Since the uprisings in Libya began in February 2011, the country has seen considerable and almost constant upheaval. International players have tried to facilitate a transition to democracy, but success has been fleeting. Now, in the midst of political division and internal conflict, Libyans are attempting to hold presidential and parliamentary elections. Necessary as these elections are, they are a risky endeavor, and could easily result in an escalation of violence if they are executed poorly. Drawing on interviews and an extensive review of secondary sources, this report outlines the factors that contribute to the ongoing violence that threaten Libya’s upcoming elections, an overview of the major actors, the complex interests and grievances at play, the windows and triggers for election-related violence, the opportunities to prevent violence, pre- and postelection challenges, possible election outcomes and scenarios, and recommendations for the international community.

Summary

  • Amid deadlock in resolving Libya’s internal conflict, Libyans and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya are preparing to hold presidential and parliamentary elections— possibly before the end of 2018.
  • Because none of Libya’s existing governments has enough legitimacy to garner the necessary domestic and international support, elections are necessary. Elections, however, present a serious risk—especially if they are held prematurely.
  • The risk for violence and further state collapse is heightened by Libya’s long-standing fragmentation, its recent history, and uncertainty around the future of the state.
  • Raising the stakes is competition over Libya’s state institutions, oil resources, and frozen assets. Political, factional, and local grievances also exacerbate the risks for violence.
  • The ongoing National Conference, subnational reconciliations, security-sector reform talks, and the inability of any actor to militarily dominate could all serve as resiliencies as Libyans approach elections. These are likely not enough, however, to mitigate much of the expected violence.
  • The UN Support Mission and the international community are encouraging competing Libyan factions to come together to produce a constitution and election laws. Both are crucial steps before elections are held.
  • After the elections, Libyans will face a host of unresolved challenges, not the least of which will be consolidating competing factions, finalizing a constitution if this is not accomplished before the elections, and conducting security-sector reform.
  • The international community should support alternatives that delay general elections. This would give Libyans time to work toward compromises and establish conditions for more durable elections that see less violence.
  • Members of the international community also need to be more deliberate in coordinating their approach to avoid unintentionally complicating efforts in Libya.
  • Finally, the international community should prepare for the possibility that elections could prompt another, more intense phase of violence.

About the Report

This report examines the risks for violence surrounding Libya’s presidential and parliamentary elections slated to be held in 2018 or 2019. Funded by the United States Institute of Peace, the report is based on research and interviews with government officials, nongovernment experts, and practitioners in and outside Libya.

About the Author

Alexander A. Decina is an Amman-based analyst and Boren Fellow focused on conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa with particular attention to factional dynamics, security and political developments, and diplomatic efforts in Libya and Syria. A Middle East and North Africa consultant, he conducts predictive and diagnostic analysis on conflicts across the region for private-sector clientele. Previously, Decina was a research associate for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to that, he worked with think tanks and NGOs in Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Darine El Hage is a regional program manager for North Africa at USIP’s Center for Middle East and Africa based in Tunis, Tunisia. Nathaniel L. Wilson is a program officer covering Libya for USIP, leading its programming in rule of law and local reconciliation peacebuilding initiatives.

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