Libya’s difficult choice: To hold or not to hold elections

Osama al sharif
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (Photo: Jordan News)
A decade after the collapse of the long reign of Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi, the divided oil-rich country finds itself at yet another critical milestone: the December 24 presidential elections. اضافة اعلان

Like almost everything in this vast North African Arab country, deep political fissures make this important step a lethal one to say the least. Libya’s political players — the national unity government, the presidential council, the parliament, the election commission, tribal militias and factions, rival candidates and the US and Russia — have failed to agree on almost every aspect of the planned poll, a year after the UN succeeded in setting up this important threshold.

Now it seems that the elections will not be held on time. This is both good and bad news for the Libyan people. With so many differences over the election law, the candidates and the end-game, the outcome of the elections would certainly be rejected by one or both sides that are in control of most of the country.

At the center of the recent crisis is the candidacy of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, who enjoys the backing of tribes in the south and center of the country. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), but has managed to get his application to run approved by a Libyan court. His candidacy has been rejected by the US, while Russia supports him. 

On the other hand, another controversial figure, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, is also running, and he can be a deal breaker because he is in control of Benghazi, the oil fields and chunks of southern Libya. 

About 100 Libyans are running for the presidential election; among them, interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. His candidacy is thought to be illegal under previous understandings.

As the elections appear to have been postponed, the stage is set for a political deadlock. The two ruling flanks, Libya’s internationally recognized government in the West and Haftar’s de facto control of the East, have been unable to achieve the goals of the so-called 5+5 joint military committee. Foreign troops, mainly mercenaries from Turkey and Russia, remain entrenched, backing opposite sides. Haftar is unwilling to relinquish control of his militias. The Tripoli government controls less than half of the country. In the middle there are tribal militias that seek to implement a different national agenda.

Without an understanding between the US, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt, it is difficult to see a way out for the Libyan crisis. In fact, the possibility of a partition of the country remains high. For Russia’s Putin, there is a point to be made: The US-led NATO intervention in Libya for the purpose of regime change was wrong to begin with. Russia’s logic applies to Syria as well.

Turkey’s agenda is more complex. It sees Libya, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the West, as an extension of its own grand regional outlook as embraced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Egypt’s fear of an Islamist Libya appearing on its western borders is understandable. For other players, there is no clear end-game, just keeping the crisis alive.

Libya’s roadmap may have reached a dead end if the elections are postponed. The various players have met many times in and outside Libya with little to show for on the ground. Libya is effectively divided and politically polarized. This situation could last for years.

No UN envoy can repair the damage that Libya is going through right now. The issue at heart is not the presidential election but healing the social fabric that glued Libyans together for decades. This can never be achieved while superpowers and regional powers take sides and try to steer the political process their way.

Regime change has failed in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya. The cost has been exorbitant in terms of loss of life and wasted economic opportunities. The Libyan people have the right to choose a new leadership, but only under ideal circumstances, which seem impossible to reach in Libya, now or the near future.

For a majority of Libyans, neither Gaddafi nor Haftar is the answer after decades of authoritarian rule. Libya needs new blood and new leadership that can help it forget the legacy of the past. So far such a figure has not appeared on the political stage. 

For the sake of Libya, the US and Russia, along with Turkey, and others, must depart and allow the Libyan people to engage in an open and honest dialogue. The election has become a tipping point. Perhaps not holding it is much better than having one that will divide the people even further and dictate a process that could bring back an authoritarian rule.

There are no magic solutions for the Libyan conundrum. Libya is today facing a scenario of damn if you do and damn if you don’t. The lesser evil is to forgo the elections and allow the Libyan people to engage in national dialogue away from foreign interference.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.  

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