Libya elections: Why new US proposal has sparked controversy

By Samer Al-Atrush
Posted on Sunday, 29 August 2021 08:31, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 11:09

Italian PM Draghi and Libyan PM Dbeibeh meet in Rome
Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh delivers a statement next to his Italian counterpart at Chigi palace, premier's office, in Rome, Italy May 31, 2021. Gregorio Borgia/Pool via REUTERS

The United States has proposed a staggered Libyan presidential election ending in the autumn of 2022, in a bid to salvage a roadmap for polls in December resisted by the transitional government and other Libyan factions, according to a document obtained by The Africa Report.

The US proposal, presented to the other P3+2 countries (France, Britain, Germany and Italy), would have Libyans commit to a first round of  presidential elections on 24 December, along with parliamentary elections, and then a second and final round on 15 September 2022.

The transitional prime minister, Abdel Hamid al-Dbeibeh, has publicly insisted that he wants to hold elections on time, although the UN-mediated roadmap would bar him and other office holders from running. But privately, he has resisted the idea and has pushed for an extension since  his appointment last February in in a UN-mediated dialogue, officials told The Africa Report.

A spokesman for the prime minister refused to comment.

Others, including members of the State Council in Tripoli, have openly opposed elections in December. Parliament has yet to pass an electoral law while negotiations in the UN-sponsored political forum that agreed the roadmap and selected Dbeibeh have stalled, partly due to members switching their allegiance to the prime minister after he came to power.

During a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron in June, Dbeibeh was forthright in his opposition to elections in December, two officials with knowledge of the talks said. He has also relayed the same message to other countries, although not directly to the US, which had insisted on sticking to the schedule. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Libyan counterpart Najlaa al-Mangoush that Dbeibeh should stop sending “mixed messages,” a Libyan official with knowledge of the 17 June call said.

Back to square one

Failure to hold elections could bring the country back to its status quo before the outbreak of the 2019 war, when the eastern general Khalifa Haftar marched onto the capital Tripoli to unseat the UN-recognised government. Haftar has hinted at war if the elections are not held, and has signalled that backing the creation of a parallel government in the east could be an option.

The US proposal seen by The Africa Report notes opposition to holding elections on 24 December – although it doesn’t name the opponents – and suggests that after the first round, the remaining candidates should complete lists of presidents, vice presidents and deputy presidents, if they jointly won at least 10% the vote in the first round. They would have to commit to monthly televised debates addressing the economy, pandemic and other challenges.

The US suggested that Dbeibeh be allowed to run in the election, but that he, and any other office holder, would have to quit as Prime Minister if he makes it to the second round. Parliament would then have a month to decide on a new interim executive. It also suggested an election on 22 September for a second chamber of parliament, and a constitutional referendum by the end of 2022.

Candidates above the age of 21 can run in the first round, but the new parliament would prepare a constitutional basis before the second round, according to the document.

The proposal is opposed by several countries including France, which insists on simultaneous elections on 24 December. Egypt would also like to see elections be held on time, in part because it believes political Islamists would stand the most to lose if a poll were held now, officials said.

But most countries acknowledge that it is doubtful that elections, which could upend the status quo, would be held on 24 December without concerted international pressure.

Status quo

“The current actors have a vested interest in not holding elections on time,” says Claudia Gazzini, the International Crisis Group’s Libya analyst. “Dbeibeh, like all government members, pays lip service to the election, but is known to believe that the transition requires a transitional government in power for longer than nine months and believing that elections in the current climate is destabilising.”

Some have questioned the wisdom of focusing on elections while much of the groundwork that led to the country’s divisions and war remained.

Despite the mutual recriminations between Dbeibeh, Haftar, and the eastern head of parliament Aguileh Saleh, all three politicians could benefit from not holding an election.

While some in western Libya have warned that a direct vote could bring Haftar or Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi into power, Haftar still gains from the status quo, as does Saleh. Both Saleh and Haftar have insisted on elections and are likely presidential candidates, but an electoral law could bar military men such as Haftar from running, and Saleh risks losing both a presidential election and his seat in parliament.

Haftar “has ample opportunity to exploit a situation where he can say: ‘I wanted presidential elections but the others were against it, and therefore I no longer recognise the government. It allows him to exert more pressure,” says Wolfram Lacher, a Libya authority with the German SWP think tank.

Dbeibeh has complained that his hands are tied so long as parliament refuses to adopt a budget, but privately he and his supporters have indicated  that they could live with monthly allocations overseen by the Central Bank governor Saddiq al-Kabir. The latter’s position appeared in peril just a few months ago, but he has again emerged as one of the country’s most powerful people.

The absence of a budget could mean payments to Haftar’s Libyan National Army could be conducted with little transparency or blowback in western Libya, one Libyan official told The Africa Report.

Some have questioned the wisdom of focusing on elections while much of the groundwork that led to the country’s divisions and war remained.

In the east, Haftar openly refuses to acknowledge the authority of an unelected prime minister, while his LNA—more a collection of militias than an army—operates without any government oversight.

In the west, Dbeibeh inherited a web of powerful militias that compete with one another and flout his authority. Both are backed by foreign powers on the  ground: Turkey and its Syrian militiamen are ensconced in the west, while Russia has deployed advanced fighter and jets and hundreds of mercenaries with the Wagner group in the east and south.

“We’re not going to allow international pressure to burn the country,” said a person familiar with Dbeibeh’s thinking, of holding elections on December 24 with the current landscape.

Others argue that postponing a vote might end up doing just that.

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