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  • Jazir Mohammed

Libyan Presidential Elections 2021: Democracy finally begins?


After nearly 10 years of civil war and instability that killed 10,000 people, Libya is now having elections for the first time since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. The fall of Gaddafi occurred in 2011 as part of the infamous Arab Spring - a series of revolutions all over the Middle East and North Africa which had originally started in Tunisia. Gaddafi governed Libya for 42 years - the longest of any leader in the Middle East and all of Africa. His regime was outcasted from the international community due to Libya’s alleged role in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and his long record of repressing dissent. Instead of moving towards a stable democracy, the trajectory that Libya went into was one of complete anarchy and chaos with rival factions vying for power, mainly between the Government for National Administration (GNA) and Tobruk government and its military wing the Libyan National Army- led by the warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Eventually, in 2020 both the GNA and the Tobruk factions came to a settlement and agreed for an election, forming the provisional Government of National Unity (GNU) in early 2021. This December follows what was meant to be an election in 2018 and later in early 2019 but both attempts were delayed due to the LNA under Haftar launching a military offensive to recapture Tripoli and the rest of the western region. Haftar, a former military commander under Gaddafi in the 1970s and 80s, later became a staunch enemy to Gaddafi and spent 20 years in the US with assistance from the CIA to formulate attempts to overthrow Gaddafi for the last 30 years. Haftar has since resigned from his role in the LNA to stand for this presidential election.

Haftar, whilst gaining a lot of popularity amongst people in Benghazi for driving out Islamist militias, has faced numerous allegations of human rights abuses ranging from extrajudicial killings, the siege of the city of Derna, as well as attacking hospitals and other civil infrastructure. He has been largely supported by neighbouring autocratic nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, but is ironically supported by a supposed bastion of liberal democracy, France. Haftar has also been courted often by Macron and other French officials. Given that France has been involved in the domestic affairs of other African nations especially Mali in recent years, France has vested interests in the region by supporting Haftar given his commitments to stop migrants from leaving the northern coast.

Both the LNA and the GNA along with the backing from many European nations are complicit in the abuses and unfair treatment of the thousands of migrants who have ended up in detention centres. The potential election of Haftar may not attract any opposition from the west, but this will set a dangerous precedent for the human rights of Libyans as well as migrants who end up detained under his control.

The runup to this election saw the launch of Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi’s campaign, the son of the former leader. Whilst largely seen as the heir to the throne and a reformist figure before the 2011 revolution, he played a huge role in repressing the protestors and hence, was wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. His bid largely came as a surprise as he largely stayed away from the public eye for the past decade. His much-detested role for what happened in 2011 has made it very unlikely for him to win and has even led to attacks and protests outside polling stations.

The unrest that ensued after the launch of his campaign led to the Electoral Commission disqualifying his bid for power. It is apparent that with the likelihood of him in power ruled out by this election, the likelihood of Libya receding back to the old order that persisted under his father is very limited. Nonetheless, there is not much guarantee that this election will usher in a completely new democratic phase for Libya given the potential election of Haftar as well as many other leaders who may be opportunistically using this crucial month as a route for securing their own personal power and privileges.

A good example of this is the current interim president of the GNU entering the register for the presidency despite having originally pledged not to do so. Not only that, but his bid also contradicts the Electoral Commission’s rule that anyone from the interim government running for president should end their bureaucratic roles three months before the election date. Whilst it is very likely that the Electoral Commission may deem him ineligible to run as they did to Seif Al-Islam, such moves from people like him may obscure the rules and their clarity towards the general public. Hence, it may trigger a further wave of instability and disorder in the build-up to this election, to the point that it may render the possibility of the election starting on December 24 entirely unfeasible. Instead of causing another delay, the potential cancellation of this election may revert Libya back into civil war and back to a failed state deemed by many international actors and political scientists.

Image - Unsplash (Moayad Zaghdani)



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