Libya’s parliamentary committee has postponed the long-awaited Libyan presidential elections. The elections were intended to take place on December 24th, 2021, but were postponed two days prior. A new election date has yet to be set. Entities both within and outside of Libya disagree about Libya’s priorities as it seeks to establish a stable democracy in the wake of two civil wars. This poses important implications for the United States as it tries to encourage democracy in Libya, establish a strategic and friendly partnership with oil-rich Libya, and predict who will come to power once elections are held.
Libya and the United Nations have been attempting to implement democratic reforms in the country since autocrat Muamar Gaddafi was ousted from power in the country’s 2011 civil war. A second civil war took place in Libya in 2014 when the Libyan National Army (LNA) launched a military offensive against the General National Congress (GNC). The Second Libyan Civil War technically concluded with a ceasefire in October 2020, but the recent postponement of the Libyan presidential elections is evidence of continued national divisions and lack of adequate legislation.
One of the stated reasons for the parliamentary committee’s hesitancy to go forward with presidential elections is a lack of proper legislation and governmental organization. Libya is currently split between two legislative bodies. Despite some attempts to reconcile and split national duties between them, Libya’s east and west have failed to completely unite, draft a new Libyan constitution, list specific eligibility requirements for presidential candidates, or even provide a finalized list of this year’s candidates. Moving forward with elections without having a reliable framework and governmental organization could put Libya at risk of more armed conflict, since the results would not be accepted by all parties or the elected president might have the opportunity to seize more power than appropriate for his office.
Without defined eligibility criteria for presidential candidates, another current point of contention is the questionable characters of Libya’s current candidates and the potential for those candidates to incite conflict. These candidates include Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who is the son of Libya’s previous authoritarian leader and wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. Khalifa Haftar, who instigated Libya’s second civil war as commander of the LNA, is also running for president. Finally, many Libyan officials also have concerns about the current interim prime minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, who broke his promise to not run for the presidency and is able to use his current office as an electoral advantage .
Though these issues need to be resolved in order for the Libyan population to move forward confidently with a presidential election, many fear that postponing the election for too long will greatly harm Libya’s chances at democracy. 2.8 million Libyans registered to vote in the election before it was postponed, showing a level of progress and eagerness among the Libyan population. Thus, the United States and multiple European countries issued a joint statement that urges Libya’s legislative bodies to put a new electoral timeline in place as soon as possible.
The implications of a lengthy election postponement and a rushed election seem equally troubling. Chances of armed conflict seem high in both cases, as the announcement of the postponement prompted militias to blockade Tripoli for several days. If the postponement becomes long-term, it may pave the way for a political vacuum that is likely to be exploited by leaders with the means to do so. The results of a rushed election are unlikely to be accepted and could destabilize the entire country considering the continued presence of militias and mercenaries in Libya.
This level of destabilization has the ability to affect the United States on a variety of levels. Libya has a wealth of oil resources
and also serves as a transit point for migrants in Europe, making it invaluable to Western powers. To protect US strategic interests in Libya (such as oil) and to prevent another civil war, the United States could continue to monitor the situation in Libya while providing political support and encouragement to leaders attempting to draft a new constitution and other democratic legislation. The United States can also work with the United Nations to provide on-the-ground support, infrastructure reforms, and productive dialogue between Libya’s polarized east and west.