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


Turkish minister aims to boost Palestinian economy in rare West Bank trip

Updated 24 May 2022

Turkish minister aims to boost Palestinian economy in rare West Bank trip

  • Turkey signed nine new pacts with the embattled Palestinian Authority
  • Cavusoglu will meet Israeli officials on Wednesday, the latest step in a diplomatic thaw between Ankara and the Jewish state

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: Turkey’s top diplomat announced Tuesday a raft of new agreements to bolster the struggling Palestinian economy, during the first high-level Turkish visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 15 years.
During Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s trip to Ramallah, Turkey signed nine new pacts with the embattled Palestinian Authority, ranging from agriculture to education and trade.
Cavusoglu will meet Israeli officials on Wednesday, the latest step in a diplomatic thaw between Ankara and the Jewish state. He will also make a private visit to the Al-Asqa mosque compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
Alongside his Palestinian counterpart Riyad Al-Maliki, Cavusoglu pledged to push ahead with plans for the construction of an industrial zone in the Palestinian territories.
“The necessary order has been given; there is no luxury for evading and delaying this project,” he said, also setting a $2 billion annual bilateral trade target and pledging more scholarships with Palestinians to study in Turkey.
The World Bank warned this month that the Palestinian economy was in a “precarious” state, with the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority — a major West Bank employer — only paying partial wages since November.
Maliki described Cavusoglu’s visit as “historic” and reflecting the “special relationship between the two countries.”
Turkey has long been a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, but visits to the West Bank had been obstructed by a 15-year diplomatic rupture between Ankara and Israel.
Israel and Turkey proclaimed a new era in relations following President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara and Istanbul in March.
Cavusoglu’s Ramallah visit came as fresh violence rocked the West Bank flashpoint of Jenin.
Israel’s army said a shootout erupted between troops and Palestinians during the latest in a series of operations in the Jenin area, with a man suspected of “terrorist activity” arrested.
Three Palestinians were wounded, according to the Palestinian health ministry.


Three Turkish soldiers killed in Iraq

Updated 24 May 2022

Three Turkish soldiers killed in Iraq

  • Another four soldiers were wounded during fighting, said the ministry statement, which did not say where the clash took place
  • Turkey's official news agency Anadolu said the Turkish soldiers had clashed with fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)

ISTANBUL: Three Turkish soldiers serving in northern Iraq as part of operations against Kurdish militants were killed Tuesday, the defense ministry announced.
Another four soldiers were wounded during fighting, said the ministry statement, which did not say where the clash took place.
Turkey’s official news agency Anadolu said the Turkish soldiers had clashed with fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and its western allies say is a terrorist organization.
The PKK has training camps and bases in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, a conflict that has killed 40,000 people, many of them civilians.
Ankara has launched a series of operations against PKK fighters in Iraq and Syria, the latest one in northern Iraq beginning in April.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that Turkey would soon launch a new military operation into northern Syria which he said was designed to create a 30-kilometer (19-mile) “security zone” along their border.
Since 2016, Turkey has also launched three offensives into northern Syria against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish group it considers to be part of the PKK.
Turkey wants to use these security zones to keep Kurdish militants at a safe distance — and to house some of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently sheltering inside its own borders.


Thousands attend funeral for slain Guard colonel in Iran

Updated 24 May 2022

Thousands attend funeral for slain Guard colonel in Iran

  • The killing on Sunday of Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei bore the hallmarks of previous deadly shooting attacks in Iran blamed on Israel
  • There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack

TEHRAN, Iran: Thousands of mourners poured into the streets of Tehran on Tuesday to pay their respects to a senior Revolutionary Guard member fatally shot by two gunmen on a motorcycle earlier this week, punching the air with their fists and chanting “Death to Israel.”
The killing on Sunday of Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei bore the hallmarks of previous deadly shooting attacks in Iran blamed on Israel, such as those targeting the country’s nuclear scientists.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack. Iranian officials have blamed “global arrogance,” which is code for the United States and Israel, for Khodaei’s killing.
The funeral procession snaked through the main Tehran cemetery as mourners shouted anti-US and anti-Israel slogans. A prominent poster hailed Khodaei as a martyr along with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian general killed in a US drone strike in 2020 in Iraq, and featured tattered Israeli, American and British flags.
“Iran is a victim of terrorism,” the banner declared, overlaid with the logos of the Mossad and Central Intelligence Agency.
Guard commander Gen. Hossein Salami as well as Gen. Esmail Ghaani, leader of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, attended the funeral.
Ghaani also offered condolences at Khodaei’s home on Monday night. Iran’s nuclear negotiator visited the crime scene, underscoring the government’s shock. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi vowed revenge. A street in Tehran has already been named after the colonel.
The 50-year-old Khodaei remains a shadowy figure, and Iran has yet to offer biographic detail beyond saying that he was a member of the elite Quds Force that oversees operations abroad through Iran’s allied militias across the Middle East. The Guard has described him as “defender of the shrine” — a reference to Iranians who support militias fighting the extremist Daesh group in Syria and Iraq.
The manner of the slaying evoked previous targeted attacks by Israel in Iran. In November 2020, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed while traveling in a car outside Tehran.
Women in black chadors wailed and wept over Khodaei’s coffin, an ornate box covered with flowers and draped with the Iranian flag and mourning symbols of the Shiite faith.
“We want revenge only,” Moghtaderi, one of the mourners, told The Associated Press at the funeral. She gave only her last name. “Enemies must be aware that we are loyal to the martyrs and their blood is so precious to us.”
Iranian security forces are still pursuing the assailants, who escaped, state media reported. Authorities have yet to make any arrests over the killing.
The procession took place as a sandstorm blanketed Iran, shuttering schools and government offices in the capital.
Meanwhile in the country’s central desert, a fighter jet crashed during a training exercise, killing two pilots, state media reported. Reports did not identify the cause of the crash at the Anarak training site near the central city of Isfahan. An investigation was underway.
Iran’s air force has an assortment of US-made military aircraft purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It also has Russian-made MiG and Sukhoi planes.
Decades of Western sanctions have made it hard to obtain spare parts and maintain the aging aircraft. Crashes occasionally happen among its faltering fleet. In February, a fighter jet plunged into a soccer pitch in the country’s northwestern city of Tabriz, killing both pilots and a civilian.
Iran is believed to have modeled its F-7 fighter after China’s jet J-7 that is considered a copy of the Soviet-era MiG-21. Beijing built the aircraft for export to countries including Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and North Korea. Iranian pilots for years have used the F-7 for training, with some mishaps.
Four years ago, an F-7 similarly crashed near Isfahan during an aerial exercise because of what was later described as a technical problem.


Two killed, 120 injured in Abu Dhabi gas explosion

The blast on Monday set off a fire that damaged the facades of six buildings and a number of stores. (AP)
Updated 24 May 2022

Two killed, 120 injured in Abu Dhabi gas explosion

  • Two people were killed and 120 injured in a gas cylinder explosion in a restaurant in Abu Dhabi
  • The blast on Monday set off a fire that damaged the facades of six buildings and a number of stores

ABU DHABI: Two people were killed and 120 injured in a gas cylinder explosion in a restaurant in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi, police said.
Initial reports “showed that 64 people sustained minor injuries, 56 others were moderately wounded, and two people died,” police tweeted.
The blast on Monday set off a fire that damaged the facades of six buildings and a number of stores before being brought under control, they added.
Four of the damaged buildings were “safely” evacuated, with efforts underway to find their residents temporary housing “until the buildings are completely secured,” the police said.
Pictures released by Abu Dhabi police showed first responders tending to a person on a gurney, and debris and broken glass strewn across the pavement.
A witness told The National newspaper that he heard two explosions around lunchtime.
“The first sound was small and people started calling the fire and police,” said the man, who was not identified.
“Then soon, there was a big blast. It was a really big sound. The windows shook and in some offices, the windows shattered.”
The authorities gave no indication of foul play.
However, the UAE has been on heightened alert since a Houthi drone and missile attack killed three oil workers in Abu Dhabi on January 17.

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Death toll rises to 10 after building collapses in Iran’s Abadan city

Updated 24 May 2022

Death toll rises to 10 after building collapses in Iran’s Abadan city

  • The 10-story residential and commercial building partly collapsed on Monday

DUBAI: The death toll from a building collapse in the southern Iranian city of Abadan has reached 10, with some people still missing, the official IRNA news agency reported on Tuesday.
The 10-story residential and commercial building partly collapsed on Monday, leaving at least 80 people under the rubble, according to state TV.
“After hours of emergency efforts, 30 people trapped under the rubble were extracted alive and taken to hospital to treat their injuries,” a deputy governor of the Khuzestan province told IRNA.
The number of people still trapped under the rubble remains unclear.