The controversy over the Libyan political transition is growing more and more intense as the date for the presidential and legislative elections in the country approaches.
Essentially, the debate revolves around whether the elections set for 24 December will lead to reconciliation and stability or spiralling tensions and a return to war. One thing that has been learned from Libya’s experience since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in November 2011 is that it is impossible to predict which scenario will prevail or whether another one will emerge.
Instability is one of the key factors that needs to be taken into account in any assessment of the situation. The acrimonious backdrop against which the elections are to be held is no exception in the Libyan crisis, and there have already been several interim phases launched with a consensus that quickly unravelled and led to a renewed outbreak of armed conflict.
The current interim phase has brought no positive change to the dynamics of the crisis that could shift the scales in favour of stability more than chaos. The crisis continues to revolve around a tug-of-war between rival identities and political projects, with this struggle looking more intense than ever.
This may be due to the fact that the interim phase in Libya has not managed to resolve the antitheses between winner and loser and between supporters of the February Revolution versus supporters of the old regime. Tripolitania is still ranged against Cyrenaica against the backdrop of the recent battles over the Libyan capital Tripoli.
The interim phase has also not managed to bridge the distance between the country’s many components and their rival demands and interests. Although the Libyan Presidency Council did initiate a national reconciliation process, the time was too short to see it through. The methods used were also not effective enough to establish the foundations of justice in the distribution of power and wealth.
At the same time, the setting of the anticipated elections in Libya has not been an exception to other similar experiences in the region. These are elections taking place against the backdrop of a fragile state and upheaval and civil strife or conflict, sometimes to the extent of the UN Security Council feeling it necessary to invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
The Libyan electoral scene seems to have a number of aspects in common with the scene in Iraq. While the Iraqi elections in October were widely praised for their integrity, many still questioned their results.
Elections held in countries in the grip of crises tend to reproduce the power centres that emerged during the interim phases. This is already evident in the Libyan case, where the most prominent presidential candidates are the same individuals who took centre stage in the political conflict, the warfare and the interim structures that preceded the elections. The exceptions are the exponents of the old regime who have emerged as a new power centre in the lead up to the polls.
Another problem surrounding the elections relates to the government they are intended to produce. Under current Libyan law, the president represents the state in foreign relations, appoints the prime minister, and charges him with forming a government. He appoints the vice-president and deputy prime minister and is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
He has the power to appoint or dismiss the head of the country’s central intelligence upon the approval of parliament, to appoint ambassadors and representatives to international organisations based on proposals from the Foreign Ministry, and to conclude international agreements and treaties that come into effect after their ratification by parliament.
In short, the elections will reinforce a presidential system in Libya, which helps to explain why the presidential elections are overshadowing the legislative ones. Another reason is that these will be the first presidential elections in Libyan history. There is little wonder that they have stirred so much commotion, from the controversy over the electoral law to the multiple controversies over the nearly hundred candidates.
Moreover, the problems surrounding the post will not end once a president is elected. The legitimacy of the winner and the constitutional authority of the post itself will remain sources of controversy for some time to come.
It is thus premature to speak of Libya’s transitioning from the “management of chaos” to stability. The international community is probably counting not so much on a transition to stability as on a transition to a more stable government than any produced in the past interim phases.
Even the last government, the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) elected by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which might be compared to a constituent assembly, did not have the chance to stabilise. No sooner had it been formed than it was reduced to a caretaker government by dint of a parliamentary decision. There has also been sharp disagreement between the country’s two executive bodies, the Presidency Council and the government, over crucial issues.
Another important circumstance surrounding the elections is the clear divergence between overall international intentions and the general Libyan will. Almost all international and regional stakeholders want the elections to proceed as scheduled and will recognise the results even if they differ sharply over some candidates.
For example, during the Paris Conference on Libya in November, Russia, believed to favour Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi in the presidential elections, insisted that the old regime had to be represented. The US and UK were just as adamant in their opposition. But such disagreements did not prevent unanimity on the need to accept the results of the ballot box.
The same thing does not apply domestically in Libya because of the lack of a national project that can resolve the conflict over key issues such as the still-controversial question of the distribution of power. Some political forces have even intimated that they will return to arms if the elections do not go their way.
Although the factions have committed no major violations of the October 2020 ceasefire agreement thus far, their commitment to it does not extend to fulfilling its requirements with regard to the evacuation of mercenaries and foreign fighters and the ending of all forms of foreign military presence in Libya.
More ominously yet, most of the factions have taken advantage of the recent period to strengthen their military and paramilitary capacities, dismissing international warnings of sanctions on those who obstruct the political process as they prepare for another round of civil warfare.
Many doubt that plans to rely on a stable government in Libya as a mechanism for the transition will truly end the cycle of interim phases. Even in the best of circumstances, if the elections go ahead as planned and their results are accepted, Libya will enter into another transitional phase, if under a different heading, such as under an elected government instead of a consensual one.
That said, it will have to follow through on a number of critical issues that have been deferred from the current interim phase. These include the complex processes involved in establishing the new government, the unification of the army and security apparatus, the removal of foreign fighters, mercenaries and military presences and the reunification of the Central Bank among other structural issues and various social problems.
Some of these matters will be more difficult to resolve than others, especially the question of the new constitution that will reshape the legal framework of the state, the political process, and, above all, the powers of the various branches of government.
In the final analysis, Libya still lacks effective mechanisms to steer the country safely from chaos to stability, and there is no guarantee that the elections will do this. It is still too soon to tell whether Libya is on the threshold of stability. It is to be hoped that it is not on the threshold of dangerous backsliding, regardless of signs to that effect.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.