Elections are due to be held in Libya on 24 December, but with only a week left now it is likely that voting will be postponed. The High National Election Commission (HNEC), the body overseeing the vote, said on Saturday it was unable to announce the final approved candidates because of continued legal doubts.
Since the HNEC opened the door for candidates to run for presidential elections, the first ever in Libyan history, the process has been undermined by bitter divisions over the legal basis for the process, its dates and who should be allowed to run, with a string of controversial figures stepping forward.
After the Election Commission’s announcement, the inevitable consequence of the latest procedural delay is the postponement of polling day. The first round of the presidential election cannot take place on December 24 because the candidates have the right to two weeks of official campaigning after the publication of the final list of candidates. To complicate matters further, the HNEC has not yet set a new date for issuing the final list.
Rules governing the ballot stipulate that the commission should publish the list of candidates two weeks after the relevant court rulings and appeals are resolved. On 2 December a Libyan court reinstated Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s 40-year ruler Muammar Al-Gaddafi, as a candidate. His candidacy was a key source of divisions among Libyans, and cast doubts that the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections could help to heal the bitter divisions that have overtaken the country since Gaddafi’s forced removal in a popular revolt 10 years ago. On Sunday, the International Criminal Court again confirmed its request for the arrest of Seif Al-Islam for alleged war crimes he committed to suppress the revolt against his late father.
Yet, Seif Al-Islam was not the only divisive figure. Current Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Debeiba, whose cabinet in Tripoli and is known for his close ties to Turkey, also caused controversy when he announced his candidacy since he had pledged not to run for the post as part of the arrangements that preceded his appointment as interim premier a year ago.
After nearly seven years of military confrontation between Tripoli’s government and the Eastern parts controlled by commander of Libya’s army Khalifa Haftar, the decision by Haftar to run for president also angered his opponents in the West, who vowed that they would never accept him as president.
Elections for both president and parliament were meant, primarily, to restore the stability and territorial integrity of Libya. With the current, complicated differences over who has the right to run, the fear is that violence could easily flare up again, whether the elections are postponed or the victory of a given candidate ends up not being accepted by the vast majority of Libyans.
Yet, considering the renewed commitment by key regional and international parties involved in Libya, postponing elections for a short period of time should not necessarily lead to renewed fighting. The appointment of the dynamic former US diplomat, Stephanie Williams, as the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on Libya could be a sign that the international community will continue to work on holding elections in Libya.
Williams was the key player behind the deal that allowed the creation of a new interim government in Tripoli to prepare the country for elections. There will never be a perfect deal to make all Libyans happy, but if all key world and regional players, the United States, Russia, Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, back up Williams in her difficult mission, there is a fair chance that elections will still be held.
The parliamentary elections, which were also due to be held on 24 December, according to the roadmap mediated by Williams a year ago, had already been postponed and are now scheduled for February. Considering that it has already been 10 years since Libya has practically been divided into two, if not three, parts, a delay that would allow both presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in February is not to be a bad arrangement. What matters is a clear commitment from all Libyan parties, especially candidates for the presidency, that they will accept the outcome and work with other parties to reunite the country.
Regional and world countries that maintain a military presence in Libya in order to support one rival faction against another must also pull out their troops from the oil-rich nation if Libya’s future is to be stable. Claiming that Turkey’s military presence, for example, was based on an agreement signed with an earlier Libyan government can no longer be sustained. The government in Tripoli with which Ankara signed a military agreement was never accepted by all Libyans, nor approved by its parliament. Thus, if Turkey is serious about helping Libya and maintaining its interests with any future government there, it must withdraw its troops and other mercenaries it brought in from Syria, mainly belonging to alleged terrorist organisations close to Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Most important at present is that the overall momentum towards holding elections in Libya should not dissipate. The most immediate task among Libyan, international and UN officials is to agree on extending the mandate of the current interim government in order to fill the political vacuum, continue preparing for elections and prevent a return to civil war.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.