Libya: credible elections – or another failed bid at nation-building?

Parliamentary and presidential votes were due at the end of the year, but there are fears the interim government hopes to stay in power

Libya’s hopes of ending a decade of political chaos with credible elections at the end of this year for a president and new unified parliament have reached a defining moment, with the US insisting the vote should go ahead but some European diplomats fearing divisions are too entrenched for the result ever to be accepted as legitimate.

The elections are due to take place on 24 December, but no agreement has been reached within the country on laws governing the election. There are also signs that the populist interim government, theoretically appointed by the UN to manage services ahead of the elections, might seek to capitalise on the impasse to stay in power indefinitely. Thousands of foreign troops, mainly funded by Turkey and Russia, are still in place.

The affair threatens to become an episode of failed nation-building to sit alongside Afghanistan.

Tarek Megerisi, Libya specialist at the European council on foreign relations, said: “The difficulty is Libya has lacked any political institutions with undisputed or popular legitimacy since the General National Congress was voted into power in 2012. This creates a political arena where incumbent elites have felt empowered to shirk their constitutional responsibilities of finalising a new constitution and ending the transitional period. This means they instead focus on scrapping for absolute power and looting Libya’s once considerable coffers.”

In public, western powers are applying maximum pressure for the elections to take place.

The Italian foreign minister, Luigi di Maio, has warned stability throughout the region will be jeopardised if the elections do not go ahead as planned. The Libya envoy for the US, Richard Norland, insists there is no turning back from the election date. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, will also stage a conference in Paris on 12 November to maintain momentum for the vote.

The eastern-based Libyan parliament, known as the House of Representatives, is still discussing a law to allow parliamentary elections to proceed, two months after the initial deadline. However, without a vote, the HoR has passed a law, after months of delay, to permit elections for a president on 24 December, but this has been sent back as inadequate by the Libyan electoral commission, the body responsible for overseeing the elections and setting up an electoral roll.

The law has also been rejected by parliament’s upper chamber, the High Council of State, effectively a rival body based in Tripoli which has a strong Muslim Brotherhood influence. The HCS wants only the parliamentary election to go ahead, but then for a referendum to be held on a constitution prior to staging presidential elections.

To add to the tension, the HoR last week passed a vote of no confidence in the interim government led by the prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, accusing his administration of spending 51bn Libyan dinars ($11bn) in three months without any impact on services and imposing obligations on Libya through agreements with other countries worth a further 84bn dinars. The HoR speaker, Aguila Saleh, directed the government to sign no more contracts, but Dbeibah has responded to the censure saying “it was not legal, not constitutional and not moral”. At a mass rally in Tripoli on Friday night, he said the HoR was full of obstructionists who only wanted war and destruction.

The Libyan prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, at the rally in Tripoli on Friday night.
The Libyan prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, at the rally in Tripoli on Friday night. Photograph: Nada Harib/Reuters

Dbeibah was in February the surprise choice to head a caretaker UN-backed government, but some diplomats believe he is happy to see an impasse over the elections and is using his office to try to build a popular base that will allow him to stay as interim leader if the 24 December elections are delayed. In his Tripoli speech, he highlighted an increase in teacher salaries and a £5,000 gift to young bachelors seeking to marry.

But behind the scenes western diplomats are looking at fall-back plans, fearing that if the elections cannot happen, the process could go into a tailspin, and as a result Turkey and Russia, both with troops in Libya, will take tighter control of the oil-rich country.

The international community has two chief options if Libyan politicians cannot be persuaded to reach a consensus on the form of elections.

The most radical is for the UN to push the interim government to accept or to assert that the UN is entitled by existing security council resolutions to impose an electoral law, as some Libyan politicians are demanding.

The second is in effect to admit time has run out, elections cannot take place and instead embrace a fall-back Libyan stabilisation initiative being proposed by the interim government that would try again to create the conditions in the future for elections to go ahead.

That initiative would look at stabilisation, a permanent constitution, security sector reform and reconciliation.

The elections are already threatening to turn into a circus. Khalifa Haftar, the head of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, has announced he will stand for the presidency, saying that he will take three months’ leave of absence as LNA chief.

Khalifa Haftar, head of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, had said he will stand for the presidency.
Khalifa Haftar, head of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, had said he will stand for the presidency. Photograph: LNA War Information Division/AFP/Getty Images

The possibility that Haftar could be elected as Libya’s president 18 months after he was forced ignominiously to abandon a military assault on Tripoli seems remote. His move also comes as US Congress passed legislation requiring the president to investigate him for potential war crimes. In an interview with a French magazine a year ago, Haftar said Libya was not yet ready for democracy.

Megerisi said: “Haftar retains the power to intimidate but has lost standing. Prominent groups under him have rebelled or quietly refused orders, and even in his heartland of eastern Libya the notion of him as a strongman is regularly mocked.”

Other candidates are likely to be the former interior minister Fathi Bashagha and Saif al-Islam, a son of the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. One observer said: “The difficulty with the elections is that it may come down to who pays which militia most to stuff the most ballot boxes.”


Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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