A fresh drive to develop a roadmap to general elections in Libya began in Cairo on 5 January with a meeting between Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) Aguila Saleh and head of the High Council of State (HCS) Khaled Al-Mishri.
At the end of the meeting, the two Libyan officials announced a constitutional declaration providing for elections and a subsequent phase for forming a new executive authority. Libyan parliamentary sources said the dialogue between Saleh and Al-Mishri will resume in Libya in the coming days in order to resolve outstanding differences.
These mainly concern articles pertaining to the eligibility of military personnel and dual nationals to run for office in the country. Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and head of the Presidential Council Mohamed Al-Menfi met in Cairo for discussions in the framework of Cairo’s drive to advance the political process in Libya.
Meanwhile, a preparatory meeting for the upcoming Libyan National Reconciliation Conference kicked off in Tripoli on Sunday. Organised by the Libyan Presidential Council (LPC), it was attended by representatives of the African Union, members of the HoR and HCS, and other Libyan stakeholders.
The delegation of Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, were unable to participate until the second day on 9 January. Members of the delegation had been excluded on the opening day, but mediators from the African Union and the president of Congo-Brazzaville stepped in to resolve the problem.
Despite the encouraging movement towards elections in Libya and the mending of the rifts that have torn the country apart since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, formidable bumps and potential pitfalls lie ahead.
One of these has to do with the rocky relationship between Al-Mishri and Saleh, two men who have often come together to cooperate only to clash again. In addition to a mutual lack of trust, they are also at odds over various political issues.
With regard to the political process, their differences have less to do with the provisions of the constitutional basis for the elections than with potential candidates for sovereign posts and, most recently, the location and constitution of the Supreme Court and Court of Cassation. It generally takes a third party, whether from Libya or abroad, to bring them together to resume work on finalising the constitutional basis for the elections.
LPC President Al-Menfi recently took the initiative in this regard by inviting Al-Mishri and Saleh to a tripartite meeting. Both sides turned down the invitation, however. The HCS head said that Al-Menfi had “got the wrong address,” signalling that both the HCS and the HoR intend to draft the new constitutional basis for the elections themselves.
Another potential obstacle is the difference over eligibility to run for political office. Al-Mishri has said that he will soon be meeting Saleh to discuss the creation of a mechanism to resolve this issue. While the latter is in favour of the right of dual nationals to run for office in Libya, Al-Mishri opposes this, though the two men might agree to put the question to a referendum.
According to first deputy head of the HCS Naji Mukhtar, prohibiting dual nationals from running for office in Libya would disqualify around 40 potential candidates in the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Al-Mishri did not bring up the eligibility of military personnel to run for office in his statements, apart from the question of how long before the elections an officer wishing to present himself must resign from the military.
Haftar’s presidential bid in 2021 has been the source of the dispute over this question. Now it appears that the different sides may have reached some form of agreement on this, perhaps entailing a shortening of the required resignation period.
The currently proposed period of a year before the elections could be reduced to six months or even three months, as was the case when presidential hopefuls filed their candidacy papers for the elections that were to be held in December 2021.
A third contentious issue revolves around the government that would lead the country up to the elections. The HoR speaker said that the roadmap included forming a new government that would oversee the preparations, and Al-Mishri said at his press conference in Cairo that he supported this idea, at least in part.
He said that the elections had to be held under a unified government. However, in subsequent remarks to the Libyan media, he added that “in the event elections cannot be held under the current [institutional] division, a new governing authority will be formed and tasked with holding elections.”
Al-Mishri also told the press that Abdel-Hamid Al-Dbeibah, prime minister of the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU), “will fight to prevent any step leading to elections, even if he has to spend billions to do so.”
The fact that Al-Dbeibah is still in power has been a controversial issue since the HoR voted in a new government to replace the GNU last February. A Libyan source involved in the current political developments told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the question of ending the Al-Dbeibah government remains unresolved because the world powers maintain that forming a new government will simply stretch out the time before elections can be held.”
He added that he had met with the UN Special Representative for Libya Abdoulaye Bathily and concluded that “Bathily is focused on holding the elections as soon as possible. He has not made up his mind on the question of the government. He thinks that a new government would at the very least be controversial and create new tensions. On the other hand, he doesn’t want the elections to be held under conditions that are volatile because of the government.”
According to sources in Cairo, LPC President Al-Menfi and Field Marshal Haftar, in their meeting hosted by Egypt, also reached a new understanding on an alternative plan should the Saleh-Mishri plan fall through.
The alternative calls for the declaration of a state of emergency in Libya under which the LPC would assume power without the GNU, while security would be maintained with the help of an international force. A new electoral commission would also be formed.
The General Command of the Libyan National Army (LNA) would assist the LPC in the transitional process. Although the sources said that a meeting would be arranged between Al-Menfi, Haftar, Saleh and Al-Mishri, it is doubtful whether Al-Mishri and Saleh would attend unless they receive assurances of being included in the arrangement.
This new development means that the Saleh-Mishri plan may not be alone in shaping the return to the political process in Libya. Any understanding between the HoR and HCS leaders may be even more fragile than expected, especially bearing in mind the lack of trust between the two.
The challenges that lie ahead also appear more formidable, since progress towards resuming the political process requires all sides, including the GNU, to work together. If the alternative scenario comes to pass, the forthcoming period might see a phase of force majeure rather than a phase of reconstructing a political process leading to elections and renewed stability.
On the upcoming Libyan National Reconciliation Conference, a source close to Seif Gaddafi doubted that it would come close to achieving its aims at this stage.
“The conference is being held for political and public relations purposes,” he said. “The political will for reconciliation has yet to mature on all sides. But it is important for the conference to establish the political groundwork as a first step on the long road to reconciliation.”
In his remarks to the Libyan press, Al-Mishri said that he and Saleh had agreed that anyone who has been convicted on criminal charges would not be eligible to run for office even if the sentence was under review, a specific reference to Seif Gaddafi.
“We have a contradiction here, given that a 20-member delegation representing Seif Gaddafi is present at the conference,” the source said. “This is all a Muslim Brotherhood game to eliminate both Gaddafi and Haftar as candidates.”
“Haftar also has a sentence against him from a court in Misrata, and this has been signalled to the High Electoral Commission. At all events, we have to see how the situation stands once the constitutional basis for the elections is finalised.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly