Libya’s difficult road to political stability


The Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap proposed guidelines for staying in place until the December 2021 elections, which it authorized the Government of National Unity (GNU) to hold. On July 1, the LPDF was supposed to reach consensus on the constitutional basis of the elections and pass a new electoral law. But no agreement was reached at the facilitated meeting of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in Geneva at the end of June.

Disagreements over the timing and constitutional basis of the elections are a major obstacle to the holding of the elections scheduled for the end of the year. Under the current circumstances, holding an election on December 24 seems unlikely.

There is also significant disagreement over the scope of the elections. Some actors want parliamentary elections, while others want legislative and presidential elections on December 24. The differences between the members of the LPDF entertain and stimulate those who seek to spoil the democratic political transition in the country. These “spoilers” have also become more visible and vocal in the international media.

Even if the GNU manages to hold elections in December, a rapid transition to political stability is unlikely. Post-election violence and bloodshed are expected results if Libya’s main local actors fail to reach consensus before the electoral process begins. Divisions and competitions between enthusiastic critics of the elections are still visible. All actors try to form stronger political coalitions which can also attract international actors.

Opponents of the elections

Opponents of the elections and a democratic political transition in the country, on the other hand, were more vocal in their criticism of the Government of National Unity (GNU). So far, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah and his cabinet have attempted to strengthen political contacts with Libyan political actors and have successful distribution efforts.

There are significant gaps in service delivery due to the country’s infrastructure problems in almost all sectors. Libya was particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the considerable challenges faced by the country’s health infrastructure. This has been one of the main challenges for the GNU in recent weeks.

Opposition to GNU is also against the electoral process in the country. Dbeibah demonstrates his political skills and his maneuvers to convince both local actors in Libya and international actors that he can lead the country in an inclusive framework.

Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah holds a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi (not pictured) after a meeting at Palazzo Chigi in Rome, Italy on May 31, 2021 (Photo Getty Images)

Yet there is a visible discord within his cabinet. No matter how successfully the GNU provides essential services and governs the country, without a functioning security apparatus loyal to the elected government, it will be vulnerable to pressures from local and international spoilers. Actors aware of GNU vulnerabilities want to exploit the whole process.

The putschist general Khalifa Haftar has already said that his forces will not operate under any state authority, even after elections or the formation of a new government. Haftar also challenged the authority and legitimacy of the GNU and the Libyan Presidential Council.

These signals make the already delicate roadmap for the December elections even more complex and discourage actors in the east of the country from getting involved in the electoral process. Haftar is betting on post-election instability and violence, expecting to play a bigger role in the country’s post-election power struggle.

If the electoral process is delayed due to factional disagreements, then it will call into question the legitimacy of the GNU. The putschist Haftar could take another step to strengthen his military control in the country.

Haftar and the current efforts of its international sponsors attempt to weaken and delegitimize the entire electoral process. They are eager to go ahead and say that “we told you that the democratic process and the elections will not bring stability to the country”. They will do their best to confirm their self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some Western political players are continuing their behind-the-scenes diplomacy and signaling that they will support Haftar if the post-election political setup contradicts their preferred outcome.

Plan A or B

Plan A is a long and tedious process of bringing about a democratic political transition with some form of national consensus. It already seems that everyone is invested in Plan B rather than Plan A. Local Libyan actors are mature enough to pursue the objective of Plan A.

Yet there are already extreme domestic and international spoilers who want to take advantage of the lingering fragmentation and chaos in the country.

As the elections approach, all actors are preparing their alternative Plan B scenarios rather than investing more in Plan A. International stakeholders are playing a critical role in the recent cacophony in Libya.

The skepticism of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt about elections and GNU is no secret. As they try to increase their influence within the GNU, they are also doing their best to reduce the importance of elections in the country’s political transition.

A key element that makes the deal difficult for opponents of the democratic transition in Libya is that they all have different Plan B contradicting each other.

As we get closer to the election, the gaps between alternative game plans will not narrow. Skeptics of the democratic political order in Libya are preparing to accept and sponsor a technocratic and dysfunctional government in Libya that performs only key security and redistributive functions.

However, they also expect the government to move closer to their preferred policy directions. After the decline of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated actors in the region, the shared sense of being threatened has faded. It is therefore more difficult to bring together the actors who previously supported the Haftar project around a similar medium-term plan.

Very few constructive changes are likely to occur in the elections unless key power holders in the country commit to upholding the LPDF roadmap. There are already emerging coalitions that challenge the polls.

The presence of foreign troops, mercenaries and militias is used as a pretext to reduce the credibility of the GNU and the electoral process. The presence of foreign troops, mercenaries and foreign militias is a consequence of the recent political confrontation rather than the cause.

As long as local and international players continue their power play and competition, foreign mercenaries will strengthen their presence in the country.

Whatever the outcome of the next election, there should be consensus on the validity and legitimacy of the ballots. International actors who supported and sponsored the 2013 coup in Egypt and the recent coup in Tunisia have also pledged to spoil the delicate democratic transition in Libya.

Political dialogue and the balance of power between local political actors are already fragile, and external signals heighten the possibility of a deterioration.

This should be a fundamental priority for all actors who want a democratic political system in Libya to narrow their differences and pay special attention to strengthening the legitimacy of the electoral process. This is the only way to defeat the competing Plan B scenarios that threaten to drive the country into political uncertainty and chaos.

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