How an election could help Libya, or not

Tuesday December 21 2021
Libyan polls

A Libyan woman casts her ballot at a polling station during legislative elections in the capital Tripoli on June 25, 2014. Libyans may or may not hold their historic elections on December 24. FILE PHOTO | AFP


Libyans may or may not hold their historic elections on December 24, putting uncertainty on whether the country can turn a page over a violent decade that symbolised the failures of global powers, just as it depicted the destruction of the once-stable country.

But whether that is what Libya needs will depend on who contests and how results are accepted, or rejected. There were problems already, especially with adhering to the deadlines. Some 2.5 million voters enrolled to vote but presidential campaigns have not yet started, just a week to the poll date. The actual number of candidates to compete in the race has also not been published.

An earlier update by Dr Imad al-Sayeh, the Chairman of Libya’s High National Elections Commission (HNEC) showed at least 730 candidates had expressed interest in running for legislative seats and more than a dozen others had wanted to compete for the presidency.

If the vote goes ahead, that could mark history as the country would have conducted elections for the first time.

Before that, Muammar Gaddafi, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1967, had run the show until he was ousted and killed in 2011. And before that, the country had been a monarchy.

The December 24 polls are a result of an UN-sponsored agreement reached in neighbouring Tunisia in November last year. And Jan Kubis, the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said the high number of interested candidates “demonstrates, beyond any doubt, that the Libyan people, from across the country are yearning for an opportunity to elect their representatives and renew the democratic legitimacy of their institutions.”


The election is coming on the background of six years of feuding and violence, including foreign fighters and militia sponsored by external forces. Although the violence stopped following a ceasefire agreement in October last year, Libya’s fabric is still defined by those ethnic tensions.

“When Libya descended into civil war after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, arms and mercenaries and Tuareg militias fanned south and south-east, spreading to Niger, Mali and surrounding areas. Awash with weapons, the entire region was destabilised and incidences of terrorism rose sharply,” explained Dr Mustafa Y Ali, chairman of the Horn International Institute of Strategic Studies in Nairobi, a think-tank on security and political issues.

Lacks influence

“It is a good thing that the various tribal militias have agreed to a ceasefire and select leaders through the ballot. This will stabilise the country, and the region,” he told the Nation.Africa on Monday.

That could only be the first step though, he argued. Having no previous experience with elections, Libya will not necessarily come out of its tenuous and precarious situation because of the elections, he said, but rather will (stabilise) because of the international community, with tacit agreement and support of elites.

“Attempts to prevent the Libyans from exercising this democratic right must be condemned and measures against those who obstruct the political process, elections should be taken in accordance with existing Libyan laws and relevant Security Council resolutions,” he said in a statement.

The election has attracted all manner of candidates, some of whom are facing qualification hurdles. Self-declared ‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Haftar, who waged a war in eastern Libya until late in 2019 has declared candidacy. He faces questions on dual nationality which could eliminate him. And his rebels were accused of atrocities including the killing of more than 2,500 people. That makes him a dirty-handed candidate, although it doesn’t mean he lacks influence. He could still sway tribal votes.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the second eldest son of the former ruler Muammar Gaddafi is still hopeful to run, even after HNEC disqualified him earlier last month. After his father’s death, he was detained by Zintan militiamen until 2017, a result of the rebel group’s change of mind about whether he was a criminal or a hero. But Saif’s problems were just beginning.

The International Criminal Court went for his neck, indicting him for his past alleged war crimes. Initially excluded from the vote, he expects to appeal the decision. Two dozen other candidates were eliminated for not meeting the conditions for candidacy.

 They include Parliamentary Speaker Aguila Saleh who is seen as neutral and ex-Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga who is seen as commanding support.

“Concisely, elections have always been the goal for stabilising stakeholders, including democratic countries and entities (UN, Nato, EUDEL, etc.). It’s been many years that political intentions have fluctuated between attempts to hold elections and attempts to hold a national conference, said Jennan Al-Hamdouni, a former lead coordinator for the 2019 conference that birthed the agreement for elections, but who now works as Director of Advocacy and Engagement at the High Atlas Foundation, a non-profit empowerment group in Morocco. Haftar once sabotaged that peace process back in 2019 when he launched attacks on Tripoli just a week before the national conference.

Long and short answer

“Months and months of ceasefire agreements were signed and ignored following this. As the Lead Coordinator of the National Conference in 2019, I can tell you that the spirit at that time throughout the country was more hopeful than it had been for years, and elections were the obvious next steps to follow the National Conference,” she told The East African last week.

But, she too warned: Libya’s problems go beyond a mere election. The irony of holding more than 5,000 illegal immigrants in squalid conditions, the continual insecurity and the humanitarian crisis occasioned by inadequate access to relief make it complicated.

“Through an international and humanitarian lens, refugees and migrants are absolutely one of Libya’s largest problems, but that list is a long one,” she told The East African.

“Access to money remains one of the largest issues for Libyans. The long and short answer as to Libya’s largest problem, and connected to every end of the spectrum, is the lack of security in the country: militias, the LNA (Libyan National Army), mercenaries from southern bordering countries, and terrorist cells punctuated throughout their Sahel region.”

There are those who argue that some of the candidates also shows that Libya did not really move on from the Arab Spring, and mistakes may be repeated. For example, while Saif’s run may bring nostalgia and stability under Gaddafi, it may also show folks have forgotten his tyranny which was the reason he was toppled.

At the UN Security Council briefing on Libya last week, Dr Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN said the world must use the occasion to correct own misjudgments about Libya “to avoid a repeat of the blunders and self-interested interventions that have characterised the International Community’s interaction with Libya and the region.”

First, he said, Libya’s security depends on the departure of foreign forces, and foreign sponsors of violence.

“To secure the gains achieved so far, foreign interference in Libya must end. Such interference is also characterised by the continued presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries, with a destabilising effect, not only on Libya but also, on the broader region,” Dr Kimani told the Council.

An earlier agreed Comprehensive Action Plan endorsed by the Council, provided for a gradual, balanced, and sequenced withdrawal of mercenaries, foreign fighters, and foreign forces from Libya. It was signed in October by the 5+5 JMC (Joint Military Commission, which includes key movements that signed a peace deal) but has yet to be implemented.

How Libya moves on from here though will also depend on whether parties agree to the electoral code, including the tight vetting for candidates.