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Libya: Court Ruling Is a Small Step Toward a National Election

4 MINS READFeb 15, 2018 | 00:15 GMT
Forecast Update

The 2018 Annual Forecast asserted that Libya would make incremental progress toward holding elections but would be unable to resolve internal differences to meet the U.N. goal of voting by September 2018. The ruling to accept the draft constitution is a step in that direction, but the timeline it ascribes to and the challenges that could impede its implementation confirm Stratfor's assessment.

Seven years after the Libyan uprising that led to the demise of long-time strongman Moammar Gadhafi, the country remains divided. Gaping fissures exist between the competing governments, institutions and spheres of influence that developed in the wake of Libya's political crisis (which drifted further out of control in 2014). Yet, a Feb. 14 ruling by the country's Supreme Court could pave the way for a draft constitution — something that just might kickstart the process of pulling Libya back together.

The high court ruling, issued three days before the anniversary of the original  2011 uprising, overturned a lower court ruling blocking moves to adopt a draft constitution, something agreed to by the country's constituent national assembly in July 2017. This paves the way for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, one of Libya's three competing governments, to organize a national referendum on the draft constitution. This, in turn, is a part of the United Nations' Libyan Political Agreement — a three-step plan geared toward successful elections later this year.

Unfortunately for Libya, the road forward will not be smooth. The draft agreement — and the constituent assembly that approved it — predated the U.N.-led negotiating process that began after Libya's split into two governments in 2014. In fact, the agreement is related to the original transitional plan to replace the Gaddafi-era system with a new constitution and a government based upon it. The Interim Constitutional Declaration, as it was known, was backed by the country's National Transitional Council before Gadhafi's death in 2011. But neither that agreement nor the draft constitution were designed with the latest political divisions in mind, a fact that could complicate the U.N.-led process trying to adapt it to the current negotiations, as opposed to drafting an entirely new constitution in a separate process.

The gaping fissures between competing groups vying for power and influence in Libya make any reconciliation process difficult in the extreme.

The House of Representatives and its executive branch, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, legally constitute the transitional government under the authority of the original constitutional agreement, serving as the main legislative body under the Libyan Political Agreement. For all intents and purposes, its control over the country is limited, as is the functional power of its key ally, Khalifa Hifter, the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army in the east. But the authority it is granted under the original agreement gives the House of Representatives, and therefore Hifter, power to block the unification process because it must formally authorize any referendum on the draft constitution. There are concessions that could make Hifter and his allies amenable to allowing a vote, however, such as letting him stand for presidential election. But Hifter, whose influence had been ascendant since the Libyan National Army intervened in Libya four years ago, has not made any meaningful gains over his western Libyan rivals in the past 12 months. What's more, deep divisions emerged between Hifter and the special operations unit Al Saiqa in Benghazi after the International Criminal Court indictment of the group's leader. Hifter, who controls most of eastern Libya — and possesses the power to physically deny voting in any election — won't approve elections while his power is ebbing.

In western Libya, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Presidential Council — led by its executive head Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj — is the recognized transitional government under the authority of the Libyan Political Agreement. It is also recognized by the United Nations as the official Libyan government. Much like its eastern counterpart, the GNA itself has little functional power, and the real authority there lies at the local level with powerful militias in Tripoli, Zintan, Misrata and elsewhere. Many of those groups view the constitution as a path to an eventual settlement but remain skeptical of any political process that could institutionalize Hifter's power. Their political allies, such as al-Serraj and High Council of State head Abdulrahman Swehli, have gained strength relative to the House of Representatives as a part of the U.N. process. This has strengthened their motive not to compromise on their demands because they know that the Libyan National Army does not have the ability to control the region by force.

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