The Libyan Higher National Elections Commission (HNEC) announced on 11 December that it has had to postpone the publication of the final list of candidates running for the first ever Libyan presidential elections, citing “judicial and legal reasons” for its inability to meet the two-week deadline for drawing up the list.
The elections are meant to crown the roadmap drawn up by the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which has set the elections for 24 December. The HNEC decision reflects developments in Libya during the outgoing year, which has been marked by jerky steps forward taken behind schedule, renewed tensions and mounting frustration among international stakeholders pushing for the elections to be held on schedule.
The high point came with the creation of Libya’s Presidency Council followed by the vote of confidence given on 11 March to the Government of National Unity (GNU) formed to steer the country through the roadmap to the elections. But the road has been bumpy and filled with postponements.
The three-member Presidency Council and prime minister were chosen by the 75-member LPDF, a form of constituent assembly consisting of 49 members selected by the UN and foreign embassies and another 26 members half nominated by the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) and the other half nominated by the Tripoli-based Higher Council of State (HCS).
The LPDF meetings began in November 2020 under the sponsorship of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which has been working to promote a political process in Libya since 2014. After much wrangling, the LPDF adopted the current roadmap, the first step of which was to form the Presidency Council and GNU.
The next steps on the road to the elections were to adopt a constitutional basis for the elections and electoral laws for the legislative and presidential contests. The LPDF roadmap stipulated that if the HoR and HCS could not reach a consensus on these matters within 60 days, they would revert to the LPDF.
After a number of deadlines passed without the LPDF reaching a consensus, the HoR passed the current presidential and legislative electoral laws. Despite objections to the HoR’s unilateralism and claims that the laws were flawed, the HNEC proceeded with arrangements for the elections.
Other steps in the roadmap have also had to be carried out. One was the reopening of the coastal road between Misrata and Sirte, which occurred in the summer. Another was the removal of all foreign mercenaries, fighters and other foreign military presences from Libya, as stipulated in the ceasefire agreement signed in Geneva in October 2020 and reiterated in the resolutions adopted by the first and second Berlin Conferences on Libya.
The 5+5 Joint Military Committee (JMC), one of the outputs of the first Berlin Conference, has met several times to promote this end, but little progress has been made in applying it.
Yet, in spite of ominous spikes in tensions, the ceasefire in Libya continued to hold throughout the year. This may be the only positive feature in the Libyan scene at present, given fears among most foreign stakeholders that the political impasses could precipitate a regression into war.
The last year also saw a significant decline in the performance of UNSMIL under its dual leadership. A strategic review conducted in August called for the return to the structure (one special representative with two deputy special representatives) that had existed until February this year. In addition to confirming the decline, this was a sign of the extent of the international confusion and discord over the UN role in Libya.
The UN Security Council has voted unanimously to extend UNSMIL’s mandate until January 2022. But this is a temporary arrangement until the five permanent members of the council come to terms on the format of the mission’s leadership.
On 17 November, UN Special Envoy to Libya Ján Kubiš tendered his resignation following sharp differences with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The discord was apparently so strong that Kubiš refused to remain in his post for the customary handover period.
In December, Guterres appointed US diplomat Stephanie Williams as a special adviser on Libyan affairs in charge of heading UNSMIL’s mediating efforts. He had wanted to appoint her as Kubiš’s replacement but was unable to overcome the objections of Russia and China.
Nevertheless, Williams returned, resuming the mission to rescue the UN-facilitated political process at a time when the list of Libyan presidential candidates was still up in the air, the HNEC was coming under fire for proceeding with the electoral process under allegedly flawed laws, and the number of prospective candidates was probably too many for the vetting system to handle.
Williams is no stranger to challenging situations. She led the political dialogue process following the resignation of previous UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salama and acquired considerable influence among the Libyan political elites, especially those close to the West.
She steered the LPDF through the many phases that led to the roadmap, the restructured executive, and the GNU that has taken over from the previous Libyan Government of National Accord.
The progress the LPDF achieved in its meetings in November in Tunisia and in January and February in Geneva, resulting in the roadmap and then the new executive, inspired optimism among all the stakeholders in Libya, but these hopes quickly evaporated at the first practical test.
Many of the problems were due to flaws in the political process. Most of the LPDF members had been selected by foreign powers, inhibiting full confidence in them, and the roadmap itself was too ambitious.
It called for a new interim executive and gave it less than a year to accomplish its mission despite the previous six years of contention and mistrust surrounding the executive bodies in the five previous interim phases, not to mention the residual acrimony from the recent war over Tripoli.
Moreover, the parties backing the LPDF and pushing it to complete its tasks refused to accept its outputs. The problem surfaced early on during the negotiations over the composition of the GNU when some members alleged that current Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Al-Dabeiba’s supporters had bribed members to elect him to office.
UNSMIL promised to investigate the charge but never fully followed through, feeding widespread doubts and scepticism.
The Western powers were also dissatisfied with the LPDF outputs, even though they had been eager for the elections to proceed as planned on 24 December. They contributed more than $90 million to support the electoral process, but their enthusiasm dwindled as frustration mounted at the slow progress and the inability of the relevant bodies to stick to schedule.
Although the HNEC went ahead with arrangements for the elections from finalising voter-registration lists to opening the nominations process, the decisions of Seif Al-Islam Al-Gaddafi, son of former Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Al-Dabeiba and Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar to run for president threatened to derail it.
All were disqualified for various reasons, yet they were also the figures that opinion surveys favoured as frontrunners in the elections. According to the polls, two of them would have made it to the run-off. By the first week of December, all three men had been reinstated as candidates in the elections after appealing to the judiciary.
The HNEC decision on 11 December to withhold the publication of the final candidate list has changed the game again, however. The announcement is tantamount to an admission that the elections cannot be arranged on time and will be postponed to the new year.
It looks as if 2022 will kick off with fresh negotiations, steered by Williams, with the aim of forming a new and less-controversial government before proceeding to bridging the differences between the Libyan factions over the electoral process.
As the situation stands, it is anyone’s guess how long it will take before the elections can be held. The main factions are far apart, others are jockeying for more-advantageous positions, the atmosphere threatens to be as acrimonious as ever, and, with the continued presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries, the threat of a backsliding into hostilities continues to loom.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly