Why Libyan Elections Probably Won't Happen This Year

9 MINS READJun 4, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
In this photograph, Libyans wave their national flag at the port of Benghazi during a ceremony marking its reopening in October 2017.

Libyans wave their national flag at the port of Benghazi during a ceremony marking its reopening in October 2017. Rebel groups occupying the eastern city had forced its closure for three years. Benghazi was the cradle of the popular revolt that ended the regime of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. 

  • Despite a commitment by rival Libyan leaders to hold elections in December, the country's factions remain far apart on key issues, making the vote unlikely.
  • Some factions already have rejected aspects of the unity talks, and the agreement does not resolve the key differences that have persisted in Libya for years.
  • To hold elections without near-universal support from the most heavily armed factions risks a breakdown in the shaky national cease-fire.
  • France, competing with Italy for influence in Libya, is betting it can shepherd the elections through the tumult and manage the risk of a cease-fire collapse.

Almost a year after French President Emmanuel Macron tried unsuccessfully to guide Libya through its political chaos and to elections, he has launched another attempt. On May 29 in Paris, Macron hosted four rival Libyan leaders in hopes of bridging the gaps among them, just as he'd tried to do in July 2017. This time, the Libyans agreed to determine by Sept. 16 which version of the constitution the elections would be held under and to hold presidential and parliamentary balloting — the first since June 2014 — by Dec. 10.

But the same rifts that existed during the Paris negotiations last year remain today, and the same obstacles to organizing elections are also still present. The chances for success are low, and elections pushed by the West could end up being rejected by large swaths of the country. They could also lead to a more unstable Libya.

The Big Picture

More than seven years have passed since the fall of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi amid civil war, and nearly four years have gone by since Libya descended into a second civil war. The West and the United Nations have pushed for the country's rival governments to put aside their differences, hold national elections and unify institutions. But pushing the process prematurely risks causing the very thing it seeks to prevent: instability.

Enduring Problems

It is hard to understate the complexity of the Libyan political environment. The country has two competing national parliaments, three men claiming to be prime minister, two central banks, two national oil companies and a myriad of groups armed to the teeth. On top of that, each major political faction, from the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west to the organizations linked to Khalifa Hifter in the east, is deeply fragmented, and each subgroup has its own agenda and a shifting willingness to work with the others. But the most contentious issue remains Hifter — the field marshal of the Libyan National Army — and the unification of the country's military.

Resentment toward Hifter in the western part of Libya runs deep. In 2014, he declared a coup against the government in Tripoli, which had the support by the port city of Misrata and the country's Islamist parties, saying it had overstayed its time in office. Because he was powerless in Tripoli, he launched "Operation Dignity" in the country's east, attacking Islamists and jihadists alike in cities such as Benghazi. During this time, Misrata and its military leadership helped support various Islamist groups in Benghazi against Hifter. He has not forgotten their involvement and rejects working with any of the western Libya's Islamists and a large slice of the Misratans.

Talks to unify the country's militias under Hifter continue in Egypt, but the idea has not been received positively in the east. He doesn't have the support of Misrata's military council, one of the country's most powerful military organizations, either. In addition, militias from the town of Zintan in the Nafusa Mountains in northwestern Libya — while once loosely allied with Hifter — have their own military commanders who see themselves as rivals to the field marshal.

Parliamentary leaders in Tripoli are also uneasy about talks with Hifter. They reject his insistence on treating political Islamists and more hard-line, sometimes violent jihadists equally. Khalid al-Mishri, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected to lead the High Council of the State in April. He was one of the four key Libyan leaders invited to the meeting with Macron, but afterward he rejected the idea of Hifter becoming the leader of the military.


A chart shows how the number of governments in Libya have grown

Another enduring problem arises from Libya's competing constitutions. In 2014, Libyans elected an assembly to draft a new constitution for a referendum, and in July 2017, it came up with a solution. However, one hasty change over foreign citizenship added at the last minute allowed Hifter to be eligible to run for president. A referendum on that constitution before a December election is key. Hifter may insist on one so he could become eligible for the presidency. On the other hand, Aguila Saleh, speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR), one of the rival governments, has supported using the 1951 constitution, which has stronger language for a federal political model and would prevent Hifter from running. 

While there is still hope that Libya will finally set an election date, the country has flirted before with elections with no results, as happened after the agreement by GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Hifter in February 2017 to hold a vote by the end of March 2018. In this and other previous instances, negotiations would break down over the choice of which constitution or agreement to use to hold the elections. The same is likely to be true of the election hopes this time. The key sticking points remain: Who is the commander in chief? Who has the authority to remove the military commander (the parliament or the president) under certain circumstances? How much political power should be shifted to the local level?

Power and Rivalries in Motion

Any plans for completing elections by the end of 2018 will also be complicated by changes in the balance of national power. The greatest shifts are happening in the west. One year ago, the Tripoli-based GNA headed by al-Sarraj was on life support, and the city could be described as a mix of militias, several of them nominally supporting him. The real political power resided with the militias of Misrata and their political allies Ahmed Maiteeq — al-Sarraj's deputy — and then-High Council of the State Speaker Abdulrahman Swehli. 

Since then, power has shifted there in three ways. First, a few powerful militias more closely aligned with the GNA have largely taken control of Tripoli, and al-Sarraj gave the Rada Special Deterrence Forces a sweeping mandate in May. This has pushed Misrata's militia influence out of the city. Second, the Misratan militias have pulled out of Fezzan, a province in Libya's south, reducing Misrata's national influence. Finally, al-Mishri, a Tripolitian, defeated Swehli in the election for the High Council of the State while al-Sarraj has consolidated power against Maiteeq in the Presidential Council. This has marginalized Misrata's political influence in the western bloc. 

This marginalization and the rising cohesion of Tripoli have pushed Misrata to seek allies among some of its former foes, including the militias from Zintan, which also risk being excluded from the national dialogue. While a few leaders from both cities were present in Paris, they were not prominent in talks. Tellingly, 13 militias from Libya's west — including the Misrata Military Council and the Zintan Military Council — issued a joint statement on May 29 rejecting the Paris talks. If their interests are not taken into account, they have the ability and means to disrupt and prevent elections, or even launch another civil war.


The rising cohesion of Tripoli and the marginalization of Misrata have pushed it to seek allies among some former foes, including the militias from Zintan, who also risk being excluded from the national dialogue.

In the east, political power is also shifting in the competition between its two key leaders, Hifter and Saleh, the HoR speaker. Hifter's clan and tribe have sought to consolidate and institutionalize military control over the east at the expense of Saleh and other tribes. This has made Saleh far more supportive of talks with al-Mishri. Saleh also tried to replace Hifter with an ally while the field marshal was in Paris for medical treatment in April. Saleh controls the House of Representatives, which will need to pass electoral laws and legislation to hold the national elections. But the HoR's four-year mandate ends Aug. 4, and Hifter could try to declare the body irrelevant after then. He tried to do the same with the Tripoli-based government in 2014 and the GNA under al-Sarraj after its two-year mandate expired in December 2017.

French Ambitions

For France, and the United Nations, solving the political crisis in Libya would have its own rewards. Unifying the country's institutions would help in the fight against extremist groups. Though the Islamic State was pushed out of its Libyan stronghold in Sirte in December 2016, it has resurfaced in a big way in 2018. It made its first terrorist attack in Tripoli since 2015 when it assaulted the election commission's headquarters on May 2. It has also conducted a string of bombings at checkpoints in the Oil Crescent region. 

Of course, France is well aware of the risks of its strategy. It is taking a wider approach this time than it did in 2017 in response to accusations that it had been been too supportive of Hifter in the past. It hopes that its influence will limit the risk of a breakout in fighting. It is also trying to bring in more stakeholders from inside and outside of Libya. But the election timeline is also driven by its competition with Italy for influence in Libya and the rest of North Africa. 

In the past, Rome has strongly backed western Libya's groups. Its influence, however, has waned in Tripoli because many of the ties it had built up were with Misrata. In addition, the Paris conference was announced just a week before it was held — as Italy was distracted by its own political crisis. France undoubtedly saw the Italian mess as an opportunity to entrench itself as the leading European power directing the Libyan political dialogue. 

Nonetheless, the talks and elections are a gamble with Libya's future. Unity could help stabilize its economy, wrecked by the nearly four years of fighting, and finally unlock the financial relief needed to rebuild it. But the country's divisions remain deep, and many stakeholders are not truly on board with the plan. While Saleh, al-Mishri, Hifter and al-Sarraj all made the necessary photo-ops with Macron, once they returned to Libya, each cast doubt on the process and on their ability to work with one another. Moreover, the powerful militias in Misrata and Zintan — as well as most of the region of Fezzan — do not have an obvious role in the dialogue. This exclusion risks undermining any elections, and it also increases the probability that even if they are held, they will be widely rejected.


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