Libya’s presidential election, meant to help unify the nation after a decade of civil war, is supposed to take place in just over a week, but calls are mounting for a delay.
Either scenario—holding the vote on time or postponing it—could turn into a destabilizing setback.
The vote, scheduled for Dec. 24, is to choose Libya’s first president since the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi more than a decade ago.
Nearly a full year has passed since the international effort to restore peace to North African nation. Supporters fear that if the election does not take place on time, it could lead to a serious void.
Critics warn against the possibility of new violence if the election is not held now. The opposition claims that Libya is too fractured between the armed forces, which are more likely to reject any win by their rivals. The presence of some of Libya’s most polarizing figures in the race—including one of Gadhafi’s sons—only makes it more explosive.
Nearly 100 candidates have already declared their candidacy, yet the commission is still unable to announce the final list due to legal issues. It ought to have made the announcement earlier this month. It is also disputed the electoral rules, with politicians in western Libya accusing the east-based Parliament of adopting them unconsensually.
Libya plunged into chaos after Gadhafi’s death during a 2011 uprising backed by a U.S.-led NATO military campaign. There were many militias armed with different weapons and control began to split. The country split over years between two rival administrations, one in the east, and another in the west. Each was backed by foreign governments and militias.
Following the most recent round of violence, last year’s political process took root.
Khalifa Haifter, an eastern-based commander, launched an offensive in April 2019 to capture Tripoli’s capital and bring down its U.N.-recognized government. Russia, Egypt, as well as the United Arab Emirates backed Hifter. Turkey and Qatar responded with increased support for pro–Tripoli militias. They provided advanced weapons, troops, and mercenaries to them.
After 14 months of fighting, Hifter’s offensive collapsed. A U.N.-brokered ceasefire was reached in October 2020. The Political Forum, which is a coalition of Libyan factions, created a roadmap that allowed for the establishment of an interim government. This will be the government of the country through the December 24th elections.
People calling for delay to the elections claim that the tension between east and west is too great and volatile. The interim government has not been able to unify Libya’s institutions, particularly the military, dismantle militias or ensure the exit of foreign mercenaries and fighters, said one U.N. official.
“These issues should have been settled before going to elections. They need more time and effort to be resolved,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Tarek Mitri, a former U.N. envoy for Libya, warned that “without unified military forces, the election poses a threat to peace.”
“How can you win the argument in a democratic election when guns are loaded to the hilt on both sides?” he said.
U.N. SecretaryGeneral Antonio Guterres called Stephanie Williams, the American diplomat who led the negotiations leading to the Oct 2020 cease-fire, his special adviser for Libya.
Williams met Sunday with Libyan officials at Tripoli. She called for all sides to respect the “overwhelming demand of the Libyan people to elect their representatives through a free, fair and credible election.” She did not mention the Dec. 24 dateline in her public comments.
Some members of the international community, including the United States, want the election to proceed. As he stepped down on Dec. 8, outgoing U.N. envoy Jan Kubis said the election must take place on schedule, calling it “a critically important step that opens doors to future solutions.”
Hifter and Seif Al-Islam Gadhafi announced their candidacies. This polarization only got more intense.
Hifter is regarded in the west as a villain and hero.
“The entire western region will fight Hifter … he will never rule Libya,” Islamist Khalid al-Mishri, head of the Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State, said in televised comments last month.
Seif al-Islam’s bid raised cries of an attempted return to the days of his father.
“Those who believe in the possibility of Libya’s returning to the era of dictatorship after all these sacrifices are delusional,” Abdel-Rahman el-Swahili, a lawmaker from Misrata, the western city that was one of the leading forces in the rebellion against the elder Gadhafi.
Abdul Hamid Dbeibah (prime minister of interim government) caused another stir by announcing his candidacy for the race. He had promised not to stand for election when he assumed his position.
Many Libyans remain skeptical.
“All (the factions) say publicly they want elections, but in in fact, all worked against it,” said Ramadan al-Zawi, a 29-year-old teacher. “We are deceiving ourselves when we talk about elections while we are still in such an unchanged situation since 2011.”