Holding elections in Libya is not a solution to the country’s deep-seated problems

Only a few months remain before elections in Libya. But Western policymakers are focusing on election preparations and the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries, to the neglect of other pressing matters. Hager Ali argues that unless Libya tackles its political and military problems, elections may prove little more than a sticking plaster on a bullet wound

The June 2021 Berlin Conference on Libya’s peace process prioritised election preparations and the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries. Meanwhile, Libya’s UN-backed administration failed to reach an agreement on the legal basis of the forthcoming elections. But how critical are these next elections for Libya’s future democratisation?

Party system development and military professionalism together are the key to engineering Libya’s democratisation process. Their deficiencies are the living institutional legacy of Gaddafi’s rule. Moreover, it is precisely these two problems which set the stage for the most recent civil wars and are now forestalling democratic development. So, a way forward for Libya must start with the most salient institutional problems of its pre-war past.

Parties under Gaddafi: instruments of dictatorship

Even in autocracies, political parties fulfil functions important to regime survival. Chief among them are the mobilisation of regime support, institutionalisation, and controlling the opposition.

Most autocracies have political parties, but not Libya under Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s Green Book criminalised political parties. Claiming that parties are akin to dictatorial instruments, Gaddafi dismantled them as a form of exclusionary misrepresentation of the masses. Instead, he wanted to organise society in tribes that would provide protection. Gaddafi therefore structured Libya’s political system in popular congresses around syndicates, unions, and committees.

It's unsurprising, then, that prior societal divisions resurfaced once the Libyan people ousted Gaddafi. As the war continued, domestic and foreign belligerent parties gravitated towards either the Islamist-dominated Tripoli Administration in the West, or the secularist Tobruk Administration led by General Khalifa Haftar in the East. This added another cross-cutting fracture to Libya’s society.

Many new parties have formed since 2011. However, they are difficult to distinguish on a political spectrum beyond their stance on secularism versus Islamism. Gaddafi’s son Seif Al-Islam reappeared recently, declaring in an interview that he intends to run for president. This will likely reinvigorate new-versus-old regime divisions.

parties formed since 2011 are difficult to distinguish beyond their stance on secularism versus Islamism

The absence of an institutionalised party system ahead of the elections means that existing societal divisions cannot be transposed into a civilian political arena in a way that accurately represents Libyan society.

Against this backdrop, the next elections could be inconsequential at best. At worst, and considering the lack of a unified armed force in Libya, the outcome could ignite another armed conflict. This segues into the second problematic institutional legacy: Libya's fractured military.

The military before 2011: an enemy within

Just as society was meant to supervise itself, it was also supposed to protect itself through its tribes, despite the fact that Libya had a formal army.

Gaddafi came to power via a military coup in 1979. To prevent being overthrown, he had to coup-proof his regime, which he did by giving positions in the security apparatus to family members and allied tribes. Yet after failed coup attempts and military purges in the 1970s, Gaddafi’s relations with the army turned hostile. He prioritised parallel elites and paramilitaries over the military, which he kept underfunded and ineffective. He also bought the loyalty of foreign mercenaries to supplement his coercive apparatus.

The rest of society ridiculed the need for a general army because tribes already had military capability, and fulfilled a protective role. This created a rift between elites close to Gaddafi, and the disadvantaged ranks. In 2011, these lower orders turned against the regime, fracturing the army along rank lines. Tribal divisions within the army eroded internal cohesion yet further.

with armed factions divided by tribal membership, socioeconomic status, or position on the secular-Islamist cleavage, Libya descended into another civil war

But party system development and military professionalism are not standalone issues. Even under full civilian control and cohesion, the military is neither isolated nor neutral.

Depending on how an army is recruited, military corps can reflect overall societal structures. If the military has salient politicised factions, they can form alliances with civilian groups based on shared interests. Conversely, societal groups can cooperate with specific military factions. In the worst case, one may end up with armed factions divided by tribal membership, socioeconomic status, or their position on the secular-Islamist cleavage, but without a civilian political arena for negotiations. And that's roughly how Libya descended into another civil war after 2014.

The way forward: exit from state failure

There is of course a plethora of issues to resolve in Libya before democratisation can take root. However, party system development and military unification stand out because of their historical salience and their respective role in shaping past wars.

Forming a unified military is not just a by-product of election preparation; it is imperative for Libya’s exit from state failure. Preparing elections without functioning parties, a party system, or other crucial logistics in place, will at best be inconsequential. At worst, it could set the stage for future conflicts.

Forming a unified military is not just a by-product of election preparation; it is imperative for Libya’s exit from state failure

Libya's lack of a unified military and dysfunctional party system are detrimental to regime stability. But in conjunction with each other, they form a vicious circle that can uproot newly formed institutions and hinder long-term democratisation.

Policymakers must understand that Libya’s war does not erase its past, nor does it reset the circumstances that led to the Libyan Revolution in February 2011. Libya’s point of departure was an autocracy that lacked the institutions necessary for a regime transplant. Disarmament, rebuilding infrastructure, post-pandemic recovery, and transitional justice are just a few of the other problems that pose risks to future regime survival. They have, however, received too little time from diplomats and politicians. Right now, what matters most for Libya’s future is pretty much everything but the elections.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Hager Ali
Hager Ali
Research Fellow and Doctoral Student, GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies, Hamburg

Hager's research focuses on civil-military relations, regime stability, and authoritarian politics across the Middle East and North Africa.

She received her MA from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, where she specialised in comparative political science, and her BA in Political Science and Sociology from Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Hager is also a freelance journalist.

She tweets @ActuallyHager

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