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Ban on military personnel running for office in Libya leads to standoff

Libya’s High State of Council approved a ban on military personnel from running in the presidential elections in a move seemingly targeting eastern-based military strongman Khalifa Hifter.
Speaker of Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, United Nations Special Adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams.

TUNIS, Tunisia — The Tripoli-based High Council of State in Libya approved on Nov. 3 a decision to ban military personnel and dual nationals from running in the presidential elections in a move apparently directed at the military chief of eastern Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter.

The decision undermines the agreement reached Oct. 21 between the head of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, and the speaker of the rival Tobruk-based parliament, Aguila Saleh, in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, to unify the country’s executive power. The parliament, which is close to Hifter and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), could still reject the decision to ban military personnel and dual nationals from running in the elections.

Saleh and Mishri are expected to meet again in Turkey soon to resume the talks that began in Morocco regarding the presidential elections, Libyan division and the appointment of sovereign positions.

Hifter, who had previously declared his candidacy for the presidential elections that were scheduled for Dec. 24, 2021, before they were indefinitely postponed, holds US citizenship.

The military strongman launched back in 2019 a military operation to take over Tripoli as part of his ambitions to lead Libya. The battle ended in severe defeat of Hifter and the LNA after Turkey intervened in support of the forces allied with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord at the time.

Abdel Moneim al-Arfi, a member of the Tobruk-based parliament, told Al-Monitor, “This decision [to ban military personnel from running in the elections] targets specific figures, namely Hifter, and shows that Mishri is not the decision-maker; he is rather still subject to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Arfi added, “The agreement reached between parliament and the High Council of State stipulates that dual nationals will not be prevented from running for elections until the next parliament resolves this controversial issue.”

The issue of military personnel running for presidential elections has raised heated debate between parliament and the High Council of State at a time when Libyans are looking forward to the success of their democratic transition following the overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in February 2011.

Hifter’s office did not immediately comment on the recent High Council of State’s decision, but he threatened to wage war against foreign forces and mercenaries present in Libya in a Nov. 1 speech during his visit to the Jufra district in central Libya.

The High Council of State and Mishri have repeatedly attacked Hifter in the past years, namely during his military campaign against Tripoli in April 2019, and strongly opposed his candidacy for president.

Belkacem Qzeit, a High Council of State member, told Al-Monitor, “The council is only trying to ensure equal opportunities between candidates for the presidency. …  The military has a hierarchy, so if a high-ranking military commander and others enter the electoral race, there will be no equal opportunities. We are not specifically targeting Hifter from running.”

Qzeit added, “Future discussions [with the parliament] will include the government and sovereign positions in Libya, but reaching an understanding about candidates for the presidency and the constitutional basis remains a challenge, given the obstacles that will be difficult to overcome in the near future.”

It remains unclear whether Saleh and parliament can sacrifice their powerful ally, Hifter, who is also backed by Russia.

However, parliamentary sources told Al-Monitor that Saleh and Mishri will focus during their talks in Turkey on restructuring the executive authority, with parliament taking over the leadership of the Presidential Council and the High Council of State running the government. This would mean, according to the sources, that the transitional period continues while elections issues remain unresolved. 

The political track in Libya has faltered in recent months as Libyan rival parties failed to hold general elections, while the political and institutional division reemerged with the announcement in February by the Tobruk-based parliament of a new government headed by Fathi Bashagha, a former minister of interior. Since then, Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh has refused to hand over power to Bashagha, leading to the reemergence of two parallel administrations in Libya. 

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