By: Alexander Yacoubian, Columnist
The past month’s escalation of violence in Tripoli indicates that Libya lacks the necessary stability and political infrastructure to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December. Leaders of Libya’s rival factions agreed to the upcoming elections during a Paris summit arranged by French President Emmanuel Macron last May. At the time, Macron and other foreign leaders praised the agreement as a historic and promising step towards ending Libya’s eight-year conflict.[i] However, the ongoing armed clashes between rival militias in Tripoli have severely reduced the likelihood that a durable political solution could be achieved in December.
The stability of the North African country appears increasingly fragile after renewed violence in mid-September ended a two-week ceasefire between rival groups.[ii] In response to the discord, Fayez Serraj, Prime Minister of the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), and Italian Foreign Minister Moavero Milanesi declared that Libya lacks the necessary stability to hold sound and secure elections.[iii] Despite these concerns, France’s foreign ministry re-endorsed the Paris agreements in September, stressing that only a political solution decided by end-of-the-year elections could resolve Libya’s current chaos.[iv] France’s push for December elections is an attempt to apply a patchwork solution to a complex problem.
The result of rushing elections could be disastrous for the country’s long-term stability. Current political rifts suggest a high likelihood that December election outcomes would be met with resistance by dissatisfied parties. This lack of credibility could lead to widespread violence or even full-scale civil war. A particularly dire warning of this potential came from the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and likely presidential contender, Khalifa Haftar, who suggested that he would “take action” if he disapproves of the election outcome.[v]
Ironically, Libya’s current civil war is the result of premature elections in 2014, which led to disputes over election laws and the creation of rival parliaments in the east and west. Today, the country’s political architecture is even less stable than it was four years ago. Libya lacks a national security force, unified legal mechanisms, and the framework necessary to unify these divided political bodies.[vi] In addition, rival factions have yet to agree on a constitution or basic electoral laws, critical components of a successful election. There is no indication that all parties will be able to agree on an impartial polling process before December. Rushing elections without such regulations in place would leave powers, mandates, and term limits undefined, creating a potentially disastrous competition for control.[vii]
While national elections are a necessary step to long-term political progress in Libya, holding them prematurely would magnify the very conflict they are trying to solve. Instead, the international community should support delaying December’s elections while pressuring rival factions to produce a constitution and necessary legal framework. The Italian government has made efforts to do just that, proposing a conference with Libyan leaders this November.[viii] The event could be an important step to initiating the necessary pre-election dialogue, but it must include all factions. The conference should focus on implementing steps laid out by the UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, in the September 2017 Libyan Action Plan. A core tenet of Salame’s design is facilitating municipal elections across the country before national elections are held.[ix] These incremental elections, held in stable regions under civilian control, would gradually produce stability at the local level and eventually form a fully functioning and sovereign parliament. [x] This unified body could then set the constitutional basis for national elections and adopt the necessary electoral laws.
In addition to the necessary legislative framework, the UN and the international community should push for national military unification to ensure that elections are held in a secure Libya. The country’s numerous militia factions perpetuate violence and maintain a lawless environment across the country. Disbanding and unifying these groups into a national security force should be an essential step on the path to peace. Discussions should prioritize reigning in regional actors like Qatar, Egypt, and the UAE who support rival militias to further their competing agendas.[xi] Such foreign meddling increases the power of rival armed groups, further destabilizes Libya, and decreases the likelihood of a unified national army. A proposed military unification dialogue sponsored by Egypt, a known ally of Khalifa Haftar, would significantly favor the LNA and is thus likely to be met with resistance by GNA-aligned groups.[xii] Instead, the United States and other key stakeholders, such as France and Italy, should lead this process by sending experienced military advisors to help broker an impartial unification settlement.
Rushing into Libya’s scheduled December elections risks repeating the disaster of 2014, which fractured the country’s political landscape and plummeted Libya into full-scale civil war. Both Libyan leaders and their foreign partners must heed the lessons learned from this recent history and support a productive dialogue towards structured, secure, and legal elections. There is no silver bullet for solving Libya’s complex civil war. Instead, circumventing the UN-designated political process will risk intensifying the current conflict and further destabilizing the region.
Alex graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2016 with a B.A. in Global Politics. He then worked for a year as an intern at the Middle East Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations before enrolling in the Security Studies Program in fall 2017. He is in the Terrorism and Substate Violence concentration with a personal focus on the Middle East region.
[i] Aidan Lewis, “Libya’s December election goal faces political, legal, security hurdles,” Reuters, May 30, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security/libyas-december-election-goal-faces-political-legal-security-hurdles-idUSKCN1IV22J
[ii] “Libya: Rocket fire targets Tripoli airport despite truce,” Al Jazeera, September 12, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/libya-rocket-fire-targets-tripoli-airport-truce-180912154902522.html
[iii] “UN renews Libya mission, delays vote indefinitely,” Al Jazeera, September 13, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/renews-libya-mission-delays-vote-indefinitely-180913190030806.html
[v] “Rushing into a disaster: War-torn Libya plans an election,” The Economist, April 5, 2018, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/04/05/war-torn-libya-plans-an-election
[vi] Aidan Lewis, “Libya’s December election goal faces political, legal, security hurdles,” Reuters, May 30, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security/libyas-december-election-goal-faces-political-legal-security-hurdles-idUSKCN1IV22J
[vii] Alexander Decina, “Rushing Libya’s Elections Will Lead to Disaster,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 28, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/blog/rushing-libyas-elections-will-lead-disaster
[viii] Emadeddin Muntasser and Mohamed Fouad, “Can Plan B Save Libya? Here Are the Obstacles it Must Overcome,” The Atlantic Council, September 6, 2018, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/can-plan-b-save-libya-here-are-the-obstacles-it-must-overcome
[ix] Ben Fishman, “Libya’s Election Dilemma,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 21, 2018, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/libyas-election-dilemma
[x] Emadeddin Muntasser and Mohamed Fouad, “Can Plan B Save Libya? Here Are the Obstacles it Must Overcome,” The Atlantic Council, September 6, 2018, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/can-plan-b-save-libya-here-are-the-obstacles-it-must-overcome.
[xii] Aidan Lewis, “Libya’s December election goal faces political, legal, security hurdles,” Reuters, May 30, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security/libyas-december-election-goal-faces-political-legal-security-hurdles-idUSKCN1IV22J.