How shameless self-interest is sabotaging Libya

How shameless self-interest is sabotaging Libya

Hundreds of demonstrators protest in Tripoli, Libya, on Sept. 24, 2021, in opposition to the country's parliament passing a vote of no-confidence in the transitional government.(AP Photo/Yousef Murad)
Hundreds of demonstrators protest in Tripoli, Libya, on Sept. 24, 2021, in opposition to the country's parliament passing a vote of no-confidence in the transitional government.(AP Photo/Yousef Murad)
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By all indications, Libyans are ready. After more than a decade of chaos and conflict that turned the country into a battleground for foreign interests, Libyans are eagerly awaiting the opportunity in December to elect legitimate political bodies of their choosing, including a new parliament and president, instead of the existing unelected ones. Unfortunately, aspirations can only go so far when faced with the ferocious ambition of a select few contrarian actors, and the international community’s confusing stances since 2011. 

At present, a quixotic mix of characters have invested substantial political capital and soft power trying to steer Libyan affairs in service of their own narrow interests. For some local actors, this dysfunction has served them well. The numerous since 2011, after four decades of Qaddafi rule, presented opportunities for enterprising actors to entrench themselves via force of arms and corruption. Eventually, the desperate lunge to forge a permanent settlement only ended up giving these groups some legitimacy. More importantly, it also cleared the pathways for them to escape culpability for atrocities committed in pursuit of democracy in a land ravaged by war. 

However, any likelihood of elections taking place at the end of the year is a threat to domestic actors. A duly elected, unified government would not compromise on transitional justice and would clamp down heavily on non-state armed actors, disarming and stripping them of their ill-gotten gains. Naturally, vested interests will continue trying to muddle the political process, and derail any progress toward making the Dec. 24 polls a reality. As a result, the security of the elections and Libya’s overall national security should be of paramount importance.

Granted, the elections are a major aspirational step toward “something,” neither forward nor back. What lies ahead is merely a further iteration of the same crippling mess that has denied Libyans a chance at some level of democracy on their own terms. Pressed for time, several stakeholders, including the UN and the former interior minister Fathi Bashagha (a likely presidential candidate), insist that even if the situation is not ideal, holding the elections is far more desirable than the alternative. Similarly, politicians in European capitals have slowly embraced this stance, seeking to not make the perfect the enemy of the good. 

Unfortunately, this pursuit of any outcome regardless of the costs has left the entire process vulnerable to the same sort of infighting and politicking that doomed the 2015 Skhirat agreement and the Government of National Accord. It also turned Libya into a battleground for foreign interests now maneuvering their preferred candidates into position, to carve out spheres of influence from the toeholds they have already established.

The Saleh-Haftar bloc now appears to have resorted to engineering imperfections in electoral law, ignoring pleas for key compromises, and shutting down any credible challenges to it — all of which will only guarantee that the elections will be disputed and viewed by many as illegitimate.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

This fixation on simply holding the elections without a coherent post-election strategy for national security, the integration of bifurcated state institutions, how to deal with the semi-autonomous region controlled by eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar and the departure of Russian mercenaries, only adds more uncertainty, making conflict almost inevitable. Clearly, in the few months that remain until December, Libyans are as far away from achieving their democratic aspirations as they were 10 years ago.

The foundations of this woeful reality remain the bitter divisions between Libya’s legislative assembly, the Aguila Saleh-led House of Representatives, and Tripoli’s High Council of State, which is akin to a senate. Saleh’s recent unilateral ratification of a law governing presidential elections was criticized as a flawed piece of legislation designed to hamper the elections and facilitate Haftar’s ascendancy.

This dispute surrounding the legal basis for the elections is now the frontline in the political war between east and west, spawning new crises that have only ever served to preserve the status quo. Playing hardball with the national budget and withdrawing confidence in the UN-backed interim government have failed to delegitimize Tripoli. The Saleh-Haftar bloc now appears to have resorted to engineering imperfections in electoral law, ignoring pleas for key compromises, and shutting down any credible challenges to it — all of which will only guarantee that the elections will be disputed and viewed by many as illegitimate.

Strangely, the international community seems to have surrendered, setting up the eastern faction quite well once votes are cast and counted. Should the Haftar-Saleh bloc be defeated at the polls, the House of Representatives will probably challenge their legitimacy. Should they emerge victorious, they will claim a mandate to redraw Libya’s post-election landscape, at the grave risk of armed groups in the west rejecting the results of the elections and taking up arms, with substantial support from civilians who have suffered at the hands of Haftar and his war on Tripoli .

The result is a more fragmented Libya as tensions simmer, compromises break down, and more confrontational political leaders from east and west vie to dominate this critical phase of Libya’s now decade-long transition. In the middle is a hapless Libyan public and a fatigued international community worn down by how a self-interested political class continue to derail a peaceful democratic transition.

Most of these troubles are not new. The most worrying development is how the absence of a military solution to Libya’s political crises has led the international community to support almost any outcome as long as it appears to signal some kind of progress.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of AdvancedInternational Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

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