Libya’s Electoral Impasse

November 2022

JALEL HARCHAOUI

Executive Summary

In 2021, Libya’s U.N.-backed election plans collapsed due to technical difficulties, yes, but also politically-motivated maneuvering. Powerful players both within and outside the country moved to subvert and weaken the electoral process. At the top of the list of the Libyan actors implicated in these outcomes is Speaker of the House of Representatives Aqila Saleh. Saleh’s negative interventions—which received active diplomatic support from Egypt and France—ran counter to the spirit of the U.N. roadmap and inspired confusion and animus within the political field.

On the other side of the political divide, Libyan politicians backed by Turkey — interim Prime Minister Dabaiba and, separately, HSC president Khaled al-Meshri — contributed to hurting the electoral process, too. Dabaiba, who had earlier promised U.N. officials that he would not run for president, reneged on his pledges. In addition to flouting U.N. rules, he also violated aspects of Saleh’s electoral law. The sitting Prime Minister’ behavior added much to the atmosphere of distrust that ended up compromising the electoral process. As for Meshri: he promoted the holding of a constitutional referendum instead of working on ways to make the elections materialize within the agreed-upon U.N. roadmap.

These schemes unfolded at a time when the U.N.’s own capacity as mediator and facilitator on Libyan affairs showed exceptional vulnerability. Indeed, crucial mistakes committed by the organization are certainly responsible for 2021’s election failures as well.

Beyond the shortcomings of incumbent Libyan officials and the U.N.’s lapses, the 2021 experiment also revealed the extreme political fear that Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, the late autocrat’s son, inspires amongst the country’s post-2011 elites. The presidential ambitions of Saif al-Islam, despite his weakness on the ground, divide not only Libyans but also foreign states. Russia, which is militarily present in Libya, wishes to see Saif run for president, while Washington doesn’t. This obstacle may potentially reappear in future attempts at elections even if the other issues are addressed.

Key Findings

Libya’s incumbent political elite’s attitudes toward free and fair elections contrasts starkly with the outlook of ordinary citizens. The latter hope for and support elections. The former, whose earnest cooperation is necessary for a successful electoral process, fear losing their existing privileges.

Among the Libyan politicians who were in a position of power in 2021, none proved genuinely committed to working towards a successful electoral process. In fact, many applied themselves to contributing negatively to the experiment — by either attempting to subvert it or simply sabotaging it.

The most formidable hurdle on the road to elections was the exceedingly frail, ambivalent, and defiant character of the electoral laws, which Speaker of the House of Representatives Aqila Saleh wrote and imposed without any parliamentary vote. Saleh’s negative intervention received active diplomatic support from Egypt and France. Meanwhile, the U.N.’s performance as mediator and facilitator showed exceptional weakness, which helped precipitate the process’ collapse.

Interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba also took actions that helped undermine the electoral process. The same can be said of Khaled al-Meshri, the High State Council’s president. Instead of general elections, Meshri promoted the holding of a constitutional referendum in December 2021. Both Dabaiba and Meshri are backed by Turkey.

The existence of political currents faithful to Muammar Qadhafi’s ideology presents a potential impasse for presidential election in Libya in the years ahead. This is particularly true with regard to Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, the late autocrat’s son, whose presidential ambitions divide not only Libyans but also foreign states. Russia, which is militarily present in Libya, wishes to see Saif run for president, while Washington doesn’t.

JALEL HARCHAOUI

This report is released in the frame of a project conducted with the financial support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect a position of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Middle East & North Africa