Libya’s promising transition stalls

As December election plans falter, the country’s warmaker, General Khalifa Haftar, returns to haunt the peace process.

The surge of hope inspired by the remarkable breakthrough in Libya’s year-old peace process is starting to fade as negotiations to enable viable elections on 24 December bog down.

Analysts now think that Libyans and the international community became too optimistic – and complacent – after significant milestones were reached. These include the October 2020 ceasefire, a transitional political framework agreement, and the March handover of power from the western government in Tripoli and the rival eastern government in Tobruk to one of national unity.

These were ‘astonishing’ gains for a country engulfed in civil war since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown 10 years ago this month, the International Crisis Group says. ‘The establishment of a unified government, which enjoys the backing of Libya’s competing political groupings, their affiliated military coalitions and their foreign backers, is a historic achievement. It sets the stage for reunification of political and military institutions that have been divided and recurrently battling since 2014.’

But since the government of national unity’s swearing-in on 15 March, progress has stalled and a stalemate has set in, says Silvia Colombo, Libyan expert at the Istituto Affari Internazionali.

Haftar has reinserted himself into the process, insisting that civilians will never control the military

Negotiations have deadlocked mostly over the nature and sequencing – and possibly the delay – of the 24 December elections, and the crucial question of who should be the military’s commander in chief. The 1 July deadline has passed without the necessary constitutional amendments and electoral law to be adopted by Parliament that would allow for polls to be organised.  

As a product of the stalemate and an ominous warning of what could ensue if negotiations aren’t revived quickly, the sinister figure of General Khalifa Haftar has returned to the political stage. Haftar is the military commander of the Libyan National Army – the armed force of the Tobruk government.

After Turkey repelled his military offensive on the previous Tripoli government last year, he seemed to be consigned to history – or at least to the backburner – by the progress towards civilian rule and democracy. But Colombo says he has exploited the stalemate to reinsert himself into the political process over the past few weeks, insisting loudly that the military will never subordinate itself to civilian control.

That option isn’t on the negotiation table. The United Nations (UN)-backed roadmap says the three-person Presidency Council that governs alongside the government of national unity should command the military. All the parties in the Libya Political Dialogue Forum approved the roadmap last November. But it is a symptom of the failing negotiations that Haftar feels confident enough to propound such a heresy.

Along with election plans, another stumbling block is the persistence of foreign forces in the country

Another stumbling block is the persistence of foreign forces in the country, despite the November agreement stipulating that they should all have left by now. These include Syrian mercenaries on both sides of the conflict. Turkish military elements that backed the previous Tripoli government are also still present, as is the Russian private military company Wagner – a proxy for Moscow – that backed Haftar and the Tobruk government.

Though the presence of foreign troops is complicating the transition, particularly efforts to unify the country’s many military forces, it isn’t a deal breaker, says Tim Eaton, Libya specialist at Chatham House. He and Colombo agree that the main problem remains the stalled arrangements for elections.

The roadmap is silent on several issues. One is whether the 24 December poll should be a referendum on a draft constitution completed by an elected committee in 2017, with elections later. Alternatively, the polls could be for a new Parliament only, which would indirectly elect a president. Or voters could choose both a Parliament and a president.

There are plausible cases for all these options. Colombo warns, for example, that without prior institution building, 24 December elections could be destabilising. Eaton cautions that such instability is more likely without measures to ensure that voting is free and fair.

The international community hasn’t thrown enough weight behind negotiations for viable elections

The counter argument is that Libyans are impatient for democracy and should be allowed to choose a new government as soon as possible. This government could then approve a new constitution and address institution building and reunification.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, many suspect Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba’s government is delaying elections merely so it can remain in office after 24 December. Dabaiba was earlier accused of buying votes from the members of the Libya Political Dialogue Forum, which chose the transitional government.

And Eaton suggests the Speaker of Parliament, Aguila Salah Issa, also has a personal interest in backing the option of Parliament and not the people electing the national president. He and Colombo agree that the international community hasn’t thrown enough weight behind the negotiations for viable election arrangements.

Eaton says the UN in particular has ‘dropped the ball.’ He cites a ‘catastrophic’ recent meeting of the Libya Political Dialogue Forum where Raisedon Zenenga, the Deputy UN Special Envoy, entertained the idea of delaying the 24 December elections – or holding only parliamentary polls. This would violate UN Security Council resolution 2570, which says both parliamentary and presidential elections should be held on that date, Eaton says. The UN shouldn’t have indulged the notion of missing that critical deadline.

However Moncef Djaziri, Senior Lecturer at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and an expert on Libyan politics believes elections in December would be too early. He recently told the Institute for Security Studies’ PSC Report that before elections take place, ‘One should first rebuild the Libyan state, unify state institutions and try to draw up a consensual constitution.’ Rebuilding the state would require buy-in from the tribes, the Libya Muslim Brotherhood and other now fractured elements, he says.

But having now set a date for elections, Libyans seem to be stuck with it. Perhaps the greatest danger if they don’t vote on 24 December is that this would create a pretext for Haftar to declare that the transitional government has expired, and so try again to seize power by force.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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