The countdown for the elections already started in Libya, receiving a substantial boost from the international community which gathered on the 12th of November to reiterate full support to the UN-sponsored roadmap. Participants at the Paris conference threatened sanctions against those who might attempt to obstruct the electoral process but came up short of addressing the real challenges to the political transition, which include the lack of a constitutional basis for the elections and the presence of foreign forces.
Just before the conference the Libyan National Army had announced the withdrawal of some 300 mercenaries as a confidence building measure requested by France. However, considering the UN estimates of about 20.000 mercenaries deployed in Libya last year, this partial removal clearly represents a drop in the ocean. The presence of mercenaries and the lack of progress in the reunification of the military indicate that conditions on the ground are not conducive to free and fair elections, but the message coming from Paris is that the show must go.
As candidates vying for the top job began to come forward, their profile raised many eyebrows. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi’s announcement from Sabha that he had registered to run for president produced significant shockwaves, despite the fact that the news was long due. Rumours about the political ambitions of the Quaid’s son abounded since his release from detention in Zintan in 2017. Wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and sentenced to death by a court in Tripoli, he clearly intends to muster support from a public opinion exhausted after ten years of chaos.
In the counter-revolutionary camp, Saif al-Islam may find himself competing with General Khalifa Haftar, who entered the presidential contest from Benghazi. Facing war crimes accusations, Haftar was already manoeuvring behind the scenes to obtain crucial backing from regional actors with a vested interest in the Libyan conflict. Earlier this month Haaretz had reported that his son Saddam was in Israel asking for military and diplomatic support, speculating that Libya could soon normalise relations with Tel Aviv in exchange. The private jet that brought Saddam Haftar to Israel took off from the UAE, which, alongside being one of the most important sponsors of Haftar, has already normalised its diplomatic ties with Israel last year.
The shift from the hard power (of which the Abu Dhabi Express represented the perfect case study) to the soft power still provides the UAE with an opportunity to preserve its strategic interests by other means and the upcoming elections in Libya come just in the right place and at the right time. As the international community closes an eye on the multiple flaws of the electoral process, even the Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity Abdul Hamid Dbeibah announced his candidacy from Tripoli, explicitly disavowing the roadmap.
However, it is the prospect of having Haftar and/or Saif al-Islam ruling the country (with or without elections) that leaves Libya hanging in balance, floating between the drive to restoration and a push towards normalisation, two emerging trends common to the entire region.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region