UN plan for Libya polls faces backlash from divided leaders

Friday March 10 2023
Libya army fire rifles

Members of the Libyan Army fire live ammunition during a drill in the western town of Tarhuna, on March 6, 2023. Rivalling Libyan parliament houses are derailing UNSMIL diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily plans to conduct elections in the war-torn country. PHOTO | MAHMUD TURKIA | AFP


The new United Nations (UN) envoy to Libya had hoped to usher in long-delayed elections, but his initiative is facing pushback from the country's eastern-based parliament and a lukewarm reception by its rivals in the capital Tripoli.

Senegalese diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily last month told the UN Security Council he planned to create a panel tasked with delivering presidential and legislative elections in conflict-torn Libya later this year.

But his blunt criticism of the North African country's two houses of parliament for failing to agree on a legal basis for elections has sparked a backlash that threatens to derail the plans.

UN diplomat

UNSMIL diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily of Senegal. PHOTO | MARCO LONGARI | AFP

“The pushback was predictable, as elections would see members of both chambers potentially lose their seats and privileges,” said Khaled al-Montasser, a professor of international relations at the University of Tripoli.

“Despite the rivalry between them, both view the UN initiative as interference in their sovereign decision-making power and an attempt to impose international will on Libyans,” Montasser told AFP.


Bitter wrangles

Libya has seen more than a decade of stop-start conflict since the 2011 revolt that toppled strongman Muammar Gaddafi, with myriad rival militias, foreign powers and multiple governments vying for influence.

The country currently remains split between a supposedly interim government in Western Tripoli and another in the east, backed by Libyan Military Chief Khalifa Haftar.

While most observers believe Libyans overwhelmingly support elections, bitter wrangling over the legal basis for holding them has been a key sticking point since the last major battle between Haftar and western Libyan forces in 2020.

Read: Libya to hold legislative elections by end of June

Last month, the eastern-based Libyan House of Representatives passed an amendment to the country's Constitutional Declaration (an interim constitution), which it said would provide a legal basis for elections.

Bathily, who was appointed as head of United Nations Support Mission In Libya (UNSMIL) in October 2022, said the amendment was controversial among Libyans and lacked clarity on key issues such as who may stand in presidential polls.

He also noted it had not been endorsed by the Libyan High Council of State, the Tripoli-based upper house of parliament.

The house of representatives in turn accused Bathily of "double standards" and "lacking impartiality".

US and UK support plan

Libyan analyst Abdallah al-Rayes said the UN envoy's initiative aimed to put pressure on rival Libyan factions by giving them a "last chance" before "a vote takes place without them".

Read: Libya’s fragile peace imperiled by delayed polls

"The international community wants to embarrass the two chambers, who are masters in the art of wasting time and political horse-trading," al-Rayes said.

The Tripoli-based transitional government of Gaddafi-era tycoon Abdelhamid Dbeibah signalled its willingness to cooperate with Bathily's plan and asked the UN to provide logistical support to that end.

The US embassy last week called on key Libyan leaders to approach the plan in a constructive spirit, saying in an online post the UN proposal would build on the two chambers’ made progress on the legal basis for elections.

Britain also said it supported the plan.

"Libyans deserve certainty and faith in their institutions," its mission at the UN in New York tweeted shortly after Bathily spoke at the Security Council.

"Conditions for elections must be agreed by all and the results respected."

‘Not enough’

But Monstasser told US and British backing was "not enough", stressing the importance of buy-in from their arch-rival Russia, which has a presence in Southern Libya via the Kremlin-linked Wagner paramilitary group.

"Moscow is a powerful actor in Libya and exerts influence on Haftar," he said.

Western Libyan efforts to prevent Haftar, a US citizen, from standing in presidential polls have been a key factor in the stalemate over the legal basis for polls.

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar

A Libyan raise a picture of their strongman Khalifa Haftar. PHOTO | ABDULLA DOMA | AFP

Haftar's rivals want rules that ban the candidacy of dual citizens and military figures.

In a recent speech, Dbeibah summed up the fears of many in Western Libya.

"A return to a military regime is unacceptable," he said.