Postponed Libyan presidential elections underscore the country’s deep divisions

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


With only days to go before this weekend’s presidential elections, the Libyan parliament decided to pull the plug and postpone them altogether. On the surface, the uncertainty surrounding the elections was said to have been due to the Commission’s inability to certify on time all the names of the candidates. In reality, many feared that the country was too divided and unstable to carry out an orderly election guaranteeing a stable government. That concern was heightened further by the presence of candidates like Khalifa Haftar, commander of the eastern Libyan forces, and Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, son of Libya’s former longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi, who are seen as deeply divisive and controversial candidates. Furthermore, ambiguous messages sent by US and UN officials about the elections seem to have put the final nail on the decision, at least for the foreseeable future.

Even though it was clear to many observers in the region that the elections would most likely be postponed, such postponement was rebuffed repeatedly by Libyan government officials who vowed to move forward with the elections. Several news outlets, including the Daily Sabah, reported the fact that the UN-backed temporary government seemed determined to hold the elections, withLibya’s Presidential Council head Mohammad Younes Menfi [saying] the country is determined to simultaneously hold presidential and parliamentary elections on the same date, according to a statement made by the council on Tuesday, amid ongoing problems as voting day nears. Menfi highlighted the importance of keeping in touch with judicial authorities, as he stated that Libya does not have any other option but to hold elections on the same day…. Libya’s eastern-based House of Representatives and the High Council of State have not reached an agreement on the legal framework of the elections.”

That message was later reiterated by Abu Jnah, the interim head of the UN-recognized government of national unity (GNU), who according to an Albawaba report emphasized that “The Libyan government has declared its readiness to hold the country’s presidential election as scheduled on December 24 despite uncertainty that the vote will go ahead on time…. Abu Jnah is serving as interim head of the UN-recognized government of national unity (GNU) since sitting premier Abdulhamid Dbeibah announced his bid for presidency…. Abu Jnah also noted that the GNU’s transitional executive was ‘ready to hand over power to an elected government’. Earlier, Interior Minister Khaled Mazen called for the presidential vote to be held on time, and said his ministry had ‘carried out its work to protect and secure voting centers’ despite ‘obstacles’.”

Others, including some of Libya’s neighbors, were concerned that the atmosphere around the elections was not conducive to a peaceful transfer of power, leading them to urge the Libyan government to postpone the elections. One of those voices was the Egyptian daily Al Ahram, which believed holding elections at this time would only make matters worse: “Elections for both president and parliament were meant, primarily, to restore the stability and territorial integrity of Libya. With the current, complicated differences over who has the right to run, the fear is that violence could easily flare up again, whether the elections are postponed, or the victory of a given candidate ends up not being accepted by the vast majority of Libyans…. The most immediate task among Libyan, international and UN officials is to agree on extending the mandate of the current interim government in order to fill the political vacuum, continue preparing for elections and prevent a return to civil war.”

Considering the tensions surrounding the planned December 24th presidential elections, many were already looking for alternative forms of governance to restore some semblance of normality to the country. With the efforts of the UN-backed transitional government falling short of delivering such results, The National’s Ahmed Maher points to alternative proposals that may overcome the country’s “competing factions and interests. Even the economy and public finances are fragmented into two entities, with a rivalry between the governor of the central bank, in the west, and his deputy, in the east. Talks between both men to settle old scores are still at an early stage…. With the rising political tensions fueled by tribalism, there have been renewed calls for adopting federalism or even dividing the country into three autonomous regions, as during the colonial era, when the British and French occupied Libya in 1943 and split it into three provinces: Tripolitania in the north-west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan-Ghadames in the south-west.”

Still, such proposals, while perhaps appealing to some, are seen as a long shot. Meanwhile, it became clear early on that, as Asharq Alawsat has reported, the charged atmosphere surrounding the proposed elections was further complicated as domestic and international officials began speaking at cross purposes from each other: “Kadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam throws his hat into the ring as does Dbeibah, and Haftar confirms he too is standing. Divisions mar the run-up to the poll over who should be allowed to run. At the end of November, Interior Minister Khaled Mazen says Libya may have to delay the presidential polls if worsening ‘violations’ threatening the electoral process continue, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he does not want the vote to become ‘part of the problem’. Despite Libya’s election commission delaying a final list of candidates on Saturday, interim head of government Ramadan Abu Jnah insisted Sunday the elections will go ahead and ‘nobody should deprive Libyans of this historic’ choice.”

Libya’s future, as perhaps can be expected, is not of concern only to its citizens, but also its neighbors, each of whom have invested resources in their favorite candidates. Writing for Al Ahram, Dina Ezzat notes that one of those countries is Egypt, “which has long been invested in pushing for stability in its western neighbor, is growing increasingly concerned about the situation in Libya, a country whose security impacts directly on Egypt’s own. Since the 24 December election date was set in February, Egyptian officials have stressed that what concerns Cairo most the stability of its neighbor. Throughout much of 2021, the officials add, Cairo has been willing to open up to political forces in the west of Libya, and temper its support for those in the east, all for the sake of giving stability a push…. Egyptian officials say that while Cairo remains committed to elections being held, it is not fixated on a date. Far better, they say, that they occur when the security situation is stable enough to contain any fallout from the results than that they should be held regardless of the security or political consequences.”

Meanwhile, Turkey has continued to cultivate close ties with the segments of the Libyan political establishment with whom the Turkish government has concluded a series of important economic, maritime, and security agreements, which has angered Ankara’s neighbors across the Eastern Mediterranean. Last week, the Daily Sabah reported that the Turkish president met with “Libya’s Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR) Fawzi al-Nuwairi and a delegation which visited Ankara on Wednesday, upon the invitation of the Libyan-Turkish Parliamentary Friendship Group at the Turkish Parliament…. The head of the Libyan-Turkish Parliamentary Friendship Group, Ahmet Yıldız, noted that Turkey will continue to support Libya and expects all sides to refrain from using arms following the upcoming elections…. Libya is expected to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on Dec. 24. Turkey and Libya have seen closer ties in recent years, especially after the signing of security and maritime boundary pacts in November 2019, along with Turkey’s aid to help the legitimate Libyan government push back putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces.”

Following the postponement of the Libyan presidential elections and anticipating possible violence in the country, the Turkish president of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, took advantage of the UNGA’s 75th Session to emphasize that “Maintaining calm on the ground in Libya is vital following the decision to postpone the Dec. 24 presidential elections, which are part of the United Nations-led political process…. He highlighted that the elections must be held on a ‘solid legal basis, that is reached through the broadest possible consensus, among all relevant institutions, in accordance with the Libyan Political Agreement’…. More than a week after the delayed Libyan presidential election, seen as crucial for restoring stability to the conflict-ridden country, there is no sign that the long-awaited vote will be held any time soon.”

Some Israelis, for their part, seem to have expressed a preference for General Khalifa Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, both of whom are considered deeply divisive both at home and by the international community. That preference, according to Israel Hayom’s Daniel Siryoti, may have a lot to do with the fact the General Haftar has vowed to normalize ties with Israel, which leads Siryoti to ask whether, “Following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – is Libya the next in line to make peace with Israel and join the Abraham Accords?… According to senior Libyan officials with close ties to the leading presidential candidate, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, it appears the large Arab country is moving toward normalization with Israel. Haftar has recently voiced his desire on several occasions to normalize ties with Israel and declared he would work to that end…. Haftar, who has also earmarked a senior role in the next government for his son, Saddam, if he wins the election, has the support of the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Western actors, but he has apparently pinned a great deal of hope on relations with Israel.”

Regional calculations aside, the postponement of the Libyan presidential elections, while possibly leading to heightened tensions among the various parties, made it clear that the country was not yet ready for resolving the conflict through the ballot box. In a post-mortem analysis of the election debacle, Asharq Alawsat concluded that “the poll was delayed amid intense rivalries, UN failures and legal issues, experts say. Analyst Jalel Harchaoui of the Global Initiative think tank pointed to “mistakes on the part of the UN and an attitude of extremely bad faith on the part of Libyan actors”. The ballot should have marked a fresh start for the oil-rich North African nation, AFP reported. But officials on Wednesday said holding the December 24 vote as scheduled was impossible, with the electoral commission suggesting a month’s delay…. Analysts said that despite alarm bells, many in the international community clung onto the scheduled election date.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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