Highly Contested Elections Spark a Renewed Scramble For Libya
In the latest signal that the international community is once again turning its attention to Libya as the resource-rich yet politically fragile state prepares for critical elections this December, the European Union reopened its Mission in Tripoli on May 17. The reopening of the Mission, shuttered since Libya was wracked by unrest in 2014, is an important indication that Brussels is paying fresh attention to the North African country. The EU is far from alone in taking a keen interest in Libya—indeed, in recent years Libya has become an arena for the warring interests of more than a few global superpowers, a situation which is sure to intensify ahead of the vital elections currently slated for December 24.
Libya is routinely relegated to a byword for the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, an emergency which has become one of the EU’s greatest policy foibles—but in fact, the immigration issue is secondary to the EU’s long-term agenda in Libya: energy security. The sheer scale of Libya’s energy resources—the war-torn country has the world’s ninth largest proven oil reserves, as well as Africa’s fifth largest gas fields—means that EU member states have a huge stake in the flow of these resources to global markets.
Diverging views on how to lend Libya stability
European member states have nevertheless struggled to reach an accord over how to resolve Libya’s political maelstrom in order to secure access to these resources for the future. Italy and France, for example, whose energy giants ENI and Total both have a substantial presence in the region, have supported opposing sides in the longstanding power struggle between the UN backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by field marshal Khalifa Haftar. In 2019, the Italian government, which had been providing support to the GNA, accused the French of fomenting unrest in the region by backing the LNA, following a diplomatic initiative by President Emmanuel Macron which firmly established Haftar as Paris’ pick for Libya. To this day, France believes that Haftar’s LNA would stamp out terrorism and Islamic extremism in the region, impressed by the years-long fight which Haftar waged against jihadist militias.
Officially, at least, France and Italy’s preferred horses in the race have buried the hatchet now: the GNA and Haftar’s forces agreed a ceasefire towards the end of last year and, with the help of the UN, put an interim government in place – the Government of National Unity (GNU). The new regime has already been plagued by controversy, however: before Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah even took office, a UN panel found that Dbeibah, who was not elected but rather appointed by the 75-member ‘Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’, had bought votes from at least 3 members.
Imperfect though it may be, the cease-fire and the GNU remain Libya’s best hope to chart a new path for the post-Gaddafi era. The fact that the road towards a peaceful democracy has already been beset by difficulty, however, does not bode well for the December elections, when a leader will be elected and a constitution drawn up. After a decade of conflict, ethnic strife, and often-ineffectual foreign intervention, the December elections are Libya’s best hope out of the quagmire, and the EU has a clear interest in ensuring that the polls go ahead under good conditions.
Gaddafi’s lingering legacy weighs heavy
Alarmingly, one of the three candidates widely tipped to run is Colonel Gaddafi’s second oldest son, Saif Al-Islam. On the lam from an international arrest warrant and wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, Saif has long been seen as his father’s heir apparent. While Gaddafi Sr. was roaming the political wilderness in the early 2000s, his son was instrumental in establishing back channels with Western powers.
Saif’s carefully burnished image as a reformer that would break with the anti-imperialist “Green Book” era, however, went down in flames when the Libyan uprising started. Gaddafi’s son famously went on national television finger-wagging at his audience, and, in the unforgettable words of one Guardian columnist, mingling “threats of violence and promises of a better future with all the confused desperation of an abusive husband who is shocked to discover that his wife no longer submits to the beatings.” His overarching message: we either rule you or we kill you. After his father was toppled, Saif was sentenced to death in absentia by a Tripoli court for crimes against the Libyan people.
Yet despite this checkered past, the unrelenting violence of the last decade has not completely sapped Saif’s support base and he has repeatedly hinted that he intends to gun for the top job as soon as elections take place. He even formed a political party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya, to run in the (aborted) 2018 elections—a move lambasted as hypocritical given the fact that Saif had proudly supported his father’s criminalization of political parties.
For a nation still trying to break free of the shackles of the Gaddafi era, his son’s return to politics would be a crushing setback—even more so given early indications of what Saif al-Islam’s regime would look like.
According to news reports, Saif’s priorities would include the release from jail of his siblings and several high ranking Gaddafi-era officials, suggesting that Libya with Gaddafi’s son at the helm would take a dangerous step backwards.
The spectre of a Gaddafi scion back in Tripoli should underline how vital it is that the EU mount the robust, bloc-wide foreign policy towards Libya which it has struggled to develop. Given Libya’s resource wealth and Europe’s dependence on Libyan oil and gas, such a policy is clearly needed—never more so than to guide both powers through the transitional moment represented by this December’s elections.