Libya’s feuding parties have reached an agreement on legal steps to hold long-delayed elections in the troubled North African nation, yet contentious issues blocking the democratic process remain unresolved, according to observers and a copy of the agreement seen by Al Jazeera.
A 6+6 committee drawn from Libya’s two rival legislative bodies – the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS) – agreed on June 6 on draft laws for presidential and parliamentary elections, inching forward in the country’s current political crisis.
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Libya has been fraught with conflict for more than a decade since the removal of former strongman Muammar Gaddafi during the Arab Spring in 2011 and rival factions began competing for power. By 2015, the two legislative bodies had formed and the struggle over Libya’s rule and wealth has continued since.
While welcoming progress, UN envoy Abdoulaye Bathily on Monday warned the Security Council that “key issues remain strongly contested,” blocking the road to “a final settlement” and harbouring the potential to spark a new crisis in the divided country.
He added that he intended to intensify negotiations to address “serious loopholes and technical shortcomings” in the draft laws and make them “implementable” and effective in regulating “successful elections”.
The current political crisis stems from the failure to hold elections on December 24, 2021, and the refusal of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah – who led the transitional Government of National Unity (GNU) in the capital Tripoli – to step down.
In response, the country’s east-based parliament appointed a rival prime minister, Fathi Bashagha, who has for months sought to install his government in Tripoli.
Observers told Al Jazeera that many of the contested issues that hijacked the democratic process in 2021 were still unresolved.
“Bathily is rightfully noticing the concerns around an elections programme that is not accepted across the political spectrum and that risks sowing further division,” Tim Eaton, senior research fellow at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.
“Clearly his calculation is that he needs to get a much wider agreement on what happens next and the challenge is being able to do that [and] to move forward,” Eaton said.
Presidential candidate eligibility
One of the main roadblocks to the democratic process has been reaching an agreement on the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates.
Azzedine Guerbi, a member of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) who attended talks in Morocco’s Bouznika ahead of the deal, told Al Jazeera that the two sides had agreed that candidates with military affiliations must automatically resign from their posts.
A copy of the text obtained by Al Jazeera states that once a candidacy is accepted, the presidential runner is “considered disqualified from their occupation or position by force of law”.
However, no additional provisions are made to ensure that a candidate does not resume their post once the electoral process is concluded.
Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Al Jazeera the failure to address the issue presents clear dangers.
“If you lose, you can go back to being military and mobilise a force to go after the winner,” Harchaoui said. “This should not be possible.”
Similarly, the draft law requires dual nationals to provide a “statement certified by the granting country’s embassy that proves the submission of final waiver of the citizenship of [the second] country”, but does not specify mechanisms to verify compliance.
According to Eaton at Chatham House, the debate over the eligibility criteria for the presidential election has become shorthand for the engagement of Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA), who also holds US citizenship.
“The UN previously felt that agreement could be reached on this area, so I think it’s a question of whether that agreement is being held up to prevent a political process or whether it is a true point of contention that can’t be navigated,” Eaton said.
New interim government
Among the provisions that Bathily raised as a concern was the requirement to form a new government ahead of elections.
According to Harchaoui, Bathily “knows that if a brand-new government is installed, that government will do everything in its power to make the elections fail and to stay in power for as long as possible.”
Additionally, the definition of a “new” government was still up for debate. “If Abdul Hamid Dbeibah reshuffles his ministries and implements a big change, is it a new government even if he remains prime minister?” Harchaoui said.
Dbeibah’s rivals, including HoR speaker Aguila Saleh and the Egyptian government, maintain that he should leave the post.
Eaton said the insistence on formulating an interim government again begged the question of whether the issue hid the “unwillingness of the existing elites to create a new process that could lead to their replacement.”
“Some of their arguments for removing the [Government of National Unity (GNU)] from its privileged position are justified, but if they create an interim government what we’ll probably see is that the talk of elections will die down,” the analyst added.
The “linkage between presidential and parliamentary elections” was flagged by the UN envoy as potentially problematic.
According to Harchaoui, the criteria determining whether to hold a second round of voting were very vague. “There are still mechanisms to force a second round even if a candidate wins with an absolute majority in the first round,” he said.
Additionally, the draft laws’ provision cancelling parliamentary elections if the first-round presidential vote is not held or completed was also fraught with risks.
Having a parliamentary vote at the same time as the second round of presidential elections exposes the legislative vote to the possibility of being hijacked by presidential candidates dissatisfied with their performance in the first round, the analyst said.
Bathily warned that those contested issues were likely to take the electoral process into a dead end as happened in 2021, “which will result in further polarisation and even the destabilisation of the country”.
Libya has “once again reached a critical stage”, he said.
“Successful elections require not just a legal framework, but also a political agreement that ensures buy-in and inclusion of all major stakeholders.”