 98 potential candidates, only one name stands out as an actual political leader, who can truly help Libya navigate to a more stable future. That is Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the current Prime Minister of the interim Government of National Unity (GNU). During only seven months of ruling Libya, Dbeibeh managed to create internal and external balances that brought a sense of stability to his war-torn country.
On the domestic level, Dbeibeh successfully blocked the security threats coming from Hafter forces in the east, as well as overcoming the obstacles thrown in his way by the Parliament in Tobruk, in the form of challenging his budget and spending policies. At the same time, he kept open communications with the opposing tribes in the south, while keeping good relations with the tribes that are already supporting to him in the west. On the foreign policy level, he managed to create balanced relations with all foreign actors, who has an influence over Libya. That includes Turkey, Qatar camp as well as Egypt, UAE, France camp. So far, he seems to be the right man for the job.
Other than that, while the potential candidates’ list includes a comedian actor and several unemployed citizens with no political experience, the list also includes the biggest and most dangerous troublemakers in Libyan politics. One of them is warlord Khalifa Hafter, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), who enjoys a strong hold on eastern and southern territories. For years, Hafter has been sponsoring militia and thousands of African mercenaries who did a lot of harm to Libya. He has posed a continuous threat on the interim governments that ruled from Tripoli, in the past five years. But, above all that, he is accused of committing mass murders against hundreds of Libyans during the civil war. Despite that, the elastic Election Law did not prevent him from running.
The same thing could be said about Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, who appeared at the candidates’ registration station, on the 14th of November, wearing the iconic gown and turban of his father, former president Muammar Gaddafi, who was removed from power and killed by rebels during Libya’s Arab Spring revolution, in 2011. Gaddafi is very popular among the southern tribes, who are still mostly nostalgic about his father’s era. If he were given the approval to run, he would have cut a big portion of Hafter’s voter base in the south for himself. However, the HNEC excluded him along with other 24 unqualified applicants from the presidential race.
The same reasons that led to Gaddafi’s exclusion from the presidential race are applicable to Hafter. On the 23rd of November, the Military Prosecutor in Tripoli officially asked the Criminal Investigations Department to include Khalifa Haftar on the Wanted List, because he violated the military law by seeking a political position. At the same time, Hafter is already accused of committing war crimes, and should not practice any political right until the court makes a final decision about him being guilty or not. This should have prevented Hafter from joining the presidential elections. However, for some reason the electoral committee decided to keep him as a presidential candidate.
On the first short-list of accepted applicants for presidential elections, announced on the night of 24th November, some interesting names stand out. One of them is Aguila Saleh, the Speaker of the Parliament in Tobruk, eastern Libya. Saleh is a close ally to Hafter and he, allegedly, tailored the Elections Law, to increase Hafter chances to run and win against other presidential candidates.
Similarly, an exclamation mark could be stroke on the names of prominent figures from the former Government of National Accord (GNA), such as Ahmed Maiteeq, the Vice President of the Presidential Council under Fayez Al-Sarraj, and Fathi Bashagah, the former GNA’s Minister of Interior. Most likely, such candidates are not running for presidential elections with the hope to win. Rather, they are probably planning to use their candidacy status to show off their popularity and political power, so they can negotiate prestigious positions under the future government.
FUTURE BRIGHT OR BLIGHT?
With a flawed and flaccid electoral law and such huge number of candidates, that include problematic names, we can hardly expect that these elections will be able to achieve the end goal of the political solution process. Keeping in mind that the actual competition in this election is between Dbeibeh and Hafter, there are only a handful number of possible scenarios. Unfortunately, none of them seems to be ideal or even promises a peaceful aftermath.
In the best case scenario, these elections could create a system of governance similar to the current one under the interim Government of National Unity. In other words, there will be a president and a government ruling from Tripoli, with limited or no control over the eastern territories which will continue to remain under Hafter’s strong grip. The scenario of hiring Hafter a Minister of Defense under the future government is still unrealistic, especially if Dbeibeh wins the elections and became the president. As a result, Hafter will mobilize the eastern militia, under his control, to shake the security and stability of the new government and thus expose the country to a new civil war.
In worst case scenario, Hafter could win the presidency. As soon as this happens, Hafter will get busy with his top priority task of dissolving the military command in Tripoli and taking revenge at his long-time opponents in western territories. This will further increase the political polarization among militia in Tripoli and turn the country into a space of war, once again. The Tripoli militia leaders have already threatened to ignite hell, when Hafter announced that he is running for elections. Now you can imagine what they would do if he becomes the president.
Long story short, there is no guarantee that either side will peacefully accept the voting results without starting a dispute that may eventually escalate into scenes of ugly violence or even another civil war. Iraq is one of the most recent examples on how militias can turn a country’s democratic practice into a piece of hell, when the elections results does not serve them. In that sense, there is no guarantee that these elections will not defy the main goal of the political process, which is bringing long-term security and stability to Libya.
Nonetheless, that is not a call to halt the elections. That is a reminder for the international community not to take their hands out of Libya as soon as the elections are convened. The international community needs to prepare Libya to what may happen after the elections, including positive and negative scenarios. The UN Security Council promised, on its monthly session on Libya in November, that those who try to obstruct the elections will be punished. Well! It is not clear what type of punishment that is, and if the UNSC has the power to actually punish any party inside Libya. Yet, what the UNSC and all concerned parties in the international community should focus on is protecting Libya from the fights that are expected to happen after the election results are announced. Democracy is more than a ballot box or voting practice. For democracy to succeed in yielding its bright results on a country with complicated history of divisions and internal conflicts like Libya, long-term protection is a necessity.
Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.