Egypt and France have joined together to support plans for holding general elections in Libya before the end of this year out of the hope that this democratic process will break a three-year-old political deadlock in the country.
Difficulties still lie ahead, however, in spite of efforts on the part of UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salamé to pave the way for the electoral process. Preparations have not gone beyond the voter registration phase so far.
Cairo hosted Sunday an extensive round of talks on the situation in the Middle East and in Libya, in particular, between a French delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit.
Ambassador Bassam Radi, spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, said that the two sides agreed that there has been relative progress in the situation in Libya and that this necessitates accelerating plans to hold elections before the end of the year.
They noted that conditions in Libya affect the security and the stability of the entire Mediterranean region.
In a statement on the talks between Shoukri and Le Drian, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said that both sides expressed their happiness at the coordination and consultation between their two countries on how to support efforts to build a national consensus to promote stability in Libya.
He added that Shoukri took pains to bring his French counterpart up to date on Egyptian efforts to help unify the Libyan military establishment. In this regard, Cairo also hosted this week a delegation of military officers from Libya for another round of the talks sponsored by the Egyptian National Committee for Libya.
Abu Zeid said the talks, which have been in progress since September 2017, have succeeded in making tangible progress towards bridging the views between eastern and western military leaders in Libya.
In spite of the relative optimism shared by Cairo and Paris, the situation on the ground in Libya remains difficult in view of the sharp polarisation and governmental bifurcation in the country since 2014.
Last year, on the sidelines of the inaugural ceremonies the UN General Assembly in New York, the UN special representative to Libya unveiled to a high-level meeting, attended by President Al-Sisi, a three-phase action plan to help Libyans end the political crisis.
Limited amendments to the Libyan Political Accord signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015, were to lead to a comprehensive national convention which would be followed by general elections before the end of 2018.
Salamé’s efforts quickly ran aground on the shoals of the intransigence of the Libyan factions and their refusal to make the necessary compromises to end the political deadlock.
Nevertheless, the UN representative remains adamant on holding elections before the end of this year even though conditions in the country do not appear ready for a democratic poll.
For one, a number of crucial, but controversial, practical issues need to be resolved before elections are held.
A new electoral law needs to be drafted, the location of the seat of government needs to be agreed on and the parties still have to determine whether elections should be held in accordance with a ratified permanent constitution or in the framework of preparations for a fifth interim phase.
Libya is currently in its fourth interim phase which began with the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in December 2015.
The first interim phase was overseen by the Interim National Council (2011-2013), the fourth by the General National Congress (2012-2013) and the third by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (2014-2015).
The Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), which reinstated the legitimacy of the General National Congress (since renamed the High Council of State) and the House of Representatives, has run up against the wall of the latter which still refuses to incorporate the agreement into the Constitutional Declaration.
As a result, the double executive created by the LPA and consisting of a Presidency Council and the Government of National Accord, is functioning without a genuine legislative foundation, even if it receives international backing.
This status has obstructed approval of a national budget, requiring a continuation of the ad hoc arrangements that have been the norm since 2016.
In addition, UN-brokered talks between the delegations from the House of Representatives and the High Council of State over limited amendments to the LPA have remained stalled since November last year.
It is unclear how the UN envoy to Libya will make elections happen in Libya against the backdrop of the stagnating political process.
Last year, when he unveiled the three-phase plan for Libya, Salamé envisioned elections after a national plebiscite on a new constitution. In the absence of such a framework, would he succumb to pressures from the key players in the Libyan crisis and promote an electoral process that would usher in a governing body for a fifth interim phase which would only prolong the Libyan crisis?
In order to bring interim processes to an end, Salamé needs, firstly, to help Libyans settle the question of the constitutional bill that was approved by the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) on 29 July 2017.
Either pressures will have to be brought to bear on the House of Representatives to ratify the referendum law or the bill will have to be returned to the CDA for amendments before being resubmitted to the House of Representatives in order to secure parliamentary go-ahead for the referendum.
The fact is that either option faces the obstacle of a sharply divided house in the Tobruk-based parliament.
In the event that the UN envoy decides to press ahead with elections outside of the framework of a new constitution, he will need to designate the body that will issue the new electoral law and introduce the electoral system for the polls.
Also, he will have to ensure that there are guarantees against measures to overturn the new electoral law after the polls are held, as occurred following the general elections that created the current House of Representatives.
Even before all this, will the main players on the ground in Libya agree to proceed to elections in an environment that does not guarantee their political survival or that jeopardises their interests?
Last week, the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) submitted a proposal for a new legislative elections law. It provides that 80 per cent of the seats in the new legislature would be allocated for political entities while 20 per cent of the seats would be reserved for civil society organisations.
The formula excludes independent candidates.This contrasts sharply with the electoral law that ushered in the General National Congress in 2012 and that allocated 80 per cent of the seats to independents and only 20 per cent to political entities.
The House of Representatives elections in June 2014 restricted the polls to independents only.
In August last year, Chairman of the Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj proposed an initiative that also called for general elections to end the political deadlock in Libya.
At the time he suggested that the Supreme Judicial Council could serve as an alternative to promulgate the required legislative elections law in the event that the House of Representatives and High Council of State continue to refuse to make the necessary compromises to resolve the political crisis.
He also hinted that recourse to the higher court authority would prevent appeal against a new electoral law and a consequent disruption of the functioning of a newly elected authority.
Still, there remains the persistent question as to the feasibility of holding elections in a climate where there are no solid guarantees that the results will be respected by all parties.
The potential consequences would be to further protract the Libyan crisis, deepen the wounds in society and aggravate the country’s dire economic straits.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly