Holding elections in fractured Libya puts cart before horse

Article Summary
It seems UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame is getting ahead of himself, agreeing to elections before the warring parties reconcile.

When Ghassan Salame took over as the United Nations envoy to embattled Libya in June 2017, the former Lebanese culture minister — after consulting extensively with various Libyan factions — promised Libyans and the UN three things.

The first promise was to amend the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), which was signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015. The LPA, which still hasn't been implemented, is already outdated and needs amendments to accommodate changes in the Libyan political scene. These changes include the rise of Gen. Khalifa Hifter in eastern Libya as a force to be reckoned with, the increasing role of supporters of the former regime of Moammar Gadhafi and the increasingly disruptive role played by armed militias, particularly in western Libya.

Salame got his mission off to a good start when he succeeded in bringing the two rival Libyan governments to the table in Tunis in October 2017 to discuss the proposed LPA amendments. But after three rounds of negotiations, spread over a full month, the parties reached a deadlock, leaving fractured political groups with conflicting agendas.

At this point, frustrated by the lack of progress, it appears Salame changed his mind and began thinking that LPA amendments were no longer constructive issues, let alone urgent. Rather than solving the problem, he apparently just put it aside. This perhaps indicates that he believes the whole LPA issue — including its amendments — is irrelevant. In his May 21 report to the UN Security Council, Salame blamed the Libyan participants for the failed talks, saying, “The parties are unwilling to make the necessary concessions.”

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Indeed, the LPA amendments were an issue. But how relevant is the LPA itself, as it's never been implemented? The accord was supposed to begin a two-year transitional period from war to peace and democracy. It has now been three years, and the LPA sits unresolved.

Salame's spokeswoman, Susan Othman, when asked if Salame had changed his thinking in moving on from the unresolved LPA issue, wrote in an email to Al-Monitor, “Dr. Ghassan did not change his priorities.” Othman added, “From day one, Dr. Ghassan has worked on all components of the action plan simultaneously.”

However, this isn't necessarily the understanding of ordinary Libyans whose lives have been all but a continuous struggle since the 2011 upheaval that saw their longtime leader Gadhafi killed in October of that year.

Al-Monitor asked Fawzi Abdelsalam, a high school teacher in Tripoli, if he thought Salame has changed his priorities in tackling the Libyan issues. “Salame started very good and his action plan was very clear; however, something went wrong that forced him to change his priorities. You cannot have elections if you do not have reconciliation first," he said.

A shop manager named Ahmed Salem shared the same view but went even further by accusing Libyan politicians of preferring the status quo. “Regardless of what Salame thinks, if our own politicians are serious about finding a solution it will be very easy — but I guess they like to keep things as they are because it benefits them.”

However, Fatima Hussein, a government clerk, told Al-Monitor, “Ghassan Salame is only doing what the UN asked [of] him, but the UN itself is meddling in Libyan affairs without offering any real tangible solution.”

The second promise Salame made, which was warmly welcomed by many observers and political figures, was to hold a pan-Libyan, inclusive conference inside the country or abroad, in which as many Libyans as possible would sit together and try to come up with a framework to salvage their country. Salame appeared enthusiastic and encouraged by the positive feedback he got locally and internationally from those interested in Libya’s affairs.

However, on May 1 he met with supporters of the fallen Gadhafi regime, and many localized meetings have been held in various Libyan cities and towns, with overall limited participation.

Othman explained, “As for the Libyan National Conference — Al-Multaqa Al-Watani — it has been and continues to be ongoing.” She apparently was referring to those local meetings, which have been adjourned for the holy month of Ramadan without any clear results or recommendations.

The third promise Salame made was to hold legislative and presidential elections. After Libya's rival parties met May 29 with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, they agreed to hold elections Dec. 10. Before that meeting, Salame had already said elections would take place by the end of the year.

However, the very idea of elections in the divided country could be counterproductive. Though Salame is enthusiastic about elections as a way forward, the decision appears to have led him back to where he started: counting on elections to remedy Libya and get it moving in the right direction. But elections in a country awash with arms and largely controlled by armed militias and gangs seem to be a rushed move that could lead to even more division and chaos. In 2014, the UN pushed Libya to hold elections. But soon after, the level of violence — including assassinations of activists and security personnel — produced a bloody war that led to the country having three rival governments before they were pared to two vying for power.

It remains to be seen if the UN will be able to lead Libya to stability, economic revival and security. But it seems elections are certainly not the right path, unfortunately, at this moment.

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Found in: united nations, libyan elections, political groupings, khalifa hifter, ghassan salame, moammar gadhafi, conference, lna

Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and an award-winning journalist. He can be reached at mustafafetouri@hotmail.com.

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