Libya general elections: a crucial step for the country’s stabilisation process
Between a ceasefire and planned general elections, Libya is struggling to visualize a better future. But the government that will emerge from the electoral competition will face the challenge of stabilising the country first
The international conference on Libya held in Berlin on 23 June 2021 (as part of a diplomatic process which had already started in the German capital in January) outlined the three pillars on which the country’s the stabilization must be built. First, presidential and parliamentary elections must take place on 24 December 2021 as indicated by the United Nations (UN). Second, all foreign military forces must be withdrawn from the country. And third, a package of economic reforms must be implemented.
The UN had already laid out these three goals for the Government of National Unity led by Abdel Hamid Dbeibah, elected by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. The Forum is a 75-delegate body representing all political tendencies and regions, originally set up by the UN to implement the ceasefire between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica after the last of the civil wars that have torn Libya apart since the demise of General Gaddafi.
The three key issues highlighted at the Berlin conference – elections, foreign military presence and economic reforms – are inextricably intertwined. General elections are necessary to legitimize the future government of Libya, but so is also the withdrawal of foreign armed forces. The latter is a precondition to build an effective internal security system and to prevent external players from leveraging their presence to push for interests and agendas that for years have not been aligned with those of the Libyan people.
While in Tripolitania the UN-backed former Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj signed a cooperation agreement with Turkey, in Cyrenaica, the military units that had put Tripoli under attack between April 2019 and March 2020 received military assistance from Russian contractor Warner Group and other African mercenaries. These forces remain in Libya to this day and are a potential trigger for further instability.
As much-needed economic and security reforms struggle to take off in the context of fragile institutions, elections will not only strengthen the institutional framework but also enable the newly elected government to exercise greater power vis-à-vis foreign armed groups, and to reorganize national security. This will include unifying the armed forces, currently fragmented into a myriad separate militias, each carrying individual interests, often backed by external actors.
The importance of the upcoming elections as an enabler of Libya's stabilisation process – as recently expressed by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and supported by others including the US and the EU – is such that sanctions have been announced against anyone who will be found to be hindering the electoral process. As for the US, the withdrawal of Wagner Group is also a priority, as it signals Russia’s strategic penetration in the Mediterranean.
In the face of allegations that some of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum delegates might be slowing down the electoral process to safeguard own or third-party interests, the Tobruk-based House of Representative and the UN are coming up with an alternative plan to disempower the Forum and put Parliament in the lead of the electoral process, enabling it to vote directly the new electoral law.
If this plan – which appears to be backed by various sectors of the international community – comes to fruition, the 24 December elections will probably be saved. However, it is difficult to predict potential implications on Libya’s delicate political situation. One of the main problems at the moment is the passing of the State Budget Bill, which is being delayed by the House of Representatives, in part as a retaliation for the ongoing stall in the approval of the constitutional plan by the Forum. Should the situation continue, there is a possibility that Prime Minister Dbeibah might resort to requesting emergency funding from the Central Bank of Libya to bypass Parliament.
These overlapping problems could generate a rift in the country which could take Libya back to its recent past, and away from the possibility to build a more prosperous future. Worse still, a new crisis in Libya could have cascading effects in other countries within – and outside – the region.
This can be exemplified by the impact of events in Libya on relations between regional powers. While the last Libyan civil war contributed to deepening intra-Sunni divisions pitching Turkey, on one side, against Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on the other, successful UN-led efforts to stabilise the country led to an improvement of Turkish-Egyptian relations. The current stall in Libya’s political situation, in turn, appears to have resulted in a new cooling down of relations between the two countries. In other words, the destiny of Libya is closely interconnected with that of the Mediterranean region, an area which attracts vast global interests and is of particular relevance to Italy.