(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) By Oussama Romdhani
Hardly anybody expected the presidential election scheduled for December 24 to go on amid the Libyan maelstrom. A European expert compared the downward spiral to “watching a train wreck in slow motion.”
Although no domestic or foreign actor acknowledged responsibility for the failure, there is a lot of blame to go around.
Western nations, the United States in particular, all along made elections their leading if not their exclusive priority. Although establishing electoral benchmarks is a usual pattern in efforts to resolve international crises, the UN-backed American insistence on holding Libyan elections on time, despite all the obvious obstacles, was particularly intriguing. This inevitably led to the train wreck.
But the whole international community shared responsibility for the fiasco. It often demonstrated a lack of vision or resolve, if not both. It failed to remove foreign fighters and rein in Libyan militias before the elections, even though the Berlin summit of January 2020 had called specifically for “the demobilization, disarmament of armed groups and militias in Libya.”
There was agreement at that conference to set in motion a “multi-track approach” unifying military and civilian institutions, while UN Security Council resolution 2571 of April 16, 2021 called for the “withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries without further delay.” There was a trickle of departures of foreign fighters but the bulk remained, casting a long shadow of doubt on the credibility of world powers. Some countries, such as Turkey and Russia, spent a lot of time and effort lobbying against the departure of mercenaries, with an eye on keeping their own people in Libya.
Trying to hold elections with thousands of foreign mercenaries or local militiamen roaming the streets of Libyan cities, including Tripoli, proved to be a terrible miscalculation. It created an escalating atmosphere of strife as factions started deploying their gunmen around government offices in the Libyan capital at the end of December.
On the ground in Libya, the UN did not show very much in the way of foresight, failing to predict, and help avoid, serious patches of turbulence. Before pulling a yet-to-be fully explained disappearing act, in late November, UN Envoy Jan Kubis gave his approval to a rushed election law passed by Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, who whisked the piece of legislation through, last September, without consultation and much less a vote. The controversy about the law eventually snowballed into a major cause of disruption during the final stretch.
Holding the elections in a country where a real democratic tradition is lacking and tribal affiliations still have a stronger pull than allegiance to the state, is a real challenge. But pushing through the process without prior agreement on the legal and constitutional rules of engagement and turning a blind eye to mercenaries and militias, on top of all other factors, made the process more than hazardous.
This failure is bound to raise questions about the motives and strategies driving foreign actors in Libya. From the start, Western powers, like France, Italy and Germany, jockeyed for a front row seat in the process. They acted as if they belonged to an exclusive “stakeholders club” and did not hesitate to ignore or marginalize Libya’s neighbors instead of bringing them on board as regional players with a direct stake in Libya’s stability.
It did not take a cynic, all along, to figure out that some of the European powers were eyeing their national interests front and center. All too often, hidden agendas and the drive to tackle the competition reigned supreme.
But domestic actors also played more than their part in paving the way for the impasse. The eastern based-House of Representatives and the normally consultative Tripoli-based State Council talked at cross purposes further blurring the legislative process.
Making tensions flare up further, the race included some of the most contentious political actors and no potential bridge-builders between the bitterly-divided east and west of the country.
Fractious Libya was represented by its most sharp-edged profiles. There was near certainty that the victory by any of the controversial candidates would be rejected by his rivals and risk sparking a new round of violence.
Physical harassment by militias, suspicion of influence peddling and threats of recourse to armed violence added to the deleterious mix.
Rumors, lawsuits and appeals swirled all around. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah and Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, in particular, were challenged in courts, but were eventually cleared to return to the race.
The aborted election timeline is obviously not the end of hopes in Libya's political process. But the impasse showed that no new chapter can be written in disregard of historical context. During the last seven years since the 2014 election, Libya has not made major strides towards national reconciliation and reunification of the state. The political landscape has remained fragmented and dangerously polarized. A yawning chasm still separates both sides of the Libyan divide.
The last exercise should open the eyes of all stakeholders, local and international, that an election is not a scramble to get there first and claim all the toys. The next train to elections should include among its final destinations the building of a new Libyan state based on unified and integrated institutions, ending the armed militia chaos and anchoring the rule of law.
It is completely the wrong journey when many of the domestic players have their eyes set on preserving a disastrous status quo and foreign stakeholders are betting the farm on simply holding the ballot on time.
A Libyan free and fair election is not a contradiction in terms. Zero-sum games and democracy are.
Oussama Romdhani is editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.
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