Who can be Libya's saviour?

Presidential election in the country is scheduled to take place on December 24 but it remains to be seen if they actually do

Laila Ben Khalifa, one of only two women to run in Libya's first presidential election, in Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, on November 29. Reuters

I have to keep a glossary for myself of the institutions created in Libya since 2011 so that I don't mistake a presidential council for a state council, or GNA for LNA – Government of National Accord, in the west and Libyan National Army, in the east. Not to mention a 75-member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) and at least seven UN missions.

Ten years after the Nato-backed overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and his regime, unity has proved elusive in the country. It is all but non-existent. Qaddafi, the former autocrat with a strange ideological mix of socialism, Islamism and pan-Arab nationalism, deepened tribalism and consequently caused divisions in society that still remain. So deep have divisions run that, when Qaddafi was dethroned, the country plunged into a brutal civil war.

This has left a nagging fear among some Libyans of Generation Z on social media – that loyalty and patriotism are measured by one metric only: a steadfast attachment to the tribe, not the country.

Today, it still looks far from unified despite a UN-backed ceasefire, another national unity government and a new attempt to hold elections - presidential and legislative - which could usher in democracy and stability. Libya has never elected a president democratically nor had a parliamentary election since 2014. And it seems unlikely that it will get one anytime soon.

Children play by the Roman Arch of Marcus Aurelius (built in 165 AD) by Libya's capital Tripoli, on December 13. AFP

The political powers on the one hand, state and parallel institutions on the other, are bitterly split to even announce the delay of the landmark vote. December 24 is the date for presidential election in Libya.

Adding to the confusion, the High National Election Committee has spoken in jargon that many people can’t understand or at least to steer clear of announcing a delay itself.

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A nagging fear among many young Libyans is that loyalty and patriotism are measured only by a steadfast attachment to the tribe, not the country

“In fact, the issue of postponement is subject to a large number of variables, most of which are directly related to the implementation of the electoral process. They may be political, technical or legal variables,” Imad Al Sayeh, the head of HNEC, said last week at a press conference in Tripoli.

It has been a torturous path for all political rivals, from the west and east, to agree in 2020 to hold the vote. The military hostilities did stop but both sides have remained sceptical of one another, entrenched in their positions and have failed to take concrete steps towards real state-building.

Even the economy and public finances are fragmented into two entities. There is a rivalry between the governor of the central bank, in the west, and his deputy, in the east. Talks between both men to settle old scores are still at an early stage.

Amid instability and dysfunction, many Libyans in the south have come to realise that they swapped a totalitarian regime and police state where there was some stability and security, for a militia state that runs amok. Hence the decision of some Libyans to support one of Qaddafi’s sons, Saif Al Islam, even though he is an alleged war criminal.

Saif Al Islam, son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi registered on 14 November in the Libyan city of Sabha, to run in this week's presidential elections. EPA

There have been renewed calls for adopting federalism or even dividing the country into three autonomous regions, as during the colonial era, when the British and French-occupied Libya in 1943 and split it into three provinces: Tripolitania in the north-west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan-Ghadames in the south-west.

“How can you conduct this unprecedented experiment in Libya and choose democratically a president without dismantling a countless number of militias or having a constitution? They were so ambitious when they set up this timeline,” a senior aide to Foreign Minister Najla Al Mangoush said to me over the phone on Monday.

The rebel groups-turned-super militias have become too influential and powerful to disarm. They control one of Africa’s richest oil and gas reserves, recruit jobless young men for a handsome 5,000 dinars a month ($1,000) – compared with the average public wage of 900 dinars – and veto candidates. They played a key role in keeping the country in disarray and damaged its reputation as a welfare state that used to have one of the most decent incomes per capita in the region.

Local NGO demonstrate at Algeria Square outside the Tripoli Municipality in Libya capital on December 15, to protest against any possible postponement of the elections scheduled for December 24. AFP

With just a few days before the presumed elections, militias stormed a court in the southern city of Sabha to protest against the candidacy of Qaddafi's son. Another group linked to the state guard force for oil facilities shut down four key fields in a major blow to production and budget revenues.

Proxy politics is another variable that pushes the Libyans to delay the election. Key power blocs have proxy links to regional and international countries, as thousands of foreign mercenaries are still in the country and an exit deadline already expired last January.

No wonder the education ministry has blamed the chronic delay in delivering school textbooks in recent years on the complex process of re-unifying a state curriculum.

Abdel Qadir Al Hewili, a senior member in the advisory State Council, told me in a recent interview: “Everybody is competing and has vaulting ambitions. They don’t want to sacrifice their own personal interests for Libya.”

Published: December 22nd 2021, 5:55 AM
Updated: December 23rd 2021, 9:43 AM
Ahmed Maher

Ahmed Maher

Ahmed Maher joined The National as a Senior Correspondent in 2020. Prior to this, he spent 12 years with the BBC in London as a roving Middle East bilingual correspondent. He reported extensively from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Sudan. He was the BBC’s main correspondent in Iraq from 2015 to 2017, covering the war against ISIS.