The road to the upcoming presidential elections in Libya on 24 December remains uncertain, even though the country’s Higher National Elections Commission (HNEC) began the process and completed the first phase a week ago when it announced the preliminary list of candidates in the presidential race.
This landmark event is the first in Libyan history, and the nine-day electoral appeals phase has also now started.
However, despite this progress on the elections track, backed by the US and its Western allies, the challenges on the ground are increasing due to the country’s complicated political terrain and unstable security conditions.
This is especially the case in Tripoli and Sabha in southern Libya, where there has been escalating political bickering among the key players, exchanges of accusations of obstructing the political process and doubts about the process that began on 8 November.
There have also been security tensions in Tripoli and Sabha due to disputes among armed groups on the outskirts of the capital and blocks placed in the path of Seif Al-Islam Al-Gaddafi in appealing his removal from the list of presidential candidates.
The HNEC approved 73 out of 98 registered candidates and rejected 25, most notably Al-Gaddafi, son of former Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Bashir Saleh, Gaddafi’s former chief of staff, Khaled Al-Ghweil, chair of the Peace and Prosperity Party, and Mohamed Al-Sherif, former head of the World Islamic Call Society.
These men were rejected because of their criminal records, the HNEC said.
The rejected candidates filed a joint appeal, while former Libyan minister of the interior Fathi Bashagha filed an individual appeal against Prime Minister of the Libyan National Unity Government Abdel-Hamid Dbeiba and the HNEC for including Dbeiba on the preliminary list of candidates for the presidency.
This triggered unrest in western Libya, where Dbeiba and Bashagha are competing for votes.
At the time Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the Appeals Court in Sabha had not looked at Al-Gaddafi’s appeal because an armed group allied with Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar had blocked the court from meeting. Al-Gaddafi’s supporters then threatened to escalate matters if he remained excluded from the list.
The decision by the Libyan Supreme Judicial Council to restrict the electoral appeals process and require appeals to be filed in the candidates’ areas of residence only has been criticised for violating equal opportunities, increasing criticisms of the HNEC and the “flawed” electoral process.
Moussa Ibrahim, a former spokesperson for Al-Gaddafi, criticised what he called “attempts to terrorise and exclude the sole nationalist current that wants to rid Libya of foreign dependency and achieve peace and development in the country.”
Ibrahim said that Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi’s lawyers had said that the country’s judicial agencies had been under pressure from the east and west of the country to strike their client off the presidential list. This led the Preliminary Appeals Committee to suspend its work and to abstain from looking at Gaddafi’s appeal.
His supporters are demanding that appeals be referred to the courts in Tripoli, which would open the floodgates for appeals against other candidates, including Haftar, swamping the HNEC with appeals as it was earlier swamped by the large volume of candidates.
Gaddafi’s supporters warned against his exclusion from the presidential race and threatened violence. This could undermine the already fragile electoral process and add to continuing political and security tensions across the country, along with the increasing partisanship that had subdued after the formation of the national unity government.
Meanwhile, rival armed groups in Tripoli are adding to other security burdens amid expectations of clashes between them with or without the elections. The leaders of the groups want to retain their privileges and influence in state institutions. Clashes between them could negatively impact the elections, especially since they are already seen as being backed by the West.
Amid such challenges and an unstable domestic security and political climate, concerns about progress in Libya are re-emerging. UN Special Envoy to Libya Jan Kubis has resigned from his post, urging that the UN mission should return to Libya instead of working in Geneva and Tunisia.
UN Secretary-General Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had accepted Dujarric’s resignation on 17 November one week after it was submitted and had refused to allow him to continue in his post until a new envoy is chosen. Kubis told the UN Security Council last week that he would be willing to continue in his post until a successor was chosen.
Kubis’ sudden resignation weeks before the December elections and Guterres’ refusal to have him remain in the interim indicates a growing quarrel between the major powers, especially the US and Russia, over the situation in Libya. Washington insists on holding the elections on schedule, while Moscow wants to postpone them. Both are mobilising international and regional support for their positions.
Kubis’ resignation will also impact the efficiency of the UN mission in Libya, which along with other UN agencies is a key partner with the HNEC in preparing for the planned December elections.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.