Elections likely to further entrench divisions rather than unite Libya

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 10 December 2018, but far from a panacea, elections are likely to precipitate a deterioration in the security situation.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar

Introduction

On 29 May, the U.N.-recognised government in the capital Tripoli – the Government of National Accord (GNA) – and the Tobruk-based government – the House of Representatives (HoR) – agreed to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on 10 December. The elections are seen by the international community, particularly France, as a panacea to Libya’s political divisions. However, there are several barriers to unity which mean the elections could in fact have a detrimental effect on the country’s security and political stability.

A Libya divided

Libya has two rival governments, the House of Representatives (HoR) which is based in Tobruk, eastern Libya, and led by Aguilla Issa Saleh, and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and backed by the United Nations. During the Libyan civil war of 2011, which saw the fall of former president Muammar Gaddafi, the National Transitional Council (NTC) was established by Libyan actors and became the country’s de facto government. The NTC governed for just over a year before handing over authority to the Governing National Congress (GNC) in August 2012, which had been elected by popular vote the preceding month, to draft a constitution and lay the foundations of a democracy within 18 months. The country held fresh legislative elections in 2014, Islamist parties performed poorly in the poll and the Islamist elements of the GNC rejected the result, claiming the HoR was illegitimate and did not represent the Libyan people and so continued to convene. At the time the HoR was based in the capital Tripoli, but after the 2014 election Islamist militias in the city Tripoli rounded on the HoR, forcing it from the capital and eventually to Tobruk in the east, where it settled. In late 2015, the U.N.-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (UN-LPA) led to the formation of the Tripoli-based Presidential Council (P.C.) – which functions as the head of state – chaired by prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj and oversees the GNA. The HoR signed up to the UN-PLA but has so far refused to endorse the list of ministers who comprise the council.

Although many armed groups and tribal militias operate in pockets throughout the country, the centre of military power in the country rests with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) – a coalition of disparate forces – in the east. The relationship between Haftar and the HoR is relatively good but has a tendency to fluctuate. The central bank and the National Oil Company (NOC) fall under the purview of Tripoli, although the HoR has attempted to establish similar institutions running parallel to the central bank and the NOC, they are not recognised by the international community. So, although the HoR has military power, the GNA has economic might because the NOC collects all proceeds from Libya’s oil fields – even those in eastern Libya. In late May, the HoR attempted to sideline the NOC when it announced that proceeds derived from oil exports from the ports of Ras Lanuf, Es Sider, Zweitina, and Hariga would be handled and distributed by the HoR rather than the NOC. Shortly after, on 11 July, a strongly worded letter to authorities in the east from the U.S. administration forced the HoR and Haftar to reverse their position and hand back responsibility for the ports to the National Oil Company. While there is international consensus that the GNA should control Libya’s economy, international actors are much more divided about which Libyan government should rule the country.

International backers

Libya’s eastern neighbour, Egypt, is the primary backer of the HoR and Haftar because the Egyptian government opposes political Islam in its own country; Haftar has targeted numerous extremist groups and opposes Islamists, while GNA is dominated by Islamists. A strong LNA presence in eastern Libya provides Egypt with a buffer against Islamic State and denies other insurgent groups space to operate in eastern Libya. An unstable eastern Libya would increase the terrorism risk to western Egypt and ultimately the Nile River Valley. The United Arab Emirates has adopted a similar position to Egypt, while France has also provided support to those in the east. On the other side, the U.N. supports and recognises the GNA as the legitimate government, as do both Turkey and Qatar. European powers such as France also recognise the GNA through the U.N. despite their support to the actors in eastern Libya.

Barriers to national unity

In May 2018, the key Libyan stakeholders agreed in the French capital Paris to hold presidential and legislative elections on 10 December. While this marks a milestone in Libyan affairs, there are still significant barriers to a path towards unity. Libya currently lacks a universally recognised constitution and deep divisions exist between powerbrokers in the east and west. Unifying all armed groups in the country will therefore be a major challenge. Haftar’s LNA is a collection of disparate groups, including militias and tribes, which is unlikely to be able to extend its authority into the west of the country.  Additionally, high-ranking members of the GNA have said they would not accept an army headed by Haftar; it is also highly unlikely that he would cede his position as the LNA’s head. Furthermore, there are few individuals likely to be capable of maintaining unity among the LNA’s disparate groups. In April, Haftar fell ill and left the country to receive medical attention in France. His departure sparked concerns that with no designated successor, the LNA would factionalise as ambitious military leaders fought for overall control. Haftar’s relatively speedy return reduced the threat to the LNA’s cohesion but highlighted its fragility. Libya is also currently without sufficient electoral legislature to guide either presidential or parliamentary elections. The head of the high national elections commission (HNEC), Emad al-Sayeh, has said that this needs to be introduced by September.

These are far from the only barriers to national unity, but the primary obstacle is the lack of incentive for Libyan stakeholders to honour the outcome of any election where the result does not favour their side. Haftar and the HoR are unlikely to submit to political Islamist factions within the GNC. The current deadlock exists because shortly after the election in 2014, the GNC accused the HoR of lacking legitimacy, largely because those ideologically close to the GNC had lost out to parties that comprise the HoR in the poll. Another reason for the current deadlock is the HoR’s failure to fully endorse the U.N.-backed GNA in 2015, after militias forced the HoR out of the capital. The international community also has few mechanisms with which to enforce recognition of the result. The best outcome for international actors who want a unified Libya is a result in which all political parties attain just enough votes to create a buy-in to the post-electoral government. However, such a government would be fragile due to existing political divisions which will likely remain unaddressed.

While elections will at some point in the future be integral to the unification of Libya, prematurely pushing for elections before the root causes of the country’s divisions are addressed will not produce results conducive for national cohesion or the unification of the country. Instead, the planned elections are highly likely to deepen existing divisions in Libya’s political scene and, if they see key political players disregard outcomes that don’t suit them, reduce Libyans’ faith in the democratic process. If the electorate becomes disillusioned with elections, this would likely manifest itself in low voter turnouts in subsequent polls. If the turnout is low, candidates will feel more emboldened to dismiss the result, leaving voters further disillusioned and creating a vicious circle whereby the voter turnout for any subsequent election would very likely also be low, dramatically increasing the political stability risk.

The role of Islamic State

In 2018, Islamic State is in a relatively weak position and does not pose an existential threat to the country in the way it was able to in Iraq and Syria in 2014-16. In 2015, the organisation took control of the coastal city Sirte, which was taken back by the GNA with U.S. military backing in 2016 in a seven-month operation. Islamic State also controlled the eastern coastal city of Derna but was driven out by the Shura Council of Mujahideen, a coalition of Islamist militias opposed to both Islamic State and Haftar. The Shura Council of the Mujahideen occupied Derna from June 2015 when it evicted Islamic State until June 2018 when the LNA took the city. At present, Islamic State is reduced to operating in the desert south of Sirte, launching periodic attacks on civilians, infrastructure, and military targets. The group warned that it would disrupt the elections in December and targeted HNEC offices in Tripoli with a complex attack involving at least two suicide-vest IEDs (SVIEDs) and small arms fire on 2 May, killing at least 12 people. This was the first such attack in the capital since 2015 and was designed to deter voter registration. While Islamic State activity in Libya has since been limited, it is highly likely to begin targeting candidates, party offices, and polling booths as December election approaches. Beyond discouraging voter turnout, Islamic State is unlikely to have a significant effect on the turnout of the election.

Commercial impacts

Libya’s primary exports are oil and natural gas. The volume of exports has been inconsistent in recent years for a variety of reasons, though primarily due to periodic attacks on energy infrastructure, including oil pipelines, ports, and oil concessions. As noted above, political rivalries also cause interruptions to national oil output. National unity is very much in the interest of firms operating in Libya’s oil industry. Southern Europe also has an incentive to assist the country in working towards Libyan unity as any new government would be met with requests from Europe to stem the flow of refugees into the continent using the Libyan coastline as a staging point, a topic that remains politically divisive throughout Europe. In the unlikely event that the elections proceed in December 2018, foreign companies should anticipate a heightened terrorism risk in major urban areas in the weeks leading up to the vote and on polling day itself. Firms should also anticipate an increase in political uncertainty in the highly likely event that at least one major political actor rejects the results.

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