Dec 13, 2021 - World

Libya election: Likely delay raises fears of renewed conflict

Protests in Tripoli against the candidacies of Khalifa Haftar (front, with X) and Saif al-Islam Gadhafi (back, also with X). Photo: Hamza Alahmar/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Libya’s Dec. 24 presidential election is now all but certain to be postponed due to a dispute over who can run, raising fears that a period of relative calm will soon come to an end.

Why it matters: Many feared that a rushed, winner-take-all election in the deeply divided country would spark renewed conflict. A delay carries risks of its own.

The three main would-be candidates are all controversial.

  • Khalifa Haftar, the rogue general who dominates Eastern Libya, launched a military offensive on Tripoli in 2019 that sparked renewed civil war.
  • Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, an alleged war criminal who was rumored to be dead, has re-emerged as a potential heir to his late father, dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
  • Interim Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabeiba has broken a vow not to run, and critics say he's effectively bankrolling his campaign using state resources.

Driving the news: All three have faced legal challenges to their candidacies, some of which are ongoing. As a result, the electoral commission was unable to publish the candidate list on time to hold the requisite two weeks of campaigning before Dec. 24.

  • It remains to be seen whether the now-inevitable postponement will be days-long, indefinite, or somewhere in between.

The state of play: Political factions are maneuvering to take advantage of the precarious situation, said Claudia Gazzini, Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group.

  • Some want a delay of at least a year. Others contend Dabeiba's mandate ends on Dec. 24 and he must be replaced. Some are still pushing to vote as soon as possible.
  • Gazzini said "the most realistic option" would be a delay of a few months in order to sort out the list of candidates, adjust the election law, and try to gather commitments to respect the result.
  • Emadeddin Badi, a Libya expert at the Atlantic Council, contends that if an election is held under the current circumstances — with a disputed legal basis, no provisions for power-sharing and armed groups backing particular candidates — "it's going to manufacture a crisis more than it’s going to solve anything."

What to watch: The potential pitfalls of the two-part elections are many.

  • "What happens if Haftar doesn’t make it to the second round?" Gazzini asked. "Is he going to all of a sudden say, ‘OK, no problem, I’m going to recognize the results anyways?’” This is, after all, the man who just launched a civil war.
  • "What happens if Saif al-Islam turns out to be the winner? Is everyone going to be cool and accept it as the result?" she added.

Between the lines: That potential outcome is the cause of particular concern in Washington, Badi said. Russia is backing Saif's candidacy, he notes.

Flashback: Once the face of reform in his father's regime, Saif became a pariah from the moment he declared — during the uprising in 2011 against his father — that thousands would die and Libya would descend into civil war if the protests continued.

  • Now those remarks strike many Libyans as prescient, Gazzini said, and Saif appears "clean from the dirty politics of the last 10 years."
  • Many Libyans have grown nostalgic for the Gadhafi era after a decade of chaos.

What's next: "The definition of a dire situation or a conflict in Libya is now basically this surreal show of drones, foreigners, Syrian mercenaries, Russian mercenaries," Badi said.

  • "We're bound to have some type of conflict, whether in the lead-up to elections being delayed or after the elections are delayed," he said, but likely not on that scale for now.
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