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Libya’s presidential election was meant to unite the country

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For weekend relief in war-torn Libya, there is little better entertainment than cheering the Arabian steeds at the racetrack in Tripoli, the capital. The competitors can be a stubborn bunch. It often takes six men to bundle a horse into its starting box. They place a sack over its head and yank it forwards with a leather belt strapped around its rump. The horses frequently rear up and dislodge the jockeys.

Staging Libya’s first race for president is proving far messier. There is no commonly accepted legal framework for the election, scheduled for December 24th. Candidates have been disqualified, then readmitted. The un official who was supposed to help oversee the process, Jan Kubis, resigned in November. With the vote likely to be postponed, warlords are flexing their muscles. On December 15th militias briefly surrounded government offices in Tripoli.

The election was meant to pull Libya out of a decade of chaos that began when rebels, with the help of nato, overthrew and killed the country’s ageing dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011. A disputed election in 2014 triggered a civil war between east and west, each with its own government. Foreign powers piled in: Turkey in the west and France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates in the east. The un tried to establish a “unity” government in 2015, but it did not have widespread support. In 2019 Khalifa Haftar, the strongman in the east, launched a siege of Tripoli that lasted 14 months.

General Haftar’s foray failed, thanks in large part to Turkey’s intervention. The un then initiated a new political process that led to a ceasefire in late 2020 and an interim government, agreed on by both sides, in February. The presidential election was meant to crown this progress. A large portion of the public registered to vote. But an election law pushed through by the speaker of the parliament based in the east, Aguila Saleh, who is also a presidential candidate, has been rejected by other factions. There has been little conventional campaigning, but armed groups are reportedly trying to strong-arm voters.

Even if the election goes ahead, few Libyans imagine it will mark a break with the past. One of the most popular candidates is Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, a son of the late dictator. When he emerged from his hideout in Zintan, south-west of Tripoli, to announce his candidacy, he wore a brown tunic like his father used to. Many Libyans are too young to remember the late Qaddafi’s brutality. Others appreciate the relative stability of that era, during the latter part of which Seif acted as a sort of prime minister. His followers believe Libya’s economy and infrastructure would be stronger had the rebellion never happened. They are not moved by the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Seif for torturing and killing civilians and rebels in 2011.

If Seif represents the Qaddafi era, General Haftar, also a candidate, represents the period that followed. He tried to seize control of the rebellion and proclaimed himself commander of Libya’s army after it. His men fired the first shots in the subsequent civil war, after a largely Islamist administration refused to hold new elections when its mandate expired in 2014. Like Seif, he is accused of war crimes. From his base near Benghazi, Libya’s second city (which he smashed during the war), he lords it over the east—and much of the south and west. He has spurned repeated offers to join Libya’s interim governments, spoiled past efforts to unite the country and has no economic vision. Still, he might fare well in the east, where few dare criticise him.

The west, by contrast, has a profusion of candidates. The most popular among them is Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the interim prime minister based in Tripoli. He was the head of the country’s largest construction company in Qaddafi’s day. Voters doubt that he would do much to curb corruption. When he became prime minister he promised not to run for any office, but changed his mind. Still, Libyans give him credit for keeping the streets clean and clearing some of the rubble. He has reopened the road between east and west and got planes flying across Libya again. He occasionally sounds a bit liberal: he has allowed women to pass their Libyan nationality on to their children. He has also instituted a grant for all couples who get married.

If none of the candidates gets a majority of votes, the election will go to a second round. That, of course, assumes that the first round takes place and that the result is respected. Neither is assured. General Haftar’s men tried to prevent Seif from appealing against his initial disqualification as a candidate (he was later reinstated). Critics of Mr Dbeibeh want him to be tossed out for breaking his pledge not to stand. The manoeuvring by militias is unlikely to stop once the votes are cast. Each of the meddling foreign powers has a favourite, too, and has thus far shown little concern for the well-being of ordinary Libyans.

Yet it is not all gloom. Libya has abundant oil and gas and a relatively small population (7m). It sits across the Mediterranean from the consumers of the eu. Away from the political scrapping, military commanders are making progress on reunification. And many think the un’s mission is in better hands now. Stephanie Williams, the American diplomat who drew up the electoral road map, is in charge again. She is trying to corral the candidates. But they are a stubborn bunch. 

Source: The Economist