Presidential elections are around the corner, but efforts at democratic transition are threatened by both internal and external actors - as well as a history of authoritarianism.
Libya has endured years of turmoil, political fragmentation and dashed hopes for peace, ten years after former leader Muammar Gaddafi was tracked down and killed by Libyan rebels in his hometown Sirte on October 20, 2011.
Although one of the revolution’s key objectives was to rid Libya of autocracy, the country still faces the threat of authoritarian rule a decade later, as renegade general Khalifa Haftar and Gaddafi’s own son Saif al-Islam have announced they will stand in the upcoming presidential elections in December.
This is despite a promising UN-sponsored peace process from October 2020 - which entailed a ceasefire and the formation of a new transitional government, the Government of National Unity (GNU) in March 2021, which observers have expressed is the greatest hope for the country’s peace in the last decade.
Haftar, who launched a war on Tripoli in April 2019 and was formerly a Gaddafi-era general, has announced his wishes to stand for Libya’s presidency. Haftar also said he is keen to abandon his military career, while he named an interim replacement as head of the LNA.
Despite these attempts to rebrand his image, there have been calls to hold his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) accountable for war crimes during its latest military campaign.
On October 4, the UN announced it would carry out a probe for war crimes, and acknowledged that violations had likely occurred since 2016. However, despite the UN’s acknowledgements of violations, observers have argued the report fails to explicitly name-and-shame Haftar for his abuses, including the targeting of civilian areas and creation of mass graves – violations that have been thoroughly documented elsewhere.
For example, the report noted “allegations of atrocity crimes committed in the town of Tarhuna, southeast of Tripoli, between 2016 and 2020, where mass graves containing the bodies of men, women and children have been found.” Tarhuna was a stronghold of Haftar’s during his offensive on Tripoli from 2019, and a deadly pro-Haftar militia al-Kaniyet was accused of creating the mass graves.
Should Haftar manage to gain the freedom to stand in Libya’s elections, it would effectively rubber stamp his violations. Should he fail, he has shown signs that he could carry out more disruptive measures. After all, Haftar reportedly blocked a delegation of interim GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah from entering the city of Ghat on October 12, according to Libyan lawmakers.
And just before announcing his presidential bid, Haftar denounced the UN-backed government’s authority. On August 9, he proclaimed “the Libyan army will never bow down to a civilian power that has not been elected by the people,” after the Presidential Council said it alone could authorise military rule.
Meanwhile, Saif al-Islam worked closely within his father’s inner circle when he was leader, is also wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, namely his alleged role in the suppression of protests in 2011. Al-Islam received an arrest warrant from Libyan lawmakers in August, due to his suspected collaboration with Russian mercenaries.
While the return of such figures still casts the authoritarian shadow of Gaddafi’s rule over the country, it would not be surprising to see additional attempts to undermine Libya’s elections. For example, observers have voiced attempts of vote rigging, and it is entirely possible that any election results could face disputes, even if the voting itself is fair.
To make matters worse, traditional divides between Libya’s west and east have continued, despite the UN-sponsored peace process. These have echoed the divisions that occured after Gaddafi’s downfall, which saw armed factions compete to control the capital Tripoli.
Indeed, Gaddafi’s regime set the stage for this turmoil. After coming to power in 1969, he eventually ruled the country with an iron first, repressing all segments of society, while centralising power within Tripoli. Gaddafi’s regime was characterised by a very small circle, deliberately coup-proof, with power tightly concentrated in the hands of a tiny ruling elite.
This meant that there was effectively no Libyan state, which enabled domestic strife to prevail.
The role of external powers, namely NATO, are also crucial here. Despite several myths about NATO’s culpability in Libya’s descent into chaos, a lack of planning and efforts to support Libya’s post-revolution transition allowed the country to split between rival factions, and subsequently opposing governments in the country’s west and east.
And while it was indeed important to avoid making Libya dependent on occupation, as occurred in Iraq following the US and UK’s invasion in 2003, there were limited initiatives to facilitate a political solution.
A return to authoritarianism?
Further efforts to establish peace within Libya came with the notable Skhirat Agreement of 2015, which formed the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, the internationally recognised government which preceded the GNU.
However, the return of Haftar, who formed an army of renegade soldiers and militias in 2014, as he attempted to conquer the entire country, undermined these fragile peace measures. Moreover, Libya was still divided between rival administrations in the west and east, which made unity a distant hope.
Backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, France and Egypt, Haftar’s renewed offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019 plunged Libya into another dark stage. However, a glimmer of hope came after his offensive failed, largely owing to Turkey’s intervention to protect Tripoli’s internationally recognised government, which also enabled the UN-brokered ceasefire in October last year.
It is certainly promising that rival sides have shown more willingness than before to engage in dialogue, and that the conflict has waned. However, there are still challenges. Aside from the country still being overrun by mercenaries, divisions between the west and east still manifest themselves.
Libya’s eastern Tobruk-based parliament issued a vote of no confidence towards the GNU on 21 September, and the legislative elections have been postponed until January – although the presidential elections are still on track for December as planned. This raises the prospect of further disputes within Libya’s democratic transition, which could stall a long-lasting settlement.
Under these power struggles, many Libyan civilians have still experienced the woes of a failed state and years of civil war, as living standards and basic services have collapsed, and ordinary Libyans have faced a deterioration of their mental or physical wellbeing.
Often, the Libyan people go ignored in international dialogues. Even when there is humanitarian focus in Libya, it is often Europe’s attempts to stem the refugee flow onto its shores. On top of the hardship ordinary Libyans already endure, the empowerment of those responsible for their suffering would make a further mockery of their plight.
The UN has played an important role in facilitating dialogue, but international powers who have played a role in Libya need to follow suit. There should be more efforts to hold those responsible for violations to account, and ensuring deep support for the transition would right the wrongs of NATO’s past abandonment of the country’s post-revolution transition. Otherwise, this narrow ray of hope for Libyans’ futures could vanish.
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