In December 2021, Libya was preparing to hold its first presidential elections since the ouster and killing of long-term dictator Muammar Gaddafi a decade before. But those elections never happened, and as of January 2022, no one could be sure when—or if—they would take place. Libya’s parliamentary commission stated that circumstances had made it “impossible” for elections to proceed. It was an enormous disappointment to the international effort to put an end to the chaos, violence, and disorder in the oil-rich country since the strongman’s death.
According to the publication Egypt Today and other sources, security issues were the main hurdle. The Libyan High Electoral Commission pointed to threats from several different militias that prevented them from publishing the final list of candidates for the presidency. Additionally, disputes over electoral rules as well as who was eligible to be a candidate roiled the process.
For one thing, Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, had applied as a presidential candidate but was rejected by the electoral commission as ineligible. In 2015 the younger Gaddafi was convicted of war crimes in absentia for his actions during the revolution that sealed the fate of Gaddafi senior. His attorney claimed that a court had overruled the election ban.
The urgency to fill a void
All Libyan institutions still operating under an interim government are doing so without full credibility, and a comprehensive peace agreement is the only viable way forward. Continued conflict is not only fraying the nation’s remaining infrastructure and endangering civilians, but it is also causing shutdowns to oil operations. This is major, as oil exports are Libya’s main source of state income. Short-term and long-term shutdowns drain sources of revenue that would, in the best circumstances, support basic civilian needs.
Trying to pick up the pieces
United Nations officials stated their belief that elections were still possible within a few months, and set June 2022 as an achievable goal.
This would still be in alignment with a roadmap facilitated by the UN, based on discussions at the November 2020 Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. The forum worked to establish structures and goals for holding credible democratic elections and included stakeholders—male and female—from multiple sectors of Libyan society.
UN representatives also stated that the rights of the almost 3 million Libyan citizens who registered to vote must be upheld, and that the core issues standing in the way of security and a free election must be addressed promptly.
Posthumous support for Gaddafi
Many Libyans today, even after the extreme repression and violence Gaddafi perpetrated against his people over four decades, continue to revere him as a symbol of strength and stability. This is particularly true among members of the Warfalla tribe in Western Libya, Gaddafi’s home region.
But while the Arab-Berber Warfalla people, who make up one-sixth of Libya’s population, served in key security positions and achieved high ranks in the government patronage system under Gaddafi, growing urbanization and other trends make them more diverse politically than might first be apparent to Westerners. While many of the Warfalla have expressed nostalgia for the days of Gaddafi, pointing to the rampant violence and instability that has ensued since the time of his death, others are more than ready for change.
Tyranny followed by calamity
The Arab Spring proved to be a colossal and dangerous failure in Libya. During the NATO-supported uprising against Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, the country was divided into two rival governing segments in the east and west. In the east, warlord Khalifa Haftar held power, while the UN supported the administration based in Tripoli in the west. Numerous outside actors, including other nations and militias with varying ideologies, were in the mix, supporting one side or the other.
Haftar, who in 2019 led an attack on Tripoli and who has expressed contempt for democracy, was among the announced candidates for president in December 2021. Haftar’s candidacy, like that of Gaddafi’s son, was problematic for the electoral commission, and immediately before the scheduled December 24 election date, it remained unclear whether he would be allowed to run. He has been credibly accused of torture and other human rights abuses. And a court in Western Libya has pronounced a death sentence on him (rendered in absentia) due to his bombing attack on a military school. Haftar is said to hold dual Libyan-American citizenship, which would also disqualify him.
Haftar and the younger Gaddafi were among a slate of about 100 individuals who originally registered as presidential candidates for the December elections. Twenty-five proposed candidates were initially disqualified, although that decision must make its way through an appeals process in the court system.
Complicating matters still further, interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh did not submit his declaration that he would stand down from his present position by the required three months before the election. Dbeibeh had previously promised, as part of his elevation to the premiership, that he would not run for president in a later election.