On the eve of the second Libyan peace conference, which took place in Berlin on June 23, the EU finally took a strong stance on the elections which the troubled North African country is slated to hold this December 24th: Brussels threatened to impose sanctions on anyone attempting to delay the elections. The move was Europe’s strongest sign yet that it’s committed to the roadmap laid out for Libyan elections, a plan which has unfortunately come increasingly under threat in recent weeks.
Libya’s oligarchs, who have carved out a comfortable position for themselves amidst the fighting which has characterised the country after Gaddafi’s regime fell, now fear that free elections could displace them from their positions of power and are seeking to delay a democratic vote for as long as possible. The international community’s toothless approach to their attempts has only emboldened them—it remains to be seen if the EU’s show of support for the December timeframe will set Libya on the right path at last.
The Road to Peace
Libya has admittedly made some scant progress in recent months, since a ceasefire was agreed between the Tripoli-based government in the west and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east and the Government of National Unity (GNU) was formed. Indeed, earlier this month, the coastal road that links Misrata and Sirte was made operational for the first time in two years. Leaving aside the logistical advantages of opening the strategically important link for business, the road’s reopening serves as an important symbol of the peace process. In 2019, during a resurgence in hostilities, the roadblock set up along this route served as a de facto military frontier between the two opposing sides.
Its restoration proves that at least some of the main players who negotiated the ceasefire are still committed to unifying and rebuilding the country, but plenty of actors, both from within Libya and from abroad, are still working to undermine the country’s transition to a peaceful democracy. In particular, thousands of foreign mercenaries and jihadis, sent by Turkey to prop up the ailing Government of National Accord during the civil war, remain in the country. Their presence is one of the factors throwing doubt over the manner in which the upcoming elections will take place.
Among the myriad issues plaguing Libya after its decade of chaos and conflict are its devastated infrastructure, widespread economic havoc and more than a million people with acute health needs in a country where only half the medical facilities are operational. Unfortunately, graft and mismanagement within the Libyan government means that reconstruction funds are more likely to end up in the pockets of GNU allies than to the people who need them. Even more egregious, some of those pockets aren’t even in Tripoli, but Istanbul and Ankara.
The Government of National Disunity
The so-called Government of National Unity, unfortunately, retains many of the faults which doomed the GNA. Many of the elites who hold official or unofficial power in the Tripoli-based government are unsavoury types, including Turkish cronies from deep within Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle, corrupt businessmen who grew even richer during wartime than they did in times of peace, and religious extremists of every stripe, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.
Distrusted by the population, particularly in the country’s east, they are unlikely to maintain their privileged position following fair and democratic nationwide elections. Considering how lucrative every day in power can prove, however, there is little wonder these oligarchs are trying to maintain the status quo for as long as possible—with support from Ankara. As one analyst put it, “The Turks do not want elections in Libya because they know that the Islamists do not have a future in Libya”.
One of the most brazen attempts to delay the election is several Libyan politicians’ insistence that elections can only be held after a national referendum to approve a new constitution. Such a referendum would not only push the elections to a later date, but it would also result in a constitution written specifically for these elections. The current draft includes controversial provisions on who can be a presidential candidate and who cannot, most notably excluding those who hold dual citizenship. This would mean that a large number of dissidents who fled the country during the Ghaddafi era and obtained citizenship elsewhere would be unable to even have their name on the ballot despite returning to the country following the 2011 regime change.
With the election under threat from both Turkish mercenaries and vested interest groups, the Libyan would-be-electorate is feeling the pressure from all sides. The fall of the Ghaddafi regime almost 10 years ago brought hope to the people of Libya, only for that hope to crumble in the face of a bitter civil war that still divides the country. Free elections in December would once again lend Libyans hope—but Europe must do more to stop the parties benefiting from Libya’s division and instability from halting its progress towards democracy. In dealing with Erdoğan, as in dealing with the Libyan oligarchs, the West should make it very clear that delaying the elections is not an option and anyone working towards that goal would face a united international opposition.