The Leaders Who Are Going To Make Or Break Libya

Since Muammar Gaddafi was executed in 2011, Libya has been wracked by chaos. After the fall of Gaddafi, the oil-rich country fractured into regional and city-based militias who tried to use their force of arms to bargain for political power. Today, Libya is controlled by armed groups in the east (led by autocratic military commander Khalifa Hifter) and an UN-supported government in the west (led by the businessman Abdul Hamid Dbeibah).

The present Government of National Unity was set up in March 2021. His government’s primary mandate was to prepare for the elections that will bring the east and west of the country together, with a deadline of July 1.

However, the polls have been postponed to December as efforts to set the terms for presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya on December 24 — 70 years to the day since Libya declared independence in 1951 — are mired in chaos.

Many say the ruling elites show signs of wanting to cling to power without elections. Other interest groups fear the new rules will disqualify their candidates. Pro-democracy politicians are apprehensive the elections will further divide the highly polarised society.

Libyans, though, hope the elections will end years of civil war that have engulfed the country since the killing of Gaddafi in 2011.

“There does seem genuine war fatigue across the country. But Libyans seem to have come to their senses and want a Libya that they have been deprived of in the various rounds of war and political bickering. On top of that, Libya was polarised at the peak of the intra-Gulf dispute and tensions between Turkey and various Arab capitals. Now we are seeing that gradually ending,” Claudia Gazzini, the Libya specialist at Crisis Group, notes.

The elections are not likely to heal the east-west rift. Worst, they might steer the country back to war. While the uncertainty is causing the situation to become contentious and tense, let’s look at the top three presidential candidates, their agendas, and what it means for the Libyans:

Saif al-Islam

Gaddafi’s son wants to be the president to restore Libya’s lost unity. Saif, a London School of Economics graduate, was part of his father’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Libya following the Arab Spring. On why he is organizing a political return after a decade in hiding, he told the New York Times.

“It is time for a return to the past. They [the politicians] raped the country — it’s on its knees. There’s no money, no security. There’s no life here. Go to the gas station — there’s no diesel. We export oil and gas to Italy — we’re lighting half of Italy — and we have blackouts here. It’s more than a failure. It’s a fiasco.”

Gaddafi’s dictatorship is still missed in the country. If he wins, it will be a symbolic triumph for Arab autocrats, who hate the Arab Spring as much as him. Since he was assumed to be Gaddafi’s successor, Saif enjoys the support of major tribes in Libya. They feel only he can bring greater security and stability in the region by bringing tother all Libyan factions.

However, his return to Libyan politics would face hurdles. He is convicted by the Tripoli court, and he is also wanted by the International Criminal Court. But he seems undeterred. He added:

“I’ve been away from the Libyan people for ten years. You need to come back slowly, slowly. Like a striptease. You need to play with their minds a little. We’re like fish, and the Libyan people are like a sea for us. Without them, we die. That’s where we get support. We hide here. We fight here. We get support from there. The Libyan people are our ocean.”

Khalifa Haftar

The 77-year-old military veteran is Saif’s main rival. Haftar took part in the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power. Today, he rules over much of eastern Libya.

In 2014, he launched Operation Dignity and presented himself as a patriot who alone could cleanse Libya of its militias. First, he took on the powerful radical Islamist groups in the east and restored an autocratic order. Then, he set his eye on capturing Tripoli.

In January 2019, Saif called for elections as soon as possible. In April, Haftar ordered his Libyan National Army to overthrow the UN-backed Government of National Accord led by prime minister Fayez al-Serraj. To restore security and fight terrorism, his forces seized oil fields and air bases in the west.  

He tried to seize the capital and impose his authority on the entire country. He tried to inflict terrible suffering on the Libyan people, but he failed. While his failure bolstered Saif’s bid to return to power, he can’t be written off just as yet as he has the support of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, France, and Saudi Arabia.

He recently announced a plan to construct three cities around in eastern Libya. Experts say he looks to naturalize Egyptian and Chadian tribes to obtain a voting bloc equivalent to nearly twice the number of Libyan voters. This will guarantee him victory in the December elections. Miloudel-Hajj, a professor of international relations, observes: “He is hoping the elections will secure him a political victory after his military defeat. His tone and language have changed … He has dropped his military discourse” in favor of pledges to improve living conditions.”

However, since Haftar holds both Libyan and US citizenship, it excludes him from running for president. If presidential elections are postponed, he will likely use the opportunity to term the transitional government as illegitimate and return to armed conflict.

Aref Ali Nayed

Former Libyan Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Nayed is the only candidate who has openly declared his intentions to run for the presidency. He has openly discussed his hopes and his vision to reunify his country. He recently told: “After a decade of dispossession and marginalization, the vast majority of Libyans need to choose their own leadership and representatives. The ‘tyranny of the minority [the Islamists] that has made Libya a failed state and an ‘ATM’ of Islamists across the region, must end.”

Ranked 50 among the top 500 most influential Muslims globally, Nayed is one of the most outspoken critics of Islamist ideologues and extremists. He believes the first elected president will have the responsibility to end the division and build the country’s security structure.

However, he fears a massive popular uprising, which could plunge Libya into several wars if the elections were postponed. In a recent interview, Nayed shared his aspirations for Libya: “My ambitions are the embodiment of the aspirations of the Libyan people, through a comprehensive vision formulated by a team comprised of 70 Libyan experts and technocrats, young men and women, who gathered at the Libya Institute for Advanced Studies (LIAS) and formulated Ihya (Reviving) Libya Vision 2030 to achieve transformational change in the country. One of the features of this vision is that there will be one unified Libyan Army, unified Police forces, in addition to anti-terrorism and rapid deployment forces; all of which are the basis for any security infrastructure in Libya.”

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