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Are the people of Libya ready to decide their future?

TRIPOLI, LIBYA - FEBRUARY 16: A kid waves Libyan flag as people celebrate Libyan Revolution, known as the 17 February Revolution, which ousted former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, at the Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya on February 16, 2021. ( Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency )
A kid waves Libyan flag as people celebrate Libyan Revolution, known as the 17 February Revolution, which ousted former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, at the Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya on February 16, 2021. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]

Almost all political and social debates about Libya nowadays are centred on the presidential and legislative elections scheduled to be held on 24 December. Ever since the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) agreed the date, the issue has dominated the lives of ordinary Libyans.

There is an overwhelming demand that the elections should not be delayed or cancelled under any circumstances. Logistical and security issues aside, commentators and political pundits avoid asking the fundamental question of whether or not the people of Libya are ready to decide their own future, and if they can actually do so in December. Most commentators seem to believe that the elections are an end in themselves.

Those who believe that the Libyans are not yet ready for elections usually point to the 2014 legislative election as an example where a popular vote failed to end the conflict. Instead, it created more divisions, political deadlock and war. Election opponents think that the 2014 elections not only failed to end the civil war, but also threatened the country's territorial integrity.

We also have to remember that it was the elected parliament, whose mandate has long since expired, that overwhelmingly supported self-styled Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's attack on the capital, Tripoli. Much of the political division in the country today is linked directly to the April 2019 offensive on Tripoli which ended in defeat for Haftar in June last year. One consequence of that offensive has been increased foreign meddling in Libya's internal affairs. Turkey, for example, sent troops and scores of Syrian mercenaries to help the previous UN-recognised government repel the attack. Haftar also benefitted from thousands of mercenaries from Russia and a handful of African nationals from Chad and Sudan.

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However, the UN's mediators have long since viewed elections as the only way out of the current political impasse in Libya. They argue that the political legitimacy of almost all parties in power, including the parliament, has all but eroded thanks to their failure to deliver anything to the Libyan people. Furthermore, Ghassan Salame, the former UN envoy to Libya, believes that the political class has evolved into what he described as a "status quo" political party benefitting from the current situation and ready to do anything to prevent elections from taking place. This is the main reason for the UN's initiative of the LPDF acting as a mini-parliament to bypass the current parliament long since paralysed by seemingly never ending political quarrels while losing all moral and legal authority.

After succeeding in electing the current prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, along with a three-member Presidency Council, the LPDF talks stalled again. The 75-member forum failed to agree on a constitutional base for the 24 December elections. Dbeibeh's Government of National Unity has so far been unable to achieve much of main objectives such as unifying the military and security forces, and above all getting foreign forces and mercenaries out of Libya. Furthermore, and despite gaining the confidence of parliament in March in what was hailed as a great success, the same parliament is yet to approve the government's proposed budget. The prime minister blames the parliament for the delay while parliament accuses Dbeibeh of stalling the debate by rejecting budget amendments requested by its budget committee. Over two months has passed now and no budget deal is in sight, further limiting the government's ability to discharge its duties. In the meantime, the election deadline is getting closer by the day.

Many observers think that Libyan voters are not yet immersed in the election process while subjected to barrage of misinformation. Indeed, the number of registered voters inside the country is close to three million people, with more than a 53 per cent increase in the voters abroad. However, this does not mean that all registered voters will bother to cast their ballots.

As far as political expert Hussein Abdelsalam is concerned, the surge in voter registration is a "good sign" that people are ready to decide "their destiny despite all the hurdles." Abdelsalam pointed out that, "Libyans are not happy with the entire political class and they see elections as the only way to get rid of it."

However, for law professor Adil Suliman of Tripoli University, democracy is more than voting. It is a "complete package" that involves not only voting, but also "making the right choice when voting." This can only happen, according to the professor, in "a secure environment free from any constraints" in which the public "receives correct information." This; however, is absent in Libya. He said that while people are enthusiastic about elections, "they have little faith in the entire process while lacking the experience." Prior to the 2012 and 2014 elections, Libyans had not voted for decades.

None of which answers the simple question: can elections really settle the conflict and end the war? According to Prof. Suliman, there is no guarantee but it could help on the long road towards "a new Libya". What Libya really needs now, he explained, are not elections but "stability, reconciliation, independence from foreign meddling and a little accountability." The LPDF's roadmap that installed the current government envisions elections only after the departure of all foreign troops from Libya. In fact, that is one of the conditions for free and fair elections to take place.

For ordinary Libyans, though, as long as the current politicians still dominate the political landscape miserable living conditions will continue. Prof. Suliman agrees that daily life in the country is a "difficult struggle" for all Libyans but he thinks elections are unlikely to end the "hardship" we live in.

Political scientist Abdelgader Fathalla, from the University of Benghazi in eastern Libya, says that elections might not produce a "comprehensive solution but they are the only way out" of the status quo. Does that mean Libyans are ready to decide their own destiny in December? "We can only know the answer to this question if elections go ahead," he concluded.

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

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