Tenuous presidential elections underscore Libya’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, Libyans await the final decision of the country’s High National Election Commission on whether the voting will proceed at all. The uncertainty is said to be due to the commission’s inability to certify the candidates’ names on time. In reality many fear that the country is too divided and unstable to carry out orderly voting. The concern is heightened by the presence on the ballot of eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar and Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, son of Libya’s former longtime ruler Muammar Qadhafi. Both candidates are seen as deeply controversial. The picture is further complicated by ambiguous messages about the elections from U.S. and UN officials.

Considering the tensions surrounding the Dec. 24 presidential elections, the first since the fall of the Qadhafi regime, many are looking for an alternative form 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 to 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.”

Such proposals, while perhaps appealing to some, are seen as long shots. Meanwhile, there seems to be even less consensus on what to do with this weekend’s voting. Given the amount of uncertainty surrounding the elections, it is no wonder that, as Asharq Alawsat reports, domestic and international officials seem to be speaking in contradiction: “Kadhafi’s son Saif 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 is of concern not only to its citizens, but also to its neighbors, each of which has invested resources in a favorite candidate. Writing for Al Ahram, Dina Ezzat notes that 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 is 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 inside the Libyan political establishment with which the Turkish government has concluded a series of important economic, maritime, and security agreements. This 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.”

Some Israelis seem to have expressed a preference for General Khalifa Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, both considered deeply divisive both at home and in the eyes of the international community. That preference, according to Israel Hayom’s Daniel Siryoti, may have to do with the fact the General Hafar has vowed to normalize ties with Israel. This leads Siryoti to ask, “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 if he is elected president on Dec. 24. … 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 U.S., Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Western actors, but he has apparently pinned a great deal of hope on relations with Israel.”

Such calculations may be premature, however, since there are still those who continue to urge the Libyan government to postpone the elections. One of those is the Egyptian daily Al Ahram, which believes holding elections at this time will 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. … Most important at present is that the overall momentum towards holding elections in Libya should not dissipate. 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.”

Until now, however, that demand has been rebuffed by Libyan government officials who have vowed to move forward. Several news outlets, including the Daily Sabah, have reported that the UN-backed temporary government seems determined to hold the elections:Libya’s Presidential Council head, Mohammad Younes Menfi, [says] 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 reiterated by Abu Jnah, the interim head of the UN-recognized government of national unity, who, according to an Albawaba report, emphasized that “[t]he Libyan government has declared its readiness to hold the country’s presidential election as scheduled on Dec. 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 the 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.’”

  • 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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