Libya’s peace remains fragile as election disputes defy resolution

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Libyans protest at Martyrs’ Square in the capital Tripoli after Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, son of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, announced his candidacy in the upcoming presidential election. (AFP)
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Libyans protest at Martyrs’ Square in the capital Tripoli after Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, son of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, announced his candidacy in the upcoming presidential election. (AFP)
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A billboard along a street in Tripoli urges LIbyans to register and vote. (AFP)
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Updated 10 January 2022

Libya’s peace remains fragile as election disputes defy resolution

  • Splits over electoral rules and who can run for office dog first presidential election since Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow 
  • Further election delay seen as a blow to the international community’s efforts to reunite the war-weary country

DUBAI: Libya occupies a sensitive position for the security of Arab and European countries and in managing the Mediterranean region’s migration flows. Yet a road map for the restoration of the oil-rich nation’s security and stability continues to elude the international community. 

Libya’s first presidential election since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 was due to take place on Dec. 24, amid hopes of finally unifying the war-torn North African country after years of bitter upheaval.

However, just two days before the UN-sponsored polls were due to open, the vote was postponed amid logistical hurdles and ongoing legal wrangling over election rules and who is permitted to stand.

Libya’s electoral board called for the election to be postponed for a month, until Jan. 24, after a parliamentary committee tasked with overseeing the process said it would be “impossible” to hold the vote as originally scheduled.

Even now, 10 days into the new year, it is unclear whether the election will go ahead at all. Many fear that the fragile peace in the country could collapse if disputes over the election are not resolved quickly. 

Any further delay would deal a significant blow to the international community’s hopes of reunifying the country.

“This is a critical moment for Libya and the indications are increasing, day by day, that we are running out of time to have a free and fair election,” Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Arab News.

“The multiple court cases against leading candidates has limited the campaign season. This all shows that these elections are not being run on an agreed constitutional basis. More time is needed to resolve fundamental issues, not just on who is able to run but also on what the powers of the president will be.”

 

Without an agreement concerning those powers, Fishman said, the election could result in an “increasing recipe for more polarization, as well as an increasing potential for more violence and not less.”

One particularly controversial candidate to emerge ahead of the vote is Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of Muammar Qaddafi and a strong contender for the presidency.

On Nov. 24, a court ruled him ineligible to run. His appeal against the decision was delayed for several days when armed militiamen blocked the court. On Dec. 2, the ruling was overturned, clearing the way for him to stand.




A handout picture released by the Libyan High National Commission on Nov. 14, 2021, shows Seif Al-Islam Qaddafi (right) registering as presidential candidate. (AFP/Libyan High National Electoral Comission)

A Tripoli court sentenced Qaddafi to death in 2015 for war crimes committed during the battle to prolong his father’s 40-year rule in the face of the 2011 NATO-backed uprising. However, he was granted an amnesty and released the following year by the UN-backed government. He remains a figurehead for Libyans still loyal to the government of his father.

Qaddafi is not the only divisive candidate. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who in September temporarily suspended his command of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army to run for office, also faces legal proceedings for alleged war crimes.




Khalifa Haftar submits documents for his candidacy for the Libyan presidential election at the High National Election Commission in Benghazi on Nov. 16, 2021. (AFP)

According to Jonathan Winer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former US special envoy for Libya, the chances of success for the election were seriously undermined from the beginning when the Haftar-affiliated House of Representatives devised the rules.

“These elections have become increasingly chaotic,” he said. “The process over who gets disqualified and who doesn’t is, at least, somewhat flawed, imperfect, and with so many candidates the idea that anyone would get a majority is ludicrous — no one will get a majority.”

Given the ongoing disputes, Dalia Al-Aqidi, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C, believes even Jan. 24 is overambitious for a rescheduled vote.

“Despite all the continuous calls for the importance of holding the Libyan presidential elections to help the country to cross to safety and prevent a new wave of violence, the possibility of this happening is slim due to the lack of agreement between the major key players, divisions on the ground, and foreign interference,” Al-Aqidi said.

“Holding elections in January is a difficult task since none of the obstacles that led to postponing the electoral process were addressed or dealt with by local leaders nor the international community.

“Less than one month is not enough time to solve all the issues that prevented the Libyans from casting their votes and that includes the conflict over the nomination of candidates.”

FASTFACTS

Factions continue to disagree over basic electoral rules and who can run for office.

Parliamentary committee said it would be “impossible” to hold the vote as scheduled.

Al-Aqidi is concerned that factional fighting could resume if foreign interference continues. “The likelihood of violence and chaos is very high, especially with the increase of the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts in the country due to its loss everywhere else in the region,” she said. 

“The group, which is supported by Turkey, is looking at Libya as an alternative to Tunisia, which was its last stronghold.”

The Washington Institute’s Fishman also doubts the election will take place later this month, but remains cautiously optimistic that a serious uptick in violence can be avoided if dialogue continues.

“It appears now that an immediate threat of violence is less likely as different actors are talking about next steps,” he said. “Because of these talks, the date is likely to be extended beyond late January, or even several months after.

“The international community should support these internal Libyan talks and UN-brokered conversation and not take a specific position right now on the timing of elections until a better consensus is more clear.”

The appointment on Dec. 7 of Stephanie Williams as UN special adviser on Libya offers some hope of getting the process back on track. Williams led the talks that resulted in the October 2020 ceasefire in Libya.

“She’s deeply immersed in the issues and knows all the parties, and can hopefully pull a rabbit out of a hat and do what her predecessor was not able to do and come up with a game plan and a timeline,” said Fishman.




Stephanie Williams, UN special adviser on Libya. (AFP)

The road to the presidential election in Libya was never going to be easy. In August 2012, after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, the rebel-led National Transitional Council handed power to an authority known as the General National Congress, which was given an 18-month mandate to establish a democratic constitution.

Instability persisted, however, including a string of major terrorist attacks targeting foreign diplomatic missions. In September 2012, an assault on the US consulate in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi left US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.

Responding to the threat, Haftar launched an offensive against armed groups in Benghazi in May 2014. He named his forces the Libyan National Army.




Smoke rise in Tajoura, south of Tripoli, following an airstrike on the Libyan capital by forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar sometime in mid-2019. (AFP file photo)

Elections were held in June 2014, resulting in the eastern-based parliament, the House of Representatives, which was dominated by anti-Islamists. In August that year, however, Islamist militias responded by storming Tripoli and restoring the GNC to power.

The House of Representatives took refuge in the city of Tobruk. As a result, Libya was divided, left with two governments and two parliaments.

In December 2015, after months of talks and international pressure, the rival parliaments signed an agreement in Morocco establishing a Government of National Accord. In March 2016, GNA chief Fayez Al-Sarraj arrived in Tripoli to install the new administration. However, the House of Representatives did not hold a vote of confidence in the new government and Haftar refused to recognize it.

In January 2019, Haftar launched an offensive in oil-rich southern Libya, seizing the capital of the region, Sabha, and one of the country’s main oilfields. In April that year he ordered his forces to advance on Tripoli.

By the summer, however, after Turkey deployed troops to defend the administration in Tripoli, the two sides had reached a stalemate.

A UN-brokered ceasefire was finally agreed in Geneva on Oct. 23, 2020. It was followed by an agreement in Tunis to hold elections in December 2021.




A Libyan man registers to vote inside a polling station in Tripoli on November 8, 2021. (AFP)

A provisional Government of National Unity, headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, was approved by lawmakers on March 10, 2021. On September 9, however, Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the House of Representatives, ratified a law governing the presidential election that was seen as bypassing due process and favoring Haftar. (In November Saleh himself threw his hat into the ring.)

Subsequently, the House of Representatives passed a vote of no-confidence in the unity government, casting the election and the hard-won peace into doubt.

Even if an election does take place in January, Libya still has a long way to go before a stable administration is formed and a durable peace is achieved.

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Israeli PM to press France on Iran, warn Hezbollah ‘playing with fire’

Updated 05 July 2022

Israeli PM to press France on Iran, warn Hezbollah ‘playing with fire’

  • France is among world powers trying to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran
  • Iran has itself been in breach of the deal, ramping up projects with bomb-making potential

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid will press French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday for a tougher and time-limited tack on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and warn that the Tehran-backed Hezbollah group is “playing with fire,” an official said.
Lapid’s visit to France, his first abroad since becoming caretaker premier last week, is also a chance to flex diplomatic muscles as Israelis gear up for a snap election in November.
France is among world powers trying to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that the previous US administration quit and which Israel opposed, deeming its caps insufficient.
As Lebanon’s former colonial administrator, France has additional clout in Beirut — whose economic crisis-hit leaders were jarred on Saturday when Israel shot down three Hezbollah drones launched toward one of its Mediterranean gas rigs.
“The French are very, very active on the Iranian issue,” a senior Israeli official told reporters.
“It is important for us to make our case ... Israel opposes a return to the JCPOA (2015 nuclear deal). In the same breath, we do not oppose a deal. We seek a very strong deal.”
Israel is not a party to the nuclear negotiations. But Western capitals have been attentive to its worries about its arch-enemy and worried it might take preemptive military action if it deems diplomacy a dead end.
Since the US walkout, Iran has itself been in breach of the deal, ramping up projects with bomb-making potential — though it denies having such designs. Its technical advancements have set a ticking clock on the so-far fruitless negotiations.
“We want an end to the unending talks,” said the senior Israeli official, calling for “coordinated pressure” on Iran and offering help on “drafting an appropriate framework” for that.
Israel has de facto front with Iran in Lebanon, home to Hezbollah. The senior Israeli official, alluding to Saturday’s shoot-downs, accused the group of “playing with fire.”
The official declined to elaborate on that warning, but said Lapid would share with Macron “new material explaining how Hezbollah is endangering Lebanon.”
Hezbollah and Israel fought a war across Lebanon’s border in 2006 but have been in a largely stable standoff since.
The Karish rig near Lebanon’s coast will produce gas not only for Israel, but eventually also for the European Union, the official said, tapping into EU countries’ quest to replace Russia as an energy supplier since it invaded Ukraine.


Egypt FM in London to inaugurate partnership council

Updated 04 July 2022

Egypt FM in London to inaugurate partnership council

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry headed to London to inaugurate the first partnership council between his country and the UK.

The council will be co-chaired by Shoukry and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. It will include political consultations and discussions on economic and trade issues, with the participation of British Trade Policy Minister Penny Mordaunt.

A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said the launch of the council comes in light of strengthening cooperation between the two countries in various fields.

While in London, Shoukry met with Lord Tariq Ahmad, British minister for South Asia, North Africa, the UN and the Commonwealth, to discuss bilateral relations.

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US offers cash rewards to curb Iran smuggling

Updated 05 July 2022

US offers cash rewards to curb Iran smuggling

  • Navy targets weapons and drugs in Arabian Gulf and Red Sea

JEDDAH: The US Navy is offering cash rewards of up to $100,000 for information leading to the interception of smuggled weapons and narcotics in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea.

The initiative by the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet does not directly name Iran but analysts said it was clearly aimed at curbing the flow of Iranian arms to the Houthi militia in Yemen and restricting the lucrative regional drugs trade operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Any destabilizing activity has our attention,” 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins said. “Definitely we have seen in the last year skyrocketing success in seizing both illegal narcotics and illicit weapons. This represents another step in our effort to enhance regional maritime security.”
Operators fluent in Arabic, English and Farsi will staff a phone hotline, and the Navy will also take tips online in Dari and Pashto. Payouts can be as high as $100,000 or the equivalent in vehicles, boats or food for tips that include information on planned attacks targeting Americans.
Asked whether new seizures could increase tensions with Iran, Hawkins listed the weapons and drugs the Navy hoped to intercept under the program. “That’s what we’re after,” he said. “That’s not in the interest of regional stability and security.”

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The fleet and its allies seized $500 million in drugs alone in 2021, more than the four previous years combined, and intercepted the shipment of 9,000 weapons, three times the number in 2020.
Despite a UN Security Council arms embargo on Yemen, Tehran has long been transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weapons to the Houthis in Yemen. UN experts have examined missiles aimed at civilian targets and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and traced the components back to Iran.
The rewards program is the latest initiative under 5th Fleet Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, who also launched a drone task force last year amid rising tension with Iran. The US Navy and Revolutionary Guard naval forces have had several encounters in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Houthis said last week they were monitoring increased US activity in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf.“Because of this, defense and confrontation options are open,” a spokesman said.


Al Jazeera reporter likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, US says

Updated 04 July 2022

Al Jazeera reporter likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, US says

  • Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh was killed on May 11 during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank
  • Family “incredulous” after US reported it wasn't possible to determine whose gun fired bullet which killed her

WASHINGTON: Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, but independent investigators could not reach a definitive conclusion about the origin of the bullet that struck her, the US State Department said on Monday.

Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, was killed on May 11 during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank.

The US Security Coordinator (USSC), after summarizing investigations by both the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian Authority, concluded that gunfire from Israeli positions was likely responsible for Abu Akleh’s death, the State Department said.

“The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” the State Department said in a statement.

In forensic analysis by third-party examiners overseen by the USSC, however, ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged which prevented a clear conclusion as to its origin, the State Department said.

Abu Akleh's family said Monday they were “incredulous” after the US reported it was not possible to determine whose gun fired the bullet which killed her.

“With respect to today’s announcement by the State Department — on July 4, no less — that a test of the spent round that killed Shireen Abu Akleh, an American citizen, was inconclusive as to the origin of the gun that fired it, we are incredulous,” the family said in a statement.

Palestinians have said the Israeli military deliberately killed Abu Akleh. Israel has denied this, saying she may have been hit by errant army fire or by a bullet from one of the Palestinian gunmen who were clashing with its forces at the scene.

The death of Abu Akleh, and feuding between the sides over the circumstances, have overshadowed a visit by US President Joe Biden due this month.


Lebanese PM criticizes Hezbollah over drone provocation

Updated 04 July 2022

Lebanese PM criticizes Hezbollah over drone provocation

  • The Israeli military said on Saturday said that it has shot down the three drones
  • Hezbollah issued a statement saying they were unarmed and were sent on a reconnaissance mission

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister on Monday criticized the militant group Hezbollah for sending three unmanned aircraft over an Israeli gas installation last week, saying it was an unnecessarily risky action.
Najib Mikati’s comment came two days after Hezbollah launched three drones over the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Israeli military said on Saturday that it has shot down the three drones, before Hezbollah issued a statement saying they were unarmed and were sent on a reconnaissance mission. “The mission was accomplished and the message was received,” Hezbollah said.
Lebanon claims the Karish gas field is disputed territory under ongoing maritime border negotiations, whereas Israel says it lies within its internationally recognized economic waters.
“Lebanon believes that any actions outside the state’s framework and diplomatic context while negotiations are taking place is unacceptable and exposes it to unnecessary risks,” Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said, citing Mikati’s statement.
Israel and Hezbollah are bitter enemies that fought a monthlong war in the summer of 2006. Israel considers the group its most serious immediate threat, estimating it has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
The incident in the Karish gas field took place soon after US mediator Amos Hochstein recently visited Lebanese and Israeli officials, as talks were advancing.
Mikati on Saturday told reporters that Lebanon had received “encouraging information” regarding the border dispute, but refused to comment until after he receives a “written official response to the suggestions by the Lebanese side.”
Negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to determine their maritime borders commenced in October 2020, when the two sides held indirect US-mediated talks in southern Lebanon. Since taking over the mediation from late 2021, Hochstein has resorted to shuttle diplomacy with visits to both Beirut and Jerusalem.
The two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.

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