Nearly ten years ago, in the summer of 2012, the citizens of Libya went to the polls for the first time in four decades to vote for a national legislature. It was a watershed moment in the country’s path after the overthrow and death of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi at the hands of NATO-backed rebels in late 2011. It was the first time that most Libyans had ever had a say in their government.
Both of us—a Libyan citizen and a foreign observer—were there at the time and remember well the euphoric mood. City streets were festooned with campaign banners, candidates held rallies in sprawling tents, and lively political debates lasted all through the night in cafes. Many Libyans hoped the elected body would be a starting point to heal the deep wounds left by Qaddafi’s autocratic rule and resolve problems such as the unequal distribution of oil revenues and the unchecked power of the country’s militias.
That optimism was misplaced. The legislature quickly fell victim to bitter personal and ideological rivalries and exclusionary politics. Corruption soared. The militias became stronger, bolstered by their ties to elected politicians. By 2014, Libya was in a state of nationwide civil war whose flames were fanned by regional powers.
In hindsight, many wondered if the push to elections so soon after the revolution had been premature and rushed, especially given the absence of preconditions such as security and a robust civil society.
This past year, as part of a United Nations-brokered road map to end the latest round of civil war, Libyans and their international supporters pushed for presidential elections on December 24 as a salve for the country’s ills. Again, the entire process sharpened Libya’s divisions, rather than bridged them. This time, though, the legal basis of the elections was deeply contested. So too was their scope and sequencing—whether they were to be presidential or parliamentary or both, and in what order. So, it was unsurprising that on December 21, Libya’s election commission dissolved polling committees across the country, indefinitely postponing the vote.
Libya is now entering a dangerous new phase, one in which the potential for factional armed conflict is high as the prospects for a real democratic transition fade.
Visiting Tripoli, the capital, this past month, one of us noticed that the darkening horizon was plainly evident in the population’s mood. Over 2.5 million Libyans had registered to vote, but the lively discussions in 2012 over candidates’ reform platforms were replaced by cynical conversations about the flawed runup to elections.
Few Libyans ever believed that elections would curb the influence of militias. And now, with their postponement, militias are already flexing their muscles. In recent days, convoys of armed groups in trucks have screeched through Tripoli’s roundabouts with heavy artillery to intimidate their military opponents, with some besieging the headquarters of the weak caretaker government in the process. This mobilization is partly to jockey for leverage over the Tripoli-based government and the country’s sovereign institutions, now that the planned suffrage appears indefinitely deferred.
With elections postponed, leading political figures who command armed groups are already trying to outmaneuver each other by forming personal alliances to divide up power. This could take shape through bargaining, but also, worrisomely, brazen displays of force.
Among the most polarizing and consequential of these figures is the man responsible for launching an invasion of Tripoli in 2019, to unseat the internationally recognized government and seize power. He is also one of the most prominent presidential candidates. Khalifa Haftar, the septuagenarian warlord based in eastern Libya, has long derided democracy in Libya, positioning himself as a military savior.
Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, once heralded as a reformer but now facing an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, is another figure to watch. He enjoys support among the divided sympathizers of the former regime known as the “Greens.” Like Haftar, he is exploiting citizens’ nostalgia for authoritarian stability, and chose to make his comeback on Libya’s political scene by making a surprise bid for the presidency.
The current prime minister of the caretaker government in Tripoli, Abdul-Hamid Dbaiba, has grown increasingly influential during his tenure. He is now likely to try and remain in power, sparking dissent and possibly violence among his opponents as he maneuvers to militarily entrench himself in the capital. Dbaiba ran for president after promising not to do so, and has garnered popular support through a classic populist tactic of dispensing cash.
The former interior minister Fathi Bashaga is another force to be reckoned with. Hailing from the powerful western coastal city of Misrata, he has been lauded as the more pragmatic of the presidential candidates by Western interlocutors. In recent weeks, he has struck up an entente with his former archival Haftar. Yet, this alliance is already being challenged by several armed groups and constituencies in western Libya—a divide that will likely erupt into violence.
Moving forward, prospects for enduring stability and unity are further complicated by the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries sponsored by Turkey and Russia, who militarily intervened in the 2019–2020 war. By doing so, Ankara and Moscow established themselves as power brokers on the ground, along with the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent Egypt. This foreign influence, and a burgeoning detente among former rivals in the Middle East, could act as a check on the eruption of nationwide conflict in 2022. Yet, without a clear road map that redefines how Libya will regain popular legitimacy, this momentary regional rapprochement will not guarantee long-term stability.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the election postponement, armed groups and their political patrons appear to be crafting road maps of their own. They are capitalizing on the current limbo by engaging in multiple tracks of dialogue, both in Libya and in foreign capitals. While talking is certainly better than fighting, these personalized encounters should in no way be construed as setting the foundations for a durable institutionally-based settlement. At their core, they are simply attempts to divide the spoils of appointments in the security sector and other state organs.
The vote’s deferral has also prompted factions across the country to support a return to a constitutional drafting process to reset the legal framework for elections and ensure their legitimacy. This too would appear to be a positive development, at first glance. But the constitutional track has been wholly coopted by elites in two widely despised bodies, the High State Council in the west and the House of Representatives in the east. These elites have used an array of clever procedural and legal tactics to delay the constitution and obstruct progress toward elections—because such steps threaten their privileged positions. As these games continue, Libyan citizens will be left to suffer. And it is probably only a matter of time before an armed faction tires of them as well, and calculates that its interests are better served through displays of force or violence.
To manage these risks, Western powers, especially the United States, need to quickly adapt to realities on the ground. Most crucially, Washington also needs to heed the lessons it learned from Libya after Qaddafi’s fall. These include eschewing sweeping assumptions about what national elections alone can achieve, but also accepting the importance of prioritizing robust engagement in supporting Libyan citizens, not just elites, in crafting a path forward.
While the Biden administration supported preparations for polling last year, it now needs to engage much more firmly on setting the foundations for a truly unified, democratic civil state. This includes bolstering civil society, ensuring the rule of law and accountability, and developing a more viable strategy for reining in the militias. Most importantly, it needs to help Libyans develop a firm, universally-agreed-upon legal basis for future elections—either through a constitution or some similar compact—that enshrines the principles of inclusion and genuine representation, rather than continues the timeworn game of elite bargaining and a sharing of the spoils.
While this process needs to be Libyan-owned, this should not be an excuse for handing the steering wheel of Libya’s transition back to the same venal political factions that exacerbated and protracted the country’s crises.