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Libya: Who are the main presidential candidates?

By Jihâd Gillon, Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Friday, 10 December 2021 13:29

The six frontrunners for Libya’s presidential election on 24 December 2021. seif el islam khalifa haftar abdulhamid dabaiba aref ali nayed bechir saleh fathi bachagha © Montage JA

Libya’s general elections, which have been postponed many times, are supposed to end the interminable transition phase and provide the country with a legitimate and unified government at the end of the year. Here are the leading candidates for the 24 December presidential election... assuming that it goes ahead as planned.

Libya’s presidential election, which was supposed to provide the country with legal and legitimate leadership, was announced many times and then postponed until the end of the year. Whether this electoral event takes place as scheduled or is postponed, it remains crucial for Libya’s future and constitutes a major geopolitical stake in the eyes of international powers.

In 2018, France put all its weight behind holding elections before the end of the year. However, clashes between militias in the capital dashed President Emmanuel Macron’s hopes, while the indefinite postponement of the election served as a pretext for Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli in April 2019.

Nearly three years and a new civil war later, it’s the same old story, except that the landscape has changed considerably, as foreign fighters have arrived en-masse, while Turkey and Russia have become increasingly involved in the Libyan issue. The latter are satisfied with the status quo and are in no hurry to see the emergence of a power strong enough to demand the departure of their auxiliary troops.

If the election does not take place for one reason or another – renewed violence, rejection of the electoral law or impossible campaigning – then all options, especially the most perilous ones, will be on the table. This could include anything from extending the term of a president and government whose sole raison d’être is holding elections to resuming the armed conflict. Not to mention that even if the elections are held, there is no guarantee that the losers will accept the result.

To date, six individuals – out of more than 30 candidates – stand out in the presidential race.

Saif al-Islam, from father to son

He is clearly the big star of the election. After a 10-year break from politics, Muammar Gaddafi’s son registered as a presidential candidate on 14 November, at an electoral centre in Sebha, in the south, where he has many supporters.

What happened in Libya [in 2011] was not a revolution. You can call it a civil war, or dark days.

It did not take much more for the Gaddafists to get moving. From Sebha to Tobruk through Bani Walid and Sirte, supporters of the ‘Greens’ celebrated the news that their champion had entered the race with a lot of gunfire and horns.

Mohammed Qaddaf al-Dam – the cousin of Muammar – who was exiled to Cairo and encouraged many Gaddafists to rally behind Haftar, immediately endorsed al-Islam.

The fact remains that his surname, and the 10 years of instability that followed his father’s death, are the main – if not the only – campaign arguments by Seif el-Islam, whose programme is more or less a form of soft restoration.

Al-Islam’s long absence from the political scene is tantamount to a newfound virginity in the eyes of some Libyans – one poll even says that he has a 57% approval rating in one of the country’s three major regions. Excluded from the presidential race on 24 November by virtue of his legal status, Sebha’s Court of Justice ended up validating his candidacy.

Even though the son of the ‘Guide’ – a priori – intends to respect the principle of the election, many wonder if his new democratic convictions are sincere. “What happened in Libya [in 2011] was not a revolution. You can call it a civil war, or dark days,” he said during an interview with the New York Times in July 2021. This statement does not suggest that he is trying to distance himself from his father’s legacy.

Béchir Saleh, the surprise candidate

The candidacy of Béchir Saleh, Gaddafi’s former chief of staff, was also rejected at first, but then approved by Sebha’s Court of Justice. Some saw his return to Libya, which coincided with the announcement of al-Islam’s candidature, as a sign of support for the son of the ‘Guide’. However, in reality, Saleh also had presidential ambitions, which he never hid, especially when he agreed to an interview with us in 2017.

Exiled to France in 2011, then forced to leave the country for Niger, then South Africa and finally the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Gaddafi’s former money man had time to plan his comeback.

Now closely linked to Abu Dhabi, which probably financed his return to Libya, Saleh has little chance of winning. Observers believe that he is running in the hopes of positioning himself ahead of the legislative elections and to take away votes from al-Islam in order to redirect them towards Haftar, who is supported by the UAE. How do you say ‘three-stripe billiard’ in Libyan Darija?

Fathi Bachagha, revolutionary legitimacy

Even though his star has been steadily fading ever since he lost his February 2021 bid to become prime minister, he remains one of the heavyweights of Libya’s political scene. Western chancelleries view the clean-shaven Fathi Bachaga, who also wears square glasses, as competent and serious.

The former interior minister, who admitted to us that he “has very good relations with France”, has positioned himself as the principal alternative to both the Gaddafists and Haftar. In the past, he had a difficult relationship with Paris, as he was accused of supporting the Marshal during his offensive against Tripoli.

Seen as the strong revolutionary candidate, Misrati probably paid for his pragmatism during the February vote by associating himself with Aguila Saleh, president of Tobruk’s House of Representatives (also a presidential candidate), who is very unpopular in the west.

“He wants to represent the people of 17 February [anniversary of the 2011 revolution],” says Anas el-Gomati, a Libya specialist. “He has also developed a technocratic style and has surrounded himself with a brilliant young guard of convinced democrats.”

The problem is that Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba also wants to embody an anti-authoritarian front and is already posing as his main rival, although in a more populist style.

Aref Ali Nayed, the anti-Brotherhood

Among the candidates, Aref Ali Nayed is a long-distance runner. The diplomat has been aiming for the supreme office for years. He vied for the seat in 2018, but this time he has positioned himself as a reconciler. The former Libyan ambassador to the UAE, based in Abu Dhabi, emphasises his origins and the intertwined path between the east and the west.

Born in Benghazi, this professor of Islamic theology and philosophy taught in Tripoli. He also relies on the network he has built up through his think tank, Libya Institute for Advanced Studies (LIAS), and his institute, Kalam Research & Media (KRM), to extend his influence abroad.

Nayed, who was once close to Haftar, has since distanced himself from the marshal. Like the latter, he also rejects the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom he categorically refuses to work with in any coalition whatsoever. Nayed leads the Ihya Libya movement, which was founded in 2017.

Khalifa Haftar, the man from the East

Marshal Haftar swapped his uniform for a suit and tie to announce his candidacy on 16 November – to no great surprise. The 77-year-old military man has remained rather discreet ever since he handed over the reins of his Libyan National Army (LNA) on 23 September to his right-hand man, General Abdelrazzak el-Nadhouri. He was required to do so – as per electoral law – in order to run in the 24 December presidential elections.

In April 2019, Haftar launched a military offensive against Tripoli to take power, which he said had been confiscated by “terrorist” militias. A champion of the fight against Islamist groups, he expelled jihadist groups from the cities of Benghazi (in 2017) and Derna (in 2018).

Although Haftar is abhorred in the west, the military man still reigns supreme in the east, where he has set up the Military Investment Authority, which oversees major economic contracts in the region.

Moreover, Haftar still retains control of the Oil Crescent in the east and maintains a presence in Fezzan, where the main oil fields are located.

He also has important allies abroad: the UAE, Egypt and Russia, whose paramilitary firm Wagner still operates on the ground.

In case of defeat, Haftar intends to take over the reins of the LNA, although the latter is destined to disappear after the elections as part of efforts to unify the Libyan army.

Abdulhamid Dabaiba, the rising star

He officially filed his candidacy for the presidential elections on 21 November. Despite the appeals against it, the Tripoli Court of Appeal finally validated it on 1 December.

The issue was the electoral law that Parliament adopted in October, which sets the eligibility criteria, including the requirement that candidates holding government and military posts resign three months before the election.

In any case, Abdulhamid Dabaiba has never kept his ambitions secret and has successfully cultivated his image in Tripoli, where his social measures have made him very popular.

Supported by Turkey, he imposed himself abroad. He co-chaired the International Conference on Libya on 12 November in Paris alongside President Mohamed el-Menfi. He was accompanied by members of his clan: his son-in-law Ahmed el-Sharkasi, his brother-in-law Ahmed Mustafa Omar el-Karami and his cousin Ibrahim Ali Dabaiba.

Originally from Misrata, where he is one of the powerful businessmen, Dabaiba was the president of the state company Lidco under Gaddafi’s rule. His other asset is his close relationship with the country’s big money man, Sedik el-Kabir. The governor of the Libyan Central Bank (BCL) in Tripoli, which receives oil revenues, remains the country’s leading ‘distributor’.

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