Democratic challenges

Libya’s electoral process is threatening to implode

By Sarah Vernhes

Posted on December 3, 2021 10:14

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-12-02T16-30-43.283Z Libya’s prime minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba filed his presidential candidacy on 21 November in Tripoli © MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP
Libya’s prime minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba filed his presidential candidacy on 21 November in Tripoli © MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP

Between Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s manoeuvres, the rejection of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s appeal in Sebha and the resignation of the head of the UN mission, political tensions are rising and seriously compromising Libya’s electoral process.

Far from paving the way for democracy, Libya’s presidential election, which is scheduled for December, could – on the contrary – prepare the ground for a new conflict. With less than a month to go before the elections, divisions are intensifying in the country, where chaos has prevailed since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011.

Imad Al-Sayeh, a representative from Libya’s High National Electoral Commission (HNEC), who is in charge of implementing the process, seems distraught. On 26 November, he believed the electoral calendar was untenable. However, responsibility for this fiasco lies partly with the HNEC, according to consultant and former HNEC chairman Otman Gajiji.

“It wasted a lot of time before launching the procedures,” he says. “It is ridiculous that voters only have two weeks to get to know the candidates.”

Even so, he feels that “the real question” is “why hold a presidential election now when the elected person can only represent a part of the country? Because Libya is completely divided, candidates from the west cannot go to the east and vice versa, nor can the voters. We should have focused on organising a parliamentary election that could have renewed the parliament and then moved forward.”

Legal battle

The process has turned into a legal battle between presidential contenders. Although 98 candidates have registered, the final list of participants will be announced on 4 December. The courts of justice will have the final say. In the meantime, they can be used to either disqualify or revalidate candidates. Appeals can be lodged with the courts in the regions where the candidates have registered.

“This is a bad sign. Everyone should be able to do this anywhere,” says Gajiji, who feels that the Supreme Judicial Council made this decision following pressure from the militias.

On 28 November, former interior minister Misrati Fathi Bashagha and diplomat Aref Ali Nayed, who are both running for president, filed two appeals regarding Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s candidacy. The prime minister still has a few days to appeal.

As another example, the HNEC rejected the candidacy of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who is the son of the former Guide, because of his criminal record. Furthermore, Khalifa Haftar’s forces prevented him from filing his appeal before the Sebha court on 25 November. The marshal undertook this manoeuvre in order to neutralise this competitor, who could have potentially stolen Gaddafi votes. On top of this, an appeal was filed against Haftar’s candidacy in Benghazi.

Dbeibeh’s ambiguities

The prime minister’s presidential bid has added to the confusion. According to the rules of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which is led by the UN mission in Libya, he is not allowed to vie. In addition, the electoral law that was drafted unilaterally by the head of the Libyan parliament, Aguila Saleh, and enacted by the HNEC, specifies that candidates must have left office three months before the election.

…as the process moves forward, tensions are mounting over the eligibility of some leading presidential candidates, raising fears of armed confrontation or a return to authoritarianism.

However, Dbeibeh has prepared a response. He is calling for an amendment to the electoral law, which would allow him to not only remove the article blocking his candidacy, but also buy enough time to postpone the vote. He could also argue that he has not officially been in office since September, when parliament passed a vote of no-confidence.

Despite his ambiguous position, Dbeibeh is still in charge of the government for now and continues to remain popular. However, he is thinking of handing power over to his deputy, Ramadan Abu Jnah, over whom he still exerts a lot of influence.

The other negative sign on the eve of the elections came with the surprise resignation of Jan Kubis, head of the UN mission in Libya (Manul), on 23 November. The following day, the Slovak diplomat painted a bleak picture in his briefing to the Security Council, saying that “as the process moves forward, tensions are mounting over the eligibility of some leading presidential candidates, raising fears of armed confrontation or a return to authoritarianism.”

Although his departure is scheduled for 10 December, his replacement’s assumption of office will be perilous, as it will take place just a few days before the elections. The former British ambassador, Nicholas Kay, is expected to succeed him. He may be sent to Tripoli, unlike his predecessor, whose installation in Geneva was highly criticised by Libyan actors.

Coalition of Katibas

Beyond the political manoeuvring, the militias are getting their act together on the ground. Misrata’s Katiba 166, which is linked to Bashagha, has gotten closer to the Katiba Tariq Ben Ziyad, which is under Haftar’s control, with a view to deploying their joint presence in southern Tripoli during the elections.

This manoeuvre could allow them to blockade the capital’s outskirts from their competitor, Dbeibeh. The latter relies on the coalition of Katibas united under the name ‘Operation Volcano of Rage’, which was set up by the previous government to defend the capital against Haftar’s offensive.

In the south, the security situation has been extremely tense ever since General Haftar’s forces blocked Sebha’s court of justice to prevent Gaddafi from filing an appeal. New tribal clashes in Fezzan – where cohabitation between the Qaddafa, the Ouled Slimane and the Toubous has always been difficult – are feared. As a matter of fact, some clashes broke out during the 2012 and 2014 elections.

The presence of foreign mercenaries is also an important security issue. Turkish forces and mercenaries are still present on Libyan soil. Despite President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement at the international conference on Libya, the departure of the 300 mercenaries who supported Haftar’s forces has not improved the situation. The number of mercenaries in the country is estimated at several thousands.

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