Seven years after the start of the Libyan revolution, the UN plans to hold elections in 2018. But they are unlikely to bring a permanent end to the conflict and the political, social, military and economic divisions in the country.
After the NATO-backed uprisings that ousted Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011, Libya plunged into a civil war that has wrecked the economy and left its population caught between rival governments, armed alliances and militias divided along political, religious, regional and business lines competing for power.
In July, the UN announced that it would help organise elections in 2018 as a route to a “peaceful and inclusive end to the transition phase”. But in such a fragmented and turbulent context, is it realistic to expect a political solution to the conflict through elections?
What does the election hope to achieve?
Holding elections is seen as a way to reconcile rival factions and to relaunch a political transition that could break the political deadlock in the country. UN Special Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame has called elections the “best way to separate the competitors".
“Several factors have led to a systemic deadlock in Libya,” Libya researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), Emrah Kekilli told TRT World. “Thus, Ghassan Salame and most segments of society see the elections as the only solution.”
Gaddafi's son is running in the election
Since the announcement of the elections, the spokesman of the Gaddafi family stated that Gaddafi’s son, Saif al Islam Gaddafi, would run in the elections. Gaddafi, who was under arrest until the passage of a recent amnesty law, is also wanted by the International Criminal Court for allegations of crimes against humanity.
Eastern Libya’s strongman and general of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar also hinted that he may run.
Despite the speculations about the support that these potential candidates may have, experts familiar with Libya say it is too early to make predictions about the race.
“When talking about Libya, it is too early to say who in the political arena will win or lose or gain a certain amount of votes, because in the previous elections [there was such a low turnout]. So first, there needs to be a high voter turnout, over 50 percent,” Emrullah Isler, Turkey’s Special Envoy to Libya told TRT World.
“There are many parties and political movements, but we need to wait to see how much support they will get.”
“The elections may have the positive effect that we will see how much support [actors like Haftar] actually get.”
Why haven’t elections worked in the past?
Libya last held elections in 2014 with a voter turnout of only 630,000. But the results were disputed and actually led to an escalation of the armed conflict that resulted in rival governments being declared in Tobruk in eastern Libya and Tripoli in western Libya.
“The elections in 2014 were held in a context of conflict and there was a very low voter turnout," said Kekilli. “But did the Zeiden government that emerged from [the 2012] elections achieve any sort expected outcomes? No.”
“Since the 2014 elections, we’ve seen a deepening of the crisis in several areas.”
Kekilli cited five major issues, including the continued stalling of major projects from the pre-revolution era: the security crisis and lack of a proper central army and police force; increasing economic problems; intensification of clashes between the various tribes, segments and cities; and finally the increased intervention and involvement from international actors.
“The parliament established after the  parliamentary elections was viewed very positively and there was more societal consensus... and [at the time] the contentions between most of the actors hadn’t escalated into bloody clashes and, most importantly, international intervention was not at the level it’s at now,” said Kekilli.
“But due to the lack of action in the five areas I mentioned, the crisis has actually worsened. Now, we are going into elections in a much more chaotic context than before... so I’m not too hopeful that an election will solve these now-chronic issues.”
Then why did so many people register to vote?
“Despite the fact that there is a more chaotic war context compared to 2014, the number of people who registered to vote is much higher,” Kekilli said. “The entire system has collapsed, and the people have been crushed under the economic problems. Ghassan Salame’s plan...has created a positive air and expectation from the people,” he continued.
The total number of Libyans who registered to vote, including expatriate registrations is currently at about 2.4 million, according to the electoral commission. This number includes more than 860,000 recent registrations since the voter registration period was opened in early December.
“Six million Libyan people have been deprived of services...when you go to Libya and walk around, no matter where you go, you see that people are in need of services. This is unacceptable in an oil-rich country,” explained Isler.
“The Libyan people want a solution as soon as possible so their country can attain peace and prosperity.”
Kekilli also says that the chaos in Libya has strengthened the pre-revolution elite that was close to Gaddafi, who are now registering to vote.
“These people—about 600,000 hadn’t voted before. We can see now they are showing more activity nowadays. Can we say that this demographic contributed to the increase in voter registrations? Definitely.”
Can elections bring the various actors together?
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of a solution is the current political actors, according to Isler.
“The solution is actually quite simple. If Libyans say they want to solve these political issues, they need to sit together and solve this through dialogue... The only way out of this political crisis is through dialogue. But we can’t say that they have reached that point yet,” he said.
“What the actors on the field need to do is take responsibility, but they are unable to due to minor differences... Unfortunately, they are always prioritising their own agendas instead of the good of the whole country.”
The increase in international intervention has also complicated the situation on the ground. The changes in the political stances of former US president Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump, as well as the intervention of local actors, has deepened some of the divides.
The UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s material, financial and logistical support to different allies on the ground, such as Haftar, has exacerbated the conflict, explains Kekilli. He says that those groups end up becoming actors working against the good of the country as a whole. He also notes that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been using Madkhali Salafism as a tool to counter various factions in Libya.
Egypt has also taken a direct approach in Libya, and Kekelli says that Sisi’s recent “anti-terror operation”, partially conducted in the Western Desert along Libya’s eastern border may have an effect on the elections in Libya as well.
Most recently, even the UN has admitted difficulties to a political solution to the Libyan conflict, saying that "a political solution in Libya remains out of reach in the near future."
Despite UN efforts to overcome the current stalemate, "military dynamics in Libya and conflicting regional agendas show a lack of commitment to a peaceful solution," it said in a report.
How did it get to this point?
Libya has been mired in conflict since the 2011 Arab uprisings and the subsequent overthrow of leader Muammar Gaddafi, leaving the country with two main rival governments: the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli and was formed as part of a UN-brokered process laid out in the 2015 Libyan Political Process; and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which was formed after 2014 elections. The latter is backed by the powerful general of the self-styled Libyan National Army, Haftar Khalifa. Khalifa is strongly backed by Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el Sisi.
The Tobruk government was the internationally recognised government until the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in December 2015.
In addition to these two rival administrations, there are several militias that wield considerable influence and control large swathes of territory in the country, many of which have tribal alliances.
Furthermore, Daesh which once controlled large swathes of land in Libya, but is now mostly contained to smaller areas, is remobilising in southern and central Libya, and using insurgency tactics to weaken and delegitimise the existing actors.
The power vacuum has also allowed for the development and flourishing of a war economy centred around Libya’s oil and financial sectors, as well as a black market. As one of the main migrant gateways to Europe, Libya has been a transit hub for hundreds of thousands of people from Africa. Amid this insecurity and political chaos, it has become a centre for human trafficking and slave trade, with men auctioned off for a few hundred dollars.