It has been seven years since Muhammad Gaddafi, the Dictator who ruled Libya for several decades, was overthrown. With the liberation of the Libyan people from tyranny, there were hopes that a stable workable status quo would lead to a new democracy alike its Star Wars inspiring neighbour Tunisia. A new flag was issued (which was effectively its old flag), and a new constitution drafted. As the violence calmed it looked like Libya was on its way to having a successful Arab Spring, one its people had fought long and hard for. Unfortunately, Libya remains divided as ever. Several groups have carved up the country and now there is a growing desire for an election, an election that few believe due to ongoing divisions and violence can be free or fair.
Libya’s UN backed Government of National Accord (NGA) still rules in the Capital, but to say its rules all of Libya is dishonest at best. It came about because of negotiations intended to end the fall out of the 2014 election, which saw the General National Congress (GNC) dispute the appointment of the House of Representatives (HoR). After the agreement the NGA became Libya’s recognised Government internationally, but today it rules only half the Country with much of it still disputed. East in Benghazi the Head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) General Khalifa Haftar rules in alliance with the Toburk based HoR. These, the NGA and the LNA, are the two main actors in Libya’s political drama and they stare out at each in fierce opposition across miles of disputed territory. Libya exists today as a patchwork collection of territories controlled by tribal groups, militias and in some cases in the South Foreign occupiers. The nation is more dived than ever and many within the country including the UN see elections as way to break the stalemate that has held this country for the past four years.
Libyans want an end to war and the creation of their much sought-after Democracy and many seem to have embraced the idea of elections. Since voter registration opened in December of 2017 more than 2 million Libyans have registered to vote out of a voting populace of over 4 million. Compare this with the 2014 elections were turnout to vote was just 630,000. Politicians on either side of the divide have endorsed elections with both the NGA and HoR calling for a vote this year. Economic signs of stability have also started to show with the dinar, Libya’s currency rising in value and oil production growing rapidly as a direct result of increased security, according to the economist. Recent meetings between militia groups based in Misrata and Zintan have met with success with the groups talking and expressing hope of future talks for the first time since 2014, indicating that at least some of the militia groups seem willing to move towards greater unity. Voter consultations have been announced so that ordinary Libyans can have a say on what the future of their country might look like showing at least some attempts to begin creating a framework for the nation. The voter registration numbers alone indicate that Libyans are excited about and want an election, the UN supports it as do the major powers in the region and with the alternative being a seemingly endless staring contest or outright full on war the UN maybe right in arguing for elections in 2018.
However, elections in Libya this year from a practical point of view seem unlikely. The country is without a constitution or even the legal framework for an election, if there is a disputed result their would be no legal option for an appeal. The UN envoy, Ghassan Salamé has called for a constitutional referendum to be held before parliamentary and presidential elections but factions in Libya cannot agree on what a proposed constitution would even look like. Violence also remains rampant with clashes frequently breaking out even in areas supposedly under tight government control like Tripoli were violence was rife just last year. Even with Libya’s two ruling powers, NGA and HoR there are concerns that the calls for elections are more about creating a sense of legitimacy for their own causes rather then genuine democratic evolution. General Haftar the de facto leader of the HoR and a possible presidential candidate has previously said Libyans are “unready for democracy”. Outside powers such as Egypt have supported strong men like Haftar raising the concern that he may feel confident with such support to dispute the election. Recently he has endorsed elections but has said he is willing to step in and grab the reins of power if the elections fail to break the deadlock and has previously tried to start coups in 2014 to gain power meaning it maybe hard to trust any new found democratic leanings. Political candidates such as education official Salah al-Qatrani have been killed in his case the day after announcing his candidacy. Any election where candidates are not safe and were violence such as this is demonstrated, and intimidation likely can hardly be called free and fair, even if all the militias and power holders agree to respect the election, something they did not do in 2014 violence may dispute the result or keep people from engaging fully in the democratic process. Human Rights watch have argued that Libya is not ready for free and fair elections citing the violence and disfunction of the state as a sigh. With these problems persisting, various groups still holding power, violence still being prevalent, a lack of a political frame work and reason to distrust some of the new endorsers of democracy intentions, holding a free and fair election in 2018 Libya maybe just as divisive as the 2014 election.
Libya is recovering, its divided but those divided pieces are fighting less and starting to show some positive signs economically. Its populace tired of dictatorial rule and division is engaging with the only political process on offer in an admirable and inspiring way. Libya is on the path to democracy but if rushed it could end in disaster an election where one side doesn’t accept the result or that only applies to the limited land under a groups control is not a national election. What’s more is if Libya is too continue as a democracy it will need the same safe guards any and every democracy from the United Sates to Japan needs alongside strong national institutions. It has neither currently and whilst it is trying to establish them these important foundations must be put in place if Libyans are too build a stable democracy that can survive the forces inside and out which want power to remain with the most armed not the most voted for.
Article by Jonathan Rhodes
Photograph: African News