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Why elections will not solve Libya’s deep-rooted problems

A man wearing a suit and tie speaks in front of several microphones. The Libyan flag is on his left.
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah speaks after submitting his candidacy papers for the presidential election last November. The poll was postponed. EPA-EFE/Stringer

Libya is poised to hold presidential and parliamentary elections this year but there are still many unresolved issues. Ongoing political turmoil has caused the elections to be postponed several times, with no exact date set.

All of this chaos was to be predicted if you look at what Libya inherited in the aftermath of its long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted in a revolution in 2011.

Though the United Nations has urged the holding of elections to provide legitimacy to a new government (especially after months of negotiating a peace plan), the problems facing Libya are too vast. They include violence by non-state actors, foreign meddling and the absence of constitutional framework that has universal support.

These challenges have significant implications for Libya’s future. Moving forward the country faces ongoing turmoil, state failure and protracted conflict, similar to Iraq.

Violent armed militia

The biggest challenge is that the government does not have a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. In other words, there is no unified national military that has control over the entire territory. This is one of the reasons why elections had to be repeatedly postponed. It is simply not safe to go to the polls.

Libya is still awash with violent non-state actors – hundreds of different militia groups that engage in violence to undermine the interim governments and carve out their own fiefdoms. The capital Tripoli is under the control of an array of different armed groups. These militias and violent groups vie for political power while also being heavily involved in organised criminal activity.

Some of these militias, which were involved in human rights abuses, were even rewarded by the interim government (currently led by led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh). For example, Abu Salim Central Security Force leader, Abdel Ghani al-Kikli, who was responsible for unlawful killings and torture, was tasked with heading the “Stability Support Authority”, which directly reported to the President of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The GNA was only dissolved in February 2021.

There is also the issue of General Khalifa Haftar’s forces, the Libyan National Army, which may still have about 25,000 fighters. Though pro-Haftar forces have been pushed back from Tripoli, much of the East, including the strategic city of Sirte, is still under their control. Haftar, who faces legal action for alleged war crimes, is running for president in the upcoming elections, though he was initially banned from running.

In addition to Haftar’s forces there are various tribal militias, Salafist militias, jihadist groups, (like the Islamic State) and as many as 20,000 foreign forces including mercenaries.

Read more: Libya conflict boils down to the man driving the war -- Khalifa Haftar

In fact, foreign involvement remains a huge challenge. The United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt have supported General Haftar’s forces, while Turkey and Qatar have supported the Government of National Accord, supplying a steady flow of arms and fighters to an already chaotic situation.

Lack of a constitution

The other issue is that there is no constitution that all Libyans adhere to. There isn’t even any agreement on a basic set of principles, or any meaningful debate on what the constitution should comprise.

For example, there is still division over how much power the president and the parliament should have. There are also still loopholes in the current draft of the constitution, which provide leeway for the Supreme Commander of the military to circumvent civilian authority.

Additionally, questions remain about the validity of the elections themselves. There are many candidates that have been barred from running, though two of the most controversial candidates – General Haftar and Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi – have successfully appealed this ban.

A controversial law passed in September allowed Haftar to run as a presidential candidate and then return to his military role if not elected. None of the local and national problems such as ongoing violence, have been fixed since the elections were postponed, so it is unclear how the postponed voting will resolve matters.

Muammar Gaddafi’s legacy

Gaddafi (1969-2011) seized power in a military coup and proceeded to rule by using divide and conquer strategies against his own people, which have had a lasting impact even today.

His personalist style of rule focused not on building a unified national military, but on creating rival tribal militias that vied for his loyalty while contending against one another. The chain of command in Libya’s military was also intentionally unclear. Never was there a national military capable of effectively fighting other countries.

Under Gaddafi a constitution was promulgated in 1969, but through a series of declarations he was able to exercise total control and essentially rule by decree. Elections ceased to be held during Gaddafi’s reign and political parties were banned in 1972.


Without much history of parliamentary politics and political debate, the road to peace in Libya, more than a decade since the country fell into chaos following the ouster and killing of Qaddafi, has focused on giving each warring faction a piece of the pie, rather than creating institutions that might foster national unity.

Read more: There's no shortage of players in Libya's conflict. But few champions for peace

With controversial candidates on the ballot, there is little hope that the presidential and parliamentary elections will be able to unify the country. In fact, there is greater concern that elections could cause tensions to explode even further.

Moving forward Libya needs to establish a ceasefire and continue to work on the political settlement, before meaningful elections can be held.

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