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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libyan Presidential Elections: An Inevitable Deferral

Libyan Presidential Elections
People gather at the Martyrs’ Square in Libya’s capital Tripoli on November 19, 2021, to protest against the candidacy Seif al-Islam Kadhafi, son of slain Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi to run in the country’s December presidential polls. Mahmud Turkia / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

About two weeks before the holding of the first direct presidential elections in Libya’s history, it does not seem that Libyan citizens will go to the polls on the 24th of December 2021, as the ballots are heading towards an inevitable suspension despite the conspicuous American insistence, in a complete disregard for all potential risks and threats.

With the controversy intensifying throughout the elections to end the chaos and turmoil that Libya has been going through over the past 10 years, several recent incidents in the western side of the country have raised worries of wider unrest during the voting after armed men stormed five polling stations and stole ballot cards.

Security disturbances

On top of the security concerns and the lack of safety measures for the electoral process, the political division over the laws regulating elections continues between the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the High Council of State in Tripoli. A media and political uproar followed Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, head of the unity government, joining the list of candidates in the presidential elections, despite his previous written pledge not to run.

Polls or Pistols!!

Libyan Presidential Elections
A Libyan man registers to vote inside a polling station in Tripoli, on November 8, 2021. Libya today opened registration for candidates in presidential and parliamentary elections, as the country seeks to move on from a decade of war. Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

As 2.8 million Libyan voters are preparing for both presidential and parliamentary elections, the nomination of controversial candidates, such as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s second son, and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman in the east of the country and commander-in-chief of the National Army, whose troops control most of the eastern and southern regions of the country (after he retired in preparation for the candidacy), casts doubts on the extent to which the Libyans themselves are politically prepared to resort to the polls instead of weapons to decide their political future.

Interior Minister Khaled Mazen in the unity government, did not hesitate to recently admit the inability of the security forces to secure the elections. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood, backed up by Turkey, did not stop brandishing weapons to prevent the elections from happening.

Al-Sadiq al-Ghariani, the Mufti who was dismissed by the decision of the House of Representatives, explicitly called for resorting to what he described as the “clatter of arms” to prevent the electoral process in its current format. Khalid al-Mishri, chairman of the High Council of State and one of the most prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, also called earlier for postponing the elections.

Emad al-Sayeh, head of the High Electoral Commission, joined the fray, which prompted the House of Representatives to hold him accountable for this involvement, making the said commission complicit in the problem and not a solution.

Abdullah Bliheg, the official spokesperson of the House, expressed this by saying that the representatives hope that the upcoming elections will not be deferred, pointing to the discussion of Dbeibeh’s candidacy, accusing him of exploiting the Libyans’ money in his electoral campaign and not complying with the election laws.

Mercenaries: between Moscow and Ankara

Despite the surprising and sudden change in Turkey’s political tone regarding its readiness to work with its adversaries in the eastern region, including the National Army and the House of Representatives, and open a consulate in Benghazi, there are no signs that Ankara is ready to instantly withdraw its military forces from Libya without reaching a comprehensive political settlement.

This situation was implicitly expressed by the statements of Major General Khaled al-Mahjoub, director of the Moral Guidance Department at the Libyan National Army, and members of the “5+5 Joint Military Commission”, which includes both parties of the military conflict in Libya, after going back and forth between Russia and Turkey to forge an agreement that would allow mercenaries and foreign forces to leave the Libyan territory before the elections.

While Libyan National Army officials have admitted the difficulty of removing mercenaries before this close date, the mercenaries card remains one of the Turkish pressure tools in Libya and a bargaining chip with Russia in drawing the borders, and map of the Russian and Turkish military presence in the Middle East.

Williams Returns

Joe Biden’s administration can no longer hide its existence in the Libyan crisis. On Monday evening, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres threw his last cards to save the elections from the inevitable deferral by appointing the American diplomat Stephanie Williams as his special adviser concerned with the Libyan affairs.

Guterres announced that Williams’ new tasks are “leading good offices and mediation efforts and engagements with Libyan regional and international stakeholders to pursue implementation of the three intra-Libyan dialogue tracks – political, security and economic – and support the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya.

The same statement drew attention to what is described as Williams’ extensive experience in diplomacy and foreign security policy, both internationally and in her native country, including her work as special representative and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) from 2020-21, and deputy special representative of UNSMIL between 2018-20.

The statement did not miss the opportunity to mention that Williams, as a member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counsellor, assumed the duties of chargé d’affaires in Libya External Office 2018 from Tunis.

It was also remarkable that Ghassan Salamé, the former UN envoy to Libya, praised this step in a tweet. He commended returning Williams to a position of responsibility in Libya for what he knows about “her skill, capabilities and determination to complete what we started together”, wishing her “all success in carrying out her mission for the common good of this dear country and its people.”

An Obvious American Leadership

Williams’ return, primarily to the forefront of the international search for a solution to Libya’s crisis a decade after overthrowing Gaddafi’s regime, also means Washington’s return to leading this process without any equivocation.

But her return was not entirely surprising, as it was preceded by US leaks that Guterres, was considering using Williams again to avoid a controversial vote in the UN Security Council after the sudden resignation of the Slovak diplomat, Ján Kubiš, from his position as head of the UN mission, claiming that he refuses to exercise his duties from the UN headquarters in Tripoli.

The approval of the UN Security Council, which is made up of 15 countries and operates unanimously, is required to appoint a new envoy. Still, the American concerns about Russia urged Washington to search for another alternative to having Williams at the head of the UN mission without needing the council’s approval.

Libya Consumes UN Envoys

Libyan Presidential Elections
In this file photo taken on February 05, 2021, then deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Political Affairs in Libya Stephanie Williams speaks during a press conference in Geneva following the election of a new interim government for Libya during the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. Stephanie Williams has been appointed special advisor of the UN Secretary-General in Libya, the UN announced on December 6, 2021. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Although the Libyan crisis has so far consumed eight UN envoys of various nationalities, including three Arab diplomats, two Lebanese and a Jordanian who held ministerial positions in their countries, the return of Williams to her work seems to be an American attempt to block the path of appointing a British diplomat at the helm of the international body.

After Kubiš’s resignation, a career diplomat who spent less than 10 months in his position since February 2021, several of his counterparts circulated information about the possibility of appointing the veteran British diplomat Nicholas Kay, who previously worked in the British intelligence service and served as head of the UN mission in Somalia, after he was Britain’s ambassador to the Congo and Sudan, and Africa director at the FCO.

Although Kay’s name has been mentioned since 2016 as one of the potential candidates to head the UN mission to Libya, Kubiš is the third UN envoy to resign from his post in Libya after the resignation of his colleagues, the Lebanese Ghassan Salamé and the Bulgarian Nikolai Mladenov.

Searching for a Political Miracle

While many are betting on Williams’ ability to achieve a new political miracle in Libya, after she contributed to ushering in the transitional authority that took charge of matters officially after the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum that she sponsored in Geneva in 2019, including the Presidential Council headed by Mohamed al-Menfi and the unity government headed by Dbeibeh, concerns remain about the future of the electoral process in Libya.

From the point of view of Jose Sabadell, head of the European Union delegation to Libya, Williams’ vision will be a key to the success of the political process, a view shared by many others who see it as an excellent addition in resolving the ongoing crisis.

But the discreet American media expressed reservations not only about the performance of the Biden administration regarding Libya but also about the plausibility that it would result in a solution.

For example, Foreign Policy magazine concluded that what it called a rushed election “will not bring peace to Libya”. At the same time, the Washington Post argued that while Libyans hoped the elections would end a decade of conflict, “they fear it will tear their country apart”.

War Drums are Beating Again

Williams’ appointment is not separate from an escalating official US interest in the Libyan file, as evidenced by Thursday’s hearing of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on the Middle East and North Africa entitled “What’s Next for Libya? The Path to Peace “, chaired by Congressman Ted Deutch, with the participation of the US Agency for International Development and the presence of US State Department officials.

While armed militias that influence the balance of power control vast areas of Libya, there are real concerns of chaos erupting because of the elections, with armed groups supporting competing candidates.

The drums of war are beating in all cases. Going forward with the elections in their current format means war, just like postponing them, due to several local and regional contributing factors, perhaps the most prominent of which is related to the incapacity of a Libyan national military and security institution able and willing to enforce control over the country and end the foreign military presence.

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