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How Libya’s Fragile Unity Is Being Tested by Election

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Libya’s decision to postpone a landmark presidential vote set for Dec. 24 was yet another manifestation of the tensions and challenges that have roiled the OPEC member since the overthrow of strongman Moammar Al Qaddafi a decade ago. Foreign powers that waged a proxy war in the north African country appear to be backing the democratic experiment, but the outcome is uncertain. Bitter rivalries and geographic divisions raise the risk that the losers won’t accept the result, prompting Libya’s opposing militias to take up arms again and potentially shut down oil production.

1. What lies behind the years of unrest?

Libya’s state institutions evaporated during Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship, so his overthrow left a vacuum that was filled by a multitude of armed groups, many of them based on tribal affiliations. A succession of governments failed to restore order or stop weapons flooding into the country. National elections in 2014 that were supposed to unify Libya only split it down the middle, with a Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli in the west vying with General Khalifa Haftar’s eastern coalition of troops and irregular fighters known as the Libyan National Army. Haftar secured major oil resources by extending his grip in the east and south before moving to capture Tripoli in 2019 with the help of Russian mercenaries. Turkey, backing the GNA, sent in troops the following year and Haftar’s men were forced to abandon the effort after battles that left more than 2,000 people dead and tens of thousands displaced. A cease-fire was declared in August 2020 after Egypt said it could intervene. 

2. Why are foreign governments so interested in Libya?

Companies including France’s TotalEnergies SE, Eni SpA of Italy and Royal Dutch Shell Plc are considering investing billions of dollars to exploit Libya’s vast oil and natural gas reserves, as well as its potential for solar power. The country’s proximity to Europe makes it all the more attractive to them. Egypt, as well as the United Arab Emirates, backed Haftar in the hope that he could end the chaos and defeat Islamist groups including the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood -- a sworn enemy of Egypt’s government. Turkey found common cause with the GNA as both had close ties to the Brotherhood. Russia, which has been deepening its role in the Arab world, initially kept contacts with both sides while promoting Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, as a future president. In 2019, however, Moscow threw its weight behind Haftar. More than 1,000 mercenaries with the Wagner group, which is headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, entered Libya to support the general. Russia’s actions prompted the U.S. to push more forcefully for a peace deal. 

3. How has the fighting affected the country?

The years of unrest and the absence of an effective government took its toll on Libya’s energy infrastructure. Armed groups blockaded ports for months at a time, depriving the country of billions of dollars in oil export revenue. Regular power cuts in the sweltering summer sparked protests throughout the country. About 200,000 Libyans have been internally displaced, the United Nations refugee agency said in November, and many others are thought to have fled to neighboring Tunisia and beyond. Since the fighting subsided, oil production has climbed to around 1.3 million barrels a day, compared to 1.6 million barrels daily before the 2011 uprising that resulted in Qaddafi’s overthrow. 

4. What’s the plan for the election?

Two months after their cease-fire declaration, the adversaries signed a formal truce at the UN in Geneva. In February 2021, Libyan delegates nominated a unified interim national executive to steer the country until a presidential vote. They chose eastern Libya’s Mohamed Mnefi to head a three-person Presidency Council and a businessman from the coastal city of Misrata, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, as prime minister. The vote was initially scheduled for Dec. 24. But days before, the national election commission had yet to release a final candidate list, and then announced holding it as planned was impossible. It, instead, proposed a date a month later, but the change requires parliamentary approval which has yet to be secured. 

5. Who is running?

Almost 100 candidates put their names forward, although election authorities rejected about two dozen of them and others faced legal challenges. While there’s no reliable polling, the frontrunners are generally thought to be: 

• Khalifa Haftar: Born in 1943, the general turned on Qaddafi and spent years in exile before returning to the scene during the revolt. He may get strong support in the east but struggle for votes in the west.

• Saif al-Islam Qaddafi: The 49-year-old son and former adviser to Libya’s slain dictator was out of the public eye for years. He was held for a time by a militia and is still wanted by the International Criminal Court. The Qaddafis still enjoy support in the south. While he may get backing from countrymen nostalgic for the relative stability of his father’s rule, that might be outweighed by resentment among the many who suffered.

• Abdul Hamid Dbeibah: The current prime minister has built his profile as a statesman during a brief period in office. The wealthy businessman was head of a state-owned construction firm and has a more technocratic background than other contenders.

• Fathi Bashagha: A former interior minister and a key player in the Tripoli-based government when the country was divided between east and west, Bashagha can count on significant support in Misrata and the capital.

6. What are the prospects?

Crucially, the foreign powers whose involvement helped to prolong the conflict have put aside their public differences. Egypt, the UAE and Turkey have so far honored a pledge to support Dbeibah’s interim government. With most Libyans yearning for peace, there’s some incentive for citizens to respect the outcome. However, the UN’s then-special envoy to Libya, Jan Kubis, told the Security Council in November that the political climate was still “heavily polarized.” Ongoing disputes over the legitimacy of different candidates, and even the election itself, could lead to renewed fighting. If no candidate secures more than 50% of ballots, the country will remain on edge until a runoff vote determines the winner. That’s if the elections take place at all. 

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