‘We needed the vote’, say Libyans as hopes of first elected president crushed

Libya’s 2.5 million citizens had been due to choose their first elected president on December 24

An electoral billboard reading ‘Our participation is the future of your country’ in Tripoli. The Libyan High Electoral Commission said it would not be able to hold the presidential election on December 24. EPA
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From enthusiasm to dismay and despair, the journey taken by many Libyans over the past weeks has been a frustrating one as the dream of electing their first president faded into the distance.

About 2.5 million people – a third of the population – were due to choose Libya’s first elected president on December 24.

The day would have been a historic step towards ending a decade of turmoil in Libya.

But political wrangling over the legal framework governing the vote, a surge in militia fighting, polarising candidates and years-long divisions between Libyans complicated the process, the result of a UN-sponsored peace process that began last year.

Candidates’ campaigns never took off. Days before the election, there were few signs that a landmark poll was imminent.

All that remain are heated discussions on the streets and in households, as well as adverts by the High National Election Commission calling on Libyans to register to vote.

Many had done so, eagerly. Abdul Salam Al Turki, 32, whom lives in Tunisia, had waited for an opportunity to put “an end to this chaos”.

He told The National earlier in December “a new president is a key step towards building Libya’s battered institutions and forming a much-awaited unified government”.

But as he observed the various institutions’ failure to see the process through, he now predicts the country to fall back into conflict.

“We may have parliamentary elections in a year or two, but any talk of a presidential race will only lead to renewed fighting, since leaders of battling parties each want to be president,” he said.

Legislative polls also planned for Thursday were also delayed, to January 24.

The dominance of militias, Mr Al Turki said, and widespread weaponry meant no free vote would take place.

In Sebha, south-west Libya, Mohamed Mesbah said that while he was not happy about the elections being postponed, it was a second chance for the clashing parties to accept the election and its results.

“No Libyan is pleased to see the vote postponed. But it gives us all a better chance to choose what is best for our country,” he said.

Mohamed Al Hasheem, from Tripoli, described the way the postponement happened “as mysterious, suspicious”.

“The unfolding of events leading to the announcement of the delay was confusing, and only means that the crisis will worsen,” he said.

‘Renewed chaos’

Since Nato’s intervention to unseat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has been the theatre of international and regional feuds, hosting foreign boots aligned with the clashing governments, in the east and west.

The spectre of renewed conflict already looms. Militias have started to flex their muscles, breaching a UN-brokered ceasefire that began in October last year. On Wednesday, rival militias were seen roaming the streets of the capital. Days earlier, militia fighters shut down two major oil pipelines, and last week, fighters in Tripoli and Sabha attacked police stations, courts and government institutions.

Fearing that the presidential vote would get lost amid political disputes and armed conflicts, and despite a preliminary date of January 24 proposed by HNEC for the election, Benghazi-based activists are calling for nationwide protests on Friday. The group is urging officials to commit to holding free presidential elections.

Libya election preparations – in pictures

Yasmine Al Owkali, 53, said the vote’s postponement was a “big shock and disappointment”.

“We as Libyans needed the vote,” she said. "We needed a president to fix what has gone wrong with the country over the past decade. Those displaced and those who aren’t but can’t find services. The postponement crushed all our hopes.”

Nadia Saleh, a teacher in Benghazi, was not surprised by this turn of events in the election process. The 37-year-old had predicted that the elections would not happen on time “due to certain politicians dominating the scene and refusing to cede power”.

Candidates include Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who leads the interim government that has responsibility for ensuring the poll takes place, and parliamentary speaker Aguila Saleh, who unilaterally passed the law governing the election, creating a legal conundrum.

Commander Khalifa Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, was another frontrunner in the race.

Ms Saleh had earlier said she planned to boycott the vote because “those elected in 2012 and 2014 were disappointing and the interim government proved to be a failure too”.

After the vote was postponed, she said: “Libya still needs many years before the different factions accept one another and choose a path other than fighting.”

This story was published in collaboration with Egab

Updated: December 24, 2021, 7:15 AM