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Six obstacles on the road to Libya’s December elections

April 1, 2021 at 6:03 pm

Head of the interim government in Libya, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, 8 February 2021 [Wikipedia]

On 10 March, Libya’s new interim government, the Government of National Unity (GNU), won the parliamentary vote of confidence and was sworn in on 15 March. Its agenda is already set in the roadmap drawn up by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) last November.

New Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh and his team have plenty of complex tasks ahead of them. They have already, at least in theory, unified the divided executives. Libya, until late March, was divided between two competing governments – one in Tripoli and a rival one in the east of the country.

The GNU is supposed to focus its energy and resources on two tasks, among others – holding smooth and fair elections by the end of the year and improving the living conditions of the people. However, there exists doubts, risks and hopes.

While people’s expectations are high, the issues facing the government are complex. Nonetheless, most Libyans would settle for less, if only the promise of elections is kept. Having been through many wars, a political impasse, economic hardships, deteriorating government services, corruption and a collapsing healthcare system at the time of a pandemic, most people can tolerate difficulties as long as they know that the transitional period will end by the 24 December elections.

Outlined below are the six most challenging obstacles that could threaten the promised polls, derail the entire GNU and, potentially, start another war. Expectations and risks are high.

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Firstly, Libya is a country still without a constitution a decade after NATO-assisted rebels toppled the late Muammar Gaddafi for not having one, among other claims. The only constitutional framework available is an over-amended Constitutional Declaration. However, the document is short of a permanent constitution and lacks public support. Besides which, the election law is yet to be approved by the constitutional committee, which ended in deadlock over the issue in its last meeting on 22 March. The 17-member committee, drawn up by the LPDF, is supposed to provide some kind of interim constitutional basis for the upcoming elections.

The LPDF met on 23 March to navigate a way out of this impasse. Even if an agreement is reached, this will not end the interim period come the December elections. Any elections will produce another interim government until such a time that a constitution is adopted and approved in a referendum.

Secondly, the most difficult obstacle is expelling the estimated 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries currently in Libya, including Syrian mercenaries, Turkish troops brought in by Turkey to help the previous government in Tripoli and Russian mercenaries helping the rival army headed by General Khalifa Haftar. A joint military commission representing both sides agreed to a ceasefire in United Nations (UN)-sponsored talks in Geneva last October. The ceasefire is still holding, but the commission has failed to make any tangible progress, such as opening the roads connecting the east, west and south of Libya. In its most recent statement, the commission implicitly acknowledged that it has no control over foreign forces, by calling on the UN to help remove them.

Self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) Chief of Staff, Khalifa Haftar arrives for a conference on Libya on November 12, 2018 at Villa Igiea in Palermo. - Libya's key political players meet with global leaders in Palermo on November 12 in the latest bid by major powers to kickstart a long-stalled political process and trigger elections. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)

Self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) Chief of Staff, Khalifa Haftar (C) arrives for a conference on Libya on November 12, 2018 at Villa Igiea in Palermo [FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images]

Thirdly, for any elections to be secure and successful, disarming the militias is an essential step, otherwise, polling security and integrity is threatened. Over the last two years, these groups have gained additional “legitimacy”, meaning more cash and power. The previous Government of National Accord (GNA) depended on them for its survival. Along with Syrian mercenaries, they defended the capital against Haftar’s 2019-2020 offensive, eventually defeating him in June. They effectively control the capital, becoming a grave threat to any political process, as they have been for the last decade. Neutralising them without disarming them is a strenuous job, to say the least. Complete disarmament before December is out of the question, and the GNU must find a way to carry on its business, including elections, with militias littering the country’s landscape. Confining them to their barracks, at least during the polling period, might be the easiest workable solution. Prime Minister Dbeibeh has yet to reveal his plan to deal with this, if he even has one.

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Fourthly, uniting the divided government bureaucracy might appear the easiest part, but this is an inaccurate assumption. Uniting two governments that have been operating separately for the last six years entails firing people, restructuring government institutions and, most importantly, auditing each former government’s expenditures. In a country where corruption is rampant, and law enforcement is lacking, accountability is far too ambitious a goal. The inflated bureaucracy is eating away at nearly one-third of the state budget.

Fifthly, uniting the two semi-professional armies is another significant issue. The same goes for building one-armed forces from yesterday’s enemies. Haftar’s Libyan National Army and the Libyan National Army as part of the GNU are two different entities, fighting one another for years. Indeed, forces loyal to Haftar control large swathes of Libya, but not the entire country. While the Joint Military Commission (JMC) brought the two sides together, it has so far failed to produce a practical plan for unification. Haftar still sees himself and his troops as the “Libyan” army, while the other side sees him as no more than a renegade general trying to rule Libya by force. As recently as last Saturday, Haftar received the new UN envoy, even though he does not hold an official GNU position. This is another indication that Haftar might be having second thoughts about his earlier support for the GNU.

Lastly, national reconciliation among the divided nation is a time consuming and complicated process. A decade of fighting and feuds, exacerbated by foreign interferences, has further divided Libyans along regional and tribal lines, and the GNU has yet to furnish its reconciliation plan. Any reconciliation would require freeing political prisoners, enacting transitional justice mechanisms and returning internally displaced persons and those forced to flee abroad. How exactly the GNU will execute this, in the space of the 267 days before the December elections, is still unclear.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.