TUNIS – Nearly 100 candidates have announced they are running for the presidency, some of them most prominent in Libyan politics. More than a third of Libyans registered to vote, and most indicated their intention to vote.
Western leaders and United Nations officials had given their support behind the election, saying it represented the best hope of reuniting and pacifying a country that is still largely divided in two and nearly one. Baffled by the internal battle of the decade.
More than a year now, Libya is gearing up for a long-awaited presidential election to be held on Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s independence. But with only a few days left, it looks like the vote is almost certain to be postponed as questions swirl about the legitimacy of the leading candidates and the legal basis of the election.
Amid the uncertainty, the National Election Commission dissolved committees that were preparing for the vote, essentially believing it would not take place on time. For now, the closest thing was to making a formal declaration to the Libyans, given the reluctance of all parties to make such a declaration and take the blame.
The delay runs the risk that the oil-rich North African nation will again plunge into fragmentation and violence, which has marked the decade since dictator Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled and killed in the 2011 revolution.
Although no one has formally announced the change in plans, government officials, diplomats and Libyan voters alike have acknowledged that a vote on Friday will be impossible. Now the question is not just when the vote can take place, but whether the postponed election will be less brittle – and who will control Libya in the interim.
“There will certainly be a conflict,” said Amadedin Badi, a senior fellow and Libyan analyst at the Atlantic Council, who was in Tripoli on Tuesday, “one that could potentially develop into a wider war.”
On Tuesday, tanks and armed militias deployed in parts of Tripoli closed the road to the presidential palace in a show of force, leading to no violence, but increasing tensions.
The election of a new president is seen as the key to dislodging the forces of foreign militias brought in in previous years to civil conflicts, starting the creation of many of Libya’s militias into a single national army, and reorganizing government institutions. goes.
So far, predictions of mass violence around the election have not been fulfilled, although militias surrounded government buildings in Tripoli last week, clashes broke out in the south and militia fighters broke into oil production on Monday on two major oil pipelines. shut down.
International mediators may still be able to save the election with a modest postponement of a month or so, although analysts and diplomats said this was unlikely.
Stephanie Williams, the UN diplomat who mediated the peace process because of the election deal, recently returned as the UN’s top envoy to Libya in hopes of winning a best-case-scenario adjournment of not months, but weeks. Presenting the country in disarray. Or – at worst – indefinitely.
“It’s never too late for international arbitration,” he said in the One Decision Global Affairs podcast earlier this month.
United States Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, visited Tripoli on Monday to visit a polling station and meet civil society workers preparing to vote.
“The United States continues to support the vast majority of Libyans who vote for the election and the future of their country,” he said in a statement. “We are working to be a participant in this process, allowing the Libyan people to make an election.”
But analysts and a senior diplomat acknowledged that the international campaign toward the December 24 election had overlooked important issues, which ultimately spoiled the vote.
The three front-runners were all highly polarizing, raising fears that if one of them won, the other would bitterly, and perhaps violently, contest the outcome.
One of the three, Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, is the son of a former dictator who was killed by rebels in 2011. Another, stronger caliph Hifter, who controls eastern Libya, conducted military operations from 2019 to 2020. Try to seize the capital, Tripoli, from the hands of an internationally recognized government.
Running on the Third Front is Abdul Hamid Dabiba, interim prime minister in the current government, who has been accused by other candidates of misusing public funds to gain voter support by giving cash grants to young Libyans.
All three face challenges to the validity of their candidacy.
Mr. Al-Qaddafi has been charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court, stemming from his father’s efforts to help bring down the 2011 revolution. Mr. Dabiba did not resign his post in time to follow the electoral law. Diplomats said both men had pressured courts in friendly jurisdiction to determine whether they were eligible to run.
Experts said the election also lacked a constitutional basis and rested on legal fervor.
Since the revolution, Libya has been divided into two parts. The western side has an internationally recognized government based in Tripoli, while the eastern side, Mr. Hifter’s power base, is a rival government.
An election law that was run through Libya’s eastern parliamentary body, but not western, was widely criticized in Libya and was amended several times to allow Mr. Hifter to run.
Even if the election had gone ahead, there was little chance that an elected leader could cure all of Libya’s ills. Instead, some of the country’s underlying issues must be resolved first to empower a newly elected president to function effectively, analysts say.
“I think it’s all wishful thinking,” Hanan Salah, Libya’s director of Human Rights Watch, said in a panel discussion last week.
She noted that the militias continued to operate with impunity, even those associated with the government, and that there were outbreaks of election-related violence. Libya is so fragmented that some candidates could not even set foot to campaign in some parts of the country.
“Our concern is the lack of rule of law, justice and accountability, which means no free and fair elections are possible in the current environment,” said Ms. Salah.
Yet millions of Libyans pledged to vote, whether for a better future or simply to drive out controversial candidates.
“After seven years of civil strife and dysfunctional politics, Libyans are eager to vote,” said Mary Fitzgerald, a Libyan expert and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
He said that out of 2.8 million registered voters, more than 24 lakh have collected their voting cards in the last one month. “It is a clear indication that there is tremendous enthusiasm for these elections – whenever they can be – and a great appetite for change,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
But December 24 is most likely to come and go without a vote, with some Libyan politicians already jockeying for control of the country since Friday, two senior diplomats said.
On Tuesday, several of the most prominent presidential candidates met with Mr Hifter in eastern Libya’s de facto capital Benghazi, forming a coalition that could seek to fill any after December. 24 power vacuum. They seem to be trying to portray themselves as a credible alternative to the current government, which these politicians argue will lose legitimacy after December 24.
“It’s a power grab disguised as liberation,” said Atlantic Council analyst Mr. Badi.
Diplomats and analysts said there was no candidate who could garner enough support to lead the new unity government.
If the election is not held soon, a senior western diplomat said, Libya risks derailing progress towards reunification, with Mr. Dabiba in charge of western Libya and someone else running the de facto government in the east. .
Kamal Mohamed, 39, a clothing store salesman in Tripoli, said he hoped the election would eventually take place, and it was well worth the effort.
“We are worried, but we cannot lose hope,” he said. “We think this is the last step to a better future. The ballot box is the best solution – people have to choose who their leader is.”