Before they vote, Libyans need to talk

Another Libyan election held without proper national reconciliation and political safeguards will not bring stability to the country.

Libyans protest the delay of the presidential election in Benghazi, Libya on December 24, 2021 [Reuters/Esam Omran Al-Fetori]

On December 22, just two days before Libya’s presidential election was scheduled to take place, the electoral board announced the postponement of the vote. The High National Electoral Commission (HNEC) suggested January 24, 2022, as a new date for the polls, after a parliamentary committee tasked with overseeing the elections deemed them “impossible” to conduct on December 24 as originally planned.

However, until now, there is no agreement about the new date or the electoral procedures, or on whether presidential and parliamentary elections should be held on the same day or not. But the lack of consensus on these logistical matters is by far not the biggest problem.

There are major unresolved issues polarising the country right now and, in the absence of an open dialogue to settle them, holding the elections on January 24 or any other future date risks plunging the country into a new cycle of violence.

Past election conundrums

Conducting elections amid severe political polarisation has already proven disastrous for peace in Libya. After longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, Libyan actors and foreign players rushed to elections in order to jumpstart the country’s political transition. But instead of bringing stability, the polls only worsened political and social tensions, which resulted in repeated episodes of deadly violence.

On July 7, 2012, Libya held its first parliamentary vote since the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime to elect the 200-member General National Congress (GNC). Although they were lauded as “free and fair” by major Western powers and the UN, the elections did not bring stability to the country.

Major social and political cleavages had not been addressed which led to unrest before and after the vote. Old grievances of eastern and southern regions reemerged, as their residents saw the unequal geographic distribution of seats as a sign that their marginalisation by Tripoli would continue in post-Gaddafi Libya as well.

Furthermore, local political actors sought to weaken the GNC. Ahead of the vote, the legislative body was deprived of key powers, such as appointing a committee to draft the constitution and debating its provisions. Thus, the Tripoli-based GNC was born weak, suffering from limited powers and a lack of legitimacy. The cabinet it elected was similarly debilitated.

This allowed rogue political actors to take advantage of inter-regional tensions for their own political gain. In February 2014, General Khalifa Haftar, a senior officer in Gaddafi’s army who had turned against him, launched his Operation Dignity, urging Libyans to rebel against the GNC. In May, his forces stormed the GNC building in Tripoli and launched an offensive against armed groups in Benghazi.

With its mandate having expired and the country slipping into war, the GNC was forced to schedule new parliamentary elections in June. Amid violence and record-low turnout, the House of Representatives was elected. Many GNC members, mainly from the west, contested the results and refused to hand over legislative power to the new body. Forces loyal to the GNC prevented the newly elected deputies from starting work. In November, the Libyan Supreme Court ruled that the June 25 elections were unconstitutional, but the House of Representatives, which had received UN recognition, ignored the resolution.

Thus, by the end of the year, the country was effectively divided between two camps: the General National Congress located in Tripoli, which acted as the executive and was eventually replaced in 2015 by the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), and the House of Representatives, which had moved from the capital to the eastern port city of Tobruk.

One of the main reasons elections failed to move the country forward was the absence of agreement between the different political actors in Libya and commitment to basic political principles of the democratic transition. Prior to undertaking these votes, no guarantees were put in place to ensure acceptance and compliance of all parties with the final results. There were no significant measures taken to resolve historic grievances of marginalised groups and safeguard their representation in the new state institutions. There was also no proper reconciliation between communities and tribes that had been involved in past violence.

The absence of these important elements of the transitional process led to its eventual collapse. Gradually, the division over legitimacy and state representation dragged the country into a civil war between rival camps supported by regional players.

It then took the international community and Libyan civilian forces several years to try to jump-start the transition process. In 2020, a ceasefire was negotiated to end Haftar’s failed offensive on Tripoli. The Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) was then launched, supported by the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMI) and regional and international actors, such as Egypt, Turkey, Russia, France, the US, and Italy – each with their own interests in Libya.

In 2021, the Government of National Unity (GNU) was formed as a provisional institution to move forward the political process in the country, and presidential elections were scheduled for December 24. Despite initially approving the GNU, the House of Representatives eventually passed a no-confidence vote against it in September.

Continuing polarisation

Well ahead of the vote, it was clear that old divisions continue to fester and undermine the transition. There have been several sticking points, which reflect the wide-raging polarisation in Libya and which have undermined the electoral process.

First, the election law, which outlined electoral procedures and the post-election institutional setup, was not accepted by all parties. The provisions of the law were written and passed by the House of Representatives, which did not consult properly with other Libyan state institutions, such as the GNU, the Presidency Council and the High State Council (HSC).

The law was also drafted in a way that set up Libya’s political system as a presidential one, endowing the presidency with significant powers. Provisions in the law also allow current office-holders to run in the elections and then return to their positions if they lose.

Second, no consensus candidates, who could unite a divided Libya, were put forward ahead of the election. In fact, the front-runners in the race were all divisive figures. Those included: GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh who decided to run despite having promised not to; Aguila Saleh, the chairman of the House of Representatives and a close ally of Haftar; Haftar himself; and finally, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Gaddafi’s sons, who is accused of crimes against humanity and is wanted by the International Criminal Court and the general prosecutor in Tripoli.

Saif al-Islam’s candidacy, in particular, has caused much outrage among Libyans, who are appalled that an election meant to put the country back on its democratic transition path could bring the Gaddafi regime back. While he is the most controversial of these front-runners, the rest are also quite problematic. It is clear they all want to run in order to restore or protect their positions and privileges and would be unable to de-escalate tensions, bring the country together and find acceptance from all regional players.

Third, just like in 2012 and 2014, there appears to be no consensus on the “rules of the game” ahead of the presidential vote. The main political actors – backed by various armed groups – have clearly been in disagreement about what would happen after the election, how the transfer of power would occur and how the recognition of the results by all would be guaranteed.

Additionally, there are no neutral security forces or unified army that could guarantee the peacefulness of the vote, no neutral judiciary system that could tackle disputes, and no independent media that could keep the Libyan people properly informed. Most importantly, there is no reconciliation between Libyans, as old and new grievances continue to fester and various communities continue to face marginalisation.

The way forward

The UN, along with the international community, has tried to turn a blind eye to the internal divisions between main Libyan actors and pushed Libyans to hold elections at any cost, just as it has done in the past, to the detriment of the nation.

Clearly, holding elections under these circumstances, which are quite similar to those in 2012 and 2014, if not worse, will not lead to peace and stability in Libya. That is why the postponement of the vote should be seen as an opportunity to pull the country back from sliding into another cycle of violence.

In order to put Libya back on a peaceful transition path, the country needs a new national dialogue supported by the UN and the international community. It should bring together all Libyan stakeholders, including civil society, representatives of ethnic minorities (like the Amazigh and Tebu), marginalised areas (like Fezza) and marginalised groups (like women and youth) and seek to establish consensus on the electoral process, relevant lawmaking, transfer of power, and division of powers among state institutions.

The main political actors should declare publicly their commitment to the electoral process, pledge to respect the final results and prepare to hand over their power. The dialogue should also come up with a roadmap to address other critical issues of the transitional period, such as drafting a new constitution, the reunification of state institutions – particularly the army – the reform of the security sector, and reconciliation between Libyans.

A decade after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, it is time that Libya and its international partners learn from past mistakes. Rushing Libyans to hold one more election amid severe polarisation and simmering grievances will lead to more instability and violence. Libya has the potential to emerge from its failed state circumstances, but in order to do so, it needs the support of the international community to hold a national dialogue and move towards peace and reconciliation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.