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Libya’s new president is on hold

Libya election
Protestors from Benghazi in April 2011.source Al-Jazeera English via Wikimedia Commons

by Neville Teller

In 2011 the Libyan people, with a little help from their friends, overthrew the dictator who had ruled them for some 50 years – Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.  It is well within the bounds of possibility that by now the Gaddafi regime could again be in power in Libya, with a son of the former ruler its newly elected president.  Nor has that possibility been ruled out.  It may yet come to pass.

Presidential elections were due to take place in Libya on December 24, to be followed by a parliamentary poll.  Literally, days before the scheduled vote, the chairman of the electoral committee told the assembly’s speaker: “after consulting the technical, judicial, and security reports, we inform you of the impossibility of holding the elections on the date of December 24, 2021”.

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One major difficulty was the fact that no official list of candidates had been agreed and, according to the rules governing the vote, candidates have the right to two weeks of official campaigning after the publication of the definitive list.

Initially, no fewer than 98 people put themselves forward as prospective candidates in the presidential vote, and the electoral committee spent a great deal of time whittling the list down.  By mid-November two of the most prominent – the warlord Khalifa Haftar, and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a son of the former leader, had been debarred from standing.  Gaddafi brought a heavy load of unsavory baggage with him. In 2015, a domestic Libyan court had found him guilty of war crimes committed during the violent uprising against his father, and sentenced him to death in absentia. Gaddafi is also wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, and persecution.

One week after Gaddafi was disqualified from entering the presidential race, a court in the southern province of Sabha overturned the ruling, and his candidacy was reinstated.  Educated at the London School of Economics, Saif al-Islam, now 49, was widely seen as Gaddafi’s heir apparent before the uprising. His faction, known as the Greens, enjoys support in some southern regions and in his hometown of Sirte. Gaddafi is the white hope of the old regime, who still retain a great deal of power and influence and want to lose none of it. 

His re-emergence has already had an impact.  People are forming alliances with or against him.  Whether he can actually win the presidential election is an open question, but he is clearly going to be a major player whenever the election does take place.

As for strongman Khalifa Hafter, he still hopes to run, even though a court in Misrata in western Libya recently sentenced him to death in absentia for bombing a military college in 2019.

Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011 led to nine years of increasingly bitter internal division and conflict. The country became the battleground for literally hundreds of militias and armed groups, each grabbing at a tiny bit of local power and often fighting among themselves in consequence.  In 2015, a UN initiative led to the establishment of a Government of National Accord (GNA), endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council as the sole legitimate executive authority in Libya.  It spent the next six years fighting off attempts by warlord Hafter and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), to overthrow the GNA and take control of the nation.

In the fall of 2019, Haftar began what he saw as the end game in his attempt to seize power and set himself up as Libya’s leader.  By the spring of 2020 he seemed on the verge of succeeding.  He was apparently within days of capturing the capital, Tripoli, but it never happened.  One reason is that in the fall of 2019 Turkey had offered to assist the GNA.  Under the terms of an agreement signed on 27 November 2019, Turkey undertook to provide the GNA with security and state-of-the-art military technology.  Ever since, the GNA began chalking up a series of successes against Hafter.

Finally the UN set up a body to mediate an agreement.  The two sides came to an understanding on October 23, 2020, and a ceasefire went into effect.  In the first week of March 2021 a UN observer mission flew an advance team into the Libyan capital, Tripoli, tasked with monitoring an agreement between the country’s rival armed factions.  In a highly volatile situation, with parts of the agreement already coming unstuck, a statement on the election commission’s website indicates that the planned elections are being postponed way beyond January 24, 2022, the first date proposed.  The committee is saying it has still to adopt a series of judicial and legal measures “before proceeding to the publication of the definitive list of candidates and the start of their electoral campaign”.

Libyans seem to be in for a long wait before their new president, the first in their history to be elected by popular mandate, is sworn into office.

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review.  His latest book is“Trump and the Holy Land:  2016-2020”.  Follow him




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