By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif *
A decade after the collapse of the long reign of Libya’s strongman Muammar Qaddafi, the divided oil-rich country finds itself at yet another critical milestone — the Dec. 24 presidential election.
Like almost everything in Libya, deep political fissures make this important step a dangerous one to say the least. Libya’s political players — the national unity government, the presidential council, the parliament, the election commission, tribal militias and factions, rival candidates and the US and Russia — have failed to agree on almost every aspect of the planned poll, a year after the UN set it up.
Now it seems that the election will be postponed. This is both good and bad news for the Libyan people. With so many differences over the election law, the candidates and the endgame, the outcome of the vote would certainly have beenrejected by one or both flanks that are in control of most of the country. At the center of the recent crisis is the candidacy of Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, who enjoys the backing of tribes in the south and center. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court but he has managed to have his candidacy approved by a Libyan court.
Another controversial figure, the eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar, is also running. He can be a dealbreaker because he is in control of Benghazi, the oil fields and chunks of southern Libya. About 100 Libyans are contesting the presidential election, including the interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. His candidacy is thought to be illegal under previous understandings.
The stage is set for a political deadlock. The two ruling flanks, Libya’s internationally recognized government in the west and Haftar’s de facto control of the east, have been unable to achieve the goals of the so-called 5+5 joint military committee. Foreign troops, mainly mercenaries from Turkey and Russia, remain entrenched, backing opposite sides. Haftar is unwilling to relinquish control of his militias. The Tripoli government controls less than half the country. In the middle there are tribal militias that seek to implement a different national agenda.
Without an understanding between the US, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt it is difficult to see a way out ofthe Libyan quagmire. In fact, the possibility of partition remains high. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s contention is that the US-led NATO intervention in Libya for the purpose of regime change was wrong to begin with, an argumentthat applies to Syria too.
Turkey’s agenda is more complex. It sees Libya, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the west, as an extension of its own grand regional outlook as embraced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Egypt’s fear of an Islamist Libya appearing on its western borders is understandable. For other players there is no clear endgame; just keeping the crisis alive.
Libya’s roadmap may have reached a dead end if the elections are postponed. The various players have met many times in and outside Libya with little to show for on the ground. Libya is effectively divided and politically polarized. This status quo could last for years.
No UN envoy can repair the damage in Libya. The issue at heart is not the presidential election but healing the social fabric that glued Libya together for decades. This can never be achieved while superpowers and regional powers take sides and try to steer the political process their way.
Regime change has failed in Iraq, Syria and now Libya. The cost has been exorbitant in terms of loss of life and wasted economic opportunities. The Libyan people have the right to choose a new leadership, but only under ideal circumstances — which are unlikely in the near future.
For a majority of Libyans neither Qaddafi nor Haftar is the answer after decades of authoritarian rule. Libya needs new blood and new leadership that can alleviate the legacy of the past. So far such a figure has not appeared on the political stage. For the sake of Libya, the US and Russia, along with Turkey and others, must depart and allow the Libyan people to engage in an open and honest dialogue. So far the election has become a tipping point. Perhaps not holding it is much better than having one that will divide the people even further and initiate a process that could bring back authoritarian rule.
There are no magic solutions for the Libyan conundrum; its people are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” The lesser evil is to forgo the elections and allow the Libyan people to engage in national dialogue away from foreign interference.
- Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010