By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Scheduled to take place on December 24, the presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya have been postponed until January 24, 2022. Owing to the continuing political turmoil in the country, no one will be surprised if the January elections also do not take place on schedule.
The elections have been postponed since Libya is unable to create a viable election system. Reuters reported: “Libya’s electoral commission had said last week that the election could not take place, citing what it called inadequacies in the electoral legislation and the judicial appeals process and suggested delaying the election to Jan. 24.”
But it seems that the election process will take much longer. The Reuters report also included a statement from a parliamentary committee on the elections, which said that: “if problems were not addressed then it would also be impossible to hold an election on that date.”
Candidates Are Not Upset by the Elections’ Postponement
The 74 candidates in Libya’s elections are not necessarily upset by the postponement, because they all have something to gain. Beyond consolidating their power among the voters, the elections’ delay serves to show the candidates’ allies that things will not change fast in Libya, and there is a good reason to continue and support them as the Libyan political system continues to maintain the old power structures.
The three leading candidates in the presidential election are:
- Saif al-Islam Gaddafi – The son of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Gaddafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. These crimes took place during the rebellion that overthrew his father a decade ago.
- Khalifa Haftar – A former General in the Libyan army and a former CIA asset with American citizenship, Haftar is based in Tripoli and controls a large number of military forces with thousands of soldiers. He is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia.
- Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh – Currently the interim prime minister, Dbeibeh is supported by Turkey, Qatar, the European Union (EU) and the United Nations.
What Does the Postponement Mean for the Future of Libya?
I believe most pundits and policymakers will interpret this latest development in Libya as proof that the old political power brokers are still in control. They should not change their bets as to where power will be consolidated, assuming that it will.
If Russia had doubts that Haftar would win the presidential election, now it seems that Russia would not be mistaken to double down in its support of Haftar. Turkey hopes Dbeibeh will be a puppet in Libya, which will allow Turkey to take more control of the Mediterranean and expand its exclusive economic zone.
France has also played a role in the continued tension in the Middle East by selling weapons to Haftar. As Politico noted: “Paris has been quietly involved at least since 2015 in building up the flashy uniformed baron of Benghazi as a strongman it hopes can impose order on the vast, thinly populated North African oil producer and crack down on the Islamist groups that have flourished in the ungoverned spaces of the failed state.”
The US Position on Libya
The White House has maintained that it supports the National Unity government, and U.S. officials have occasionally met with acting prime minister Dbeibeh and other officials from the Libyan government. Faced with the latest developments in Libya, U.S. Special Envoy and Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland had little that was new to say.
As expected, Norland urged people to remain calm. According to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Libya, Norland “encourages steps that can continue to de-escalate the tense security situation in Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya. Now is not the time for unilateral actions or armed deployments that risk escalation and unintended consequences detrimental to the security and safety of Libyans. We reiterate UNSMIL’s call for disagreements on emerging political or military matters to be resolved without resorting to violence.”
But Ambassador Norland could not offer any practical moves beyond the hope that the elections will take place shortly. The statement also noted, “At the same time, work towards elections should be a priority, in line with strong public desires. Libyan leaders, on behalf of the Libyan people, should expeditiously address all legal and political obstacles to hold elections, including finalizing the list of presidential candidates.
“The United States shares the concern and disappointment of the vast majority of Libyans who expect to have the opportunity to vote for their country’s future. At this critical moment in Libya’s path forward, it is more important than ever that Libyans are vigilant about the spread of disinformation that only advantages those who wish to disrupt Libya’s future progress.”
Despite the Arab Spring Rebellion, There Is No Real Change
It seems that a decade after the pro-democratic Arab Spring, its failure is apparent. The death toll in Libya and the Middle East keeps growing, and civilians in Libya continue to pay the price for the failure to create a viable parliamentary political system.
When the Obama administration congratulated the Arab Spring rebels and pushed for a no-fly zone that was essential to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, there were good intentions and the hope that a new democratic era would begin in the Middle East. From the hindsight of the past decade, we can now see that democracy does not develop in all places in the same way. The democratic culture needed to establish a stable political regime in Libya cannot be orchestrated artificially, even if mass demonstrations like those used in the West are organized on social media.