Libya’s fragile peace imperiled by delayed polls, foreign meddling

Saturday February 19 2022

Libyans demonstration against the House of Representatives (parliament), demanding elections and calling for the respect of the country’s constitution, in the capital Tripoli, on February 11, 2022. The country currently has two prime ministers, raising the spectre of renewed violence. PHOTO | AFP


One year ago, all hope was that Libya was finally settling down to restoring peace and democratic rule and processes. But the UN-backed government which was to organise elections last year is no longer sitting pretty.

Attempts to remove the UN-Backed government led by Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah has plunged the country into another round of political tensions.

Libya has been here before.

An internal war that ensued after the fall and killing of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2010 divided the country into regions, decentralising government from Tripoli. Dozens of warring factions battled it out for supremacy in the past 10 years, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, which has spilled over to neighbouring countries in the form of Islamist insurgencies, particularly in the Sahel region, not to mention the escalation of human trafficking across the Meditarrenean sea .

Last week, the Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Libya, Stephanie Williams, was in the country and she held talks with the various parties, urging them to preserve the peace.

Williams said that the focus must be on conducting a free, fair and inclusive national elections in the shortest possible time.


"We reviewed the process underway and I reiterated the importance for all actors and institutions to work within the political framework and, above all, to preserve calm on the ground in the interest of Libya's unity and stability," she tweeted following her meetings with leaders of the various factions.

The House of Representatives, which sits in the eastern city of Tobruk, was scheduled to convening a meeting on February 15th, to discuss the way forward.

There are talks about the possibility of the elections being held in June.

Williams appealed to the lawmakers to take a decision that allows the elections to take place, noting that they are needed to give credibility to the country's institutions.

"All the institutions are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. I don't see any other exit for Libya other than a peaceful political process," she told journalists.

The African Union and its representatives in the UN Security Council, Kenya, Gabon and Ghana, have insisted that foreign fighters in Libya must also leave immediately to ensure a level playing field.

“To secure the gains achieved so far, foreign interference in Libya must end,” said Dr Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN in a recent statement on Libya to the UN Security Council.

“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.”

A pact called the Comprehensive Action Plan had been reached between warring parties for what the Security Council indicated as a balanced and gradual for foreign fighters such as Russian mercenaries and other backers to leave. Most of the fighters though have defied the call, seeing that they are not restricted by international law as ordinary armies would.

National Unity government

After several failed efforts at peace, a UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum succeeded in forming a National Unity government in 2020, headed by Dbeibah, a businessman and former associate of Gaddafi.

The interim administration was expected to restore basic services — electricity, water and healthcare — in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and plan for and hold elections.

Yet Dbeibah was slammed with a vote of no-confidence by the Libyan parliament in September, weeks before the election. Since then his administration had been retained as a caretaker government. On February 10, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to install Fathi Bashagha, a former Interior minister, as new prime minister.

But Dbeibah refused to step aside, vowing to hand over only to an elected government, even though the chances of elections being held soon diminished by the day.

Efforts to return Libya to the democratic path started in 2014, with the election of its first parliament, called the House of Representatives.

The ensuing discussions around a resolution to the crisis led to the formation and postponement of several dates for elections.

Elections were first scheduled for December 2018, then 2019, and finally December 24, 2021. Some 2.8 million people have registered to vote.

Three days to the poll, the head of the High National Election Commission ordered the dissolution of all electoral committees nationwide, leading to the indefinite postponement of the process.

The legal basis of the elections, notably with regards to the judiciary’s role in electoral appeals and disputes, has been a major reason for the delay in the polls.

Then various courts disqualified various candidates vying for the presidency, sowing seeds of despondency.

One challenge has been the fact that the country is of the first time having an office of the president in its political system. Gaddafi often referred to himself as ‘’leader’’ rather than president. There have been an overwhelming interest in the top job, with 98 candidates submitting documents when the registration process was opened.

Among them were the son of Gaddafi, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, the PM Dbeibah and former Libyan military commander turned warlord, Gen Khalifa Haftar, who has dominated the military scene in the country in the past decade; Mr Bashagha, the PM-Designate, is also on the list.

The controversies around some of the candidates, especially Ghadaffi, Haftar and Dbeibah was part of the issues delaying consensus on the poll. While the first two face accusations of war crimes, Dbeibah is accused of going back on a promise not to stand in the election, a requirement he agreed to when taking office as interim prime minister.

Gen Haftar headed one of two rival governments that were formed after the NATO-led Western invasion of Libya in 2011. His NATO-backed forces held control of the eastern half of the country, while the UN-supported administration in the capital of Tripoli presided over the western region.

Eventually, a list of 73 presidential candidates was released, with 25 disqualified among them Seif al-Islam.

Several regional courts also disqualified other candidates, including Haftar and Dbeibah, on the basis of appeals by individual Libyans. But many of the disqualified candidates were subsequently restored to the list.

The failure to hold the election on December 24 meant that the mandate of the interim government had ended, and informed the argument by those calling for PM Dbeibah’s departure.

International interference in the war also complicated and prolonged the peace efforts. While Egypt and the United Arab Emirates backed Gen Haftar, Turkey and Qatar, with the support of Syrian troops have backed the Tripoli-based government.

NATO, United States and Russia have at various points reportedly supported different factions, at different times.

The Turkish-led faction was credited with the failure of the Haftar forces’ attempt to take over the capital in an April 2019 offensive, which further derailed the electoral process. Hundreds of Turkish troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries reinforced the Tripoli government forces.

The UN has estimated that there are 20,000 foreign fighters in Libya, including Syrians, Turkish, Sudanese and Russians brought to the country by the rival sides.

Occasional clashes among these rival forces have also contributed to the delay in the elections.

Some people want the foreign forces leave before the elections could be held.

Although the UN Security Council has called for countries with troops and mercenaries to withdraw them, UN officials don’t think holding elections should be hinged on that.