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Obstacles for elections in Libya

More than 6 six years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains a chaotic state divided in different factions in the east, south and west. Several attempts have been made in  the last two years to hold general elections, but all failed. Different Western countries started to intervene, namely France and Italy. France supports elections because that could lead to centralization of the government and therefore a possible reduction of tensions. Others believe, including Italy, that elections cannot happen until the required framework is made, otherwise the conflict can only escalate even more. A conference in Paris and Palermo was supposed to contribute to the making of a framework, but it is still not done.


The Arab Spring reached Libya in 2011, following neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. The protest was aimed against the dictatorial leader Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi ruled the country for 42 years and was the lonest-ruling leader in the Arabic world. The revolution in Libya started as most of the other revolutions with protests against the cruel dictator. The protests in Libya differed from the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, because Gaddafi fought back and soon the protests turned into a civil war – the first civil war in Libya. On 20th of October 2011, Gaddafi was killed but that did not mean the end of violence.

Libya’s division

After the death of Gaddafi the National Transitional Council of Libya was installed as the interim government until the elections in July 2012. After the elections they handed over their power to the General National Congress (GNC) and it was considered the first peaceful transition of power in Libya. Things started to escalate after the elections in 2014 when GNC lost, but they continued to claim to be the only legitimate parliament in Libya. The result was two competing governments: House of Representatives (HoR) which was elected in 2014 and based in the eastern city of Tobruk, and GNC who rejected the results and started with armed groups to conquer Tripoli.

The UN started to actively intervene and formed the Government of National Accord (GNA) which was meant to unify the rivalry governments. However, the GNC continued to exist and so did the HoR. So from 2016 onwards there are two governments in Libya. With the GNA based in Tripoli, the HoR in the east, under command of Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). Haftar is backed by Egypt, U.S, Arab Emirates, Russia and France. His supporters think he is capable to bring order to the country, but others fear the rise of another dictator. The south is home to Islamist militias such as IS and Al Qaeda-linked groups, but also to smugglers. It is not under control of the GNA, the government in Tripoli, neither of the government in Tobruk led by Haftar.

France and Italy

France and Italy started to compete for influence in Libya, for economic and diplomatic reasons. By doing so, they are undermining the UN peace initiative. Obviously, they both want to prevent Libya from becoming a haven for terrorists and smugglers, but their strategy and vision differs.

Since President Emmanuel Macron, France is trying to reinvigorate its ties with Africa. France is supporting Haftar in east Libya because they think he is the best ally who could serve their interests. Therefore, they support his consolidation of control in the east and support him in upcoming elections. The reason why France wants to be influential is the presence of oil, gas and other minerals in Libya. The French company Total is expanding its shares in the Libyan energy market. However, the Libyan energy market used to be dominated by the Italian energy company ENI. President Macron is further promoting elections in Libya because he believes that it can reduce the existing tensions. The legal framework in order to hold elections is missing, and therefore  Franceheld a conference last May in Paris. Macron brought representatives of the four key players together and they agreed to hold elections on December 10, 2018. They only agreed on making a constitutional basis for elections, but in the end no actual basis was made and elections did not take place.

Italy, is just like France, trying to expand its influence in Libya. Italy wants to take the initiative to show their citizens and the EU that it is capable of handling this conflict. Libya is a former colony of Italy, but the most important link today is the flow of migrants coming from Africa through Libya and then to Italy. The new populist government in Italy made it their priority to stop the migrant flow. After France held a conference, Italy organized a conference as well in November 2018 which was meant to set ground for the UN-backed Libyan National Conference. UN envoy Ghassan Salame said the conference is meant to provide “a platform” for Libyans to spell out their vision for the future and “no longer be ignored” by those in power in the divided country. The conference was supposed to take place this month, January 2019.

France and Italy are now openly ‘fighting’ about each other’s role in Libya. The Italian ambassador was summoned after the deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, accused France of creating poverty in Africa in order to generate mass migration to Europe. The colleague of Luigi Di Maio, Matteo Salvini, said that France had no interest in stabilizing the situation in Libya because of their oil interests. A French diplomatic source denied the accusations and stressed that the efforts of France are aimed to stabilize the country, preventing migration flows and the spread of terrorism.

Obstacles for free and fair elections

The biggest obstacle for elections to be hold is corruption and the continuing fighting within Libya and which is extremely difficult to stop. Besides that, there is a lack of established legal processes for elections. Even though the conferences in Paris and  Palermo did not provide the needed legislation, hope remains and the HoR keeps promising to produce a referendum and the needed (electoral) legislations. In the beginning of January the chairman of the Libyan high national elections commission (HNEC), Emad Al-Sayeh, announced that the referendum for the Libyan constitution will be held by the end of February. Al Sayeh met with the Speaker of the HoR, Aqilah Saleh, and Saleh later announced that 90% of the preparations for the referendum are done.

Sources: Aljazeera, Aljazeera, Brookings, Lawfare, Libya observer, Reuters, Middle east monitor

Photo: Wikpedia commens