I hope everyone enjoyed the Christmas break. The other week, previewing the Chilean election, I noted that it was “the second-last major election for 2021.” It now turns out to have been the last, since Libya will not go to the polls until next month at the earliest.
This does not come as a great surprise. The presidential election had originally been scheduled for December 2018; repeated postponements eventually brought the date down to last Friday, Christmas eve. But no official list of candidates was ever published, and on 22 December the electoral commission proposed a one-month postponement. Parliament agreed to call off last week’s poll, but so far has not set a new date.
The difficulty of holding an election is part – albeit an important part – of the more general difficulty of government in a country that is divided between rival armed factions. A cease-fire was implemented in October of last year and has generally held, with a transitional government in place since last March, but the civil war appears to have been suspended rather than concluded.
Whether Libya has any long-term future as a united country remains an open question. As in most of Africa, its borders are mainly the arbitrary creation of European colonialists; Tripolitania (in the west) and Cyrenaica (in the east) were separate provinces until 1934, and conflicts between them have repeatedly frustrated attempts at reconciliation over the last decade. It may be that a peaceful divorce, à la Czechoslovakia, would offer more promise.
That said, the absence of fighting for more than a year now is a major breakthrough, and there are signs that, prompted in part by Covid-19, the country’s political class is starting to work together. If an election can be held promptly and credibly, a new president may be able to put in place a durable peace.
Certainly the hopes for Libyan democracy that many (including me) entertained ten years ago after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi have not been borne out. That doesn’t mean that the international community was wrong to intervene to ensure Gaddafi’s overthrow: all the signs were that the consequences of his return to power would have been horrific. (It’s also worth noting that the subsequent violence has stemmed from foreign interference as much as from the Libyans themselves.)
But it’s a further reminder that when a country’s institutions have been comprehensively destroyed, as Libya’s had, putting something workable in their place is a lot harder than it looks.