Elections under assault in Libya

International support for elections after the May 2 attack does not change the fact that they now look more unlikely than ever.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj talks to the media in front of the electoral commission building in Tripoli, on May 2. (Reuters)
Deeper uncertainties. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj talks to the media in front of the electoral commission building in Tripoli, on May 2. (Reuters)

TUNIS - UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame met with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and former Burundi President Pierre Buyoya representing the African Union to assess the situation in Libya, in particular political developments and security.

The Quartet, as the group is known, was in a positive mood. Its post-meeting statement spoke of progress in implementing the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) and in bringing about dialogue in the country.

The four emphasised the need for parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to take place before the end of the year. These, the Quartet said, would require a legal framework, “including a constitutional framework and electoral law.” The Quartet members also spoke of the “important preparatory efforts” of the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) in registering voters.

Two days later, on May 2, a suicide squad attacked the west Tripoli headquarters of the elections commission, killing 14 staff members and security guards and injuring six others. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility but the attack was different from previous ISIS incursions in Tripoli. It was a deliberate ideological assault on the very principles of elections.

ISIS is implacably opposed to representative democracy. As far as it and other Islamist militants are concerned, elections are “haram” — forbidden by Islamic law.

Questions are being asked about how four attackers managed to enter the secure complex. They seem to have known exactly where to go and what to attack. The section designated for voter registration was destroyed, although there is an electronic backup of the data.

Most of the killings happened in another part of the complex. An HNEC source said two gunmen went to the top floor — one to the finance department and the other to administration — and started shooting.

Despite the Quartet’s declaration about the importance of elections before the end of the year, there were serious doubts about whether such a vote was possible given the divisions in Libya. The Tripoli attack will magnify those doubts.

ISIS may have been smashed in Sirte and its sympathisers chased out of Benghazi and other places such as Sabratha but it still has sympathisers in Libya, especially in the west and the south. They may not be large in number but they are thought to be enough to attack other elections offices and polling stations.

There is also a question about the timing of the attack. One suggestion is that it was a response to the announcement by his family that Wissam Ben Hamid, one of the leaders of the Islamist militants in Benghazi, was dead. In fact, it is known that he died at the end of 2016 when Libyan National Army forces bombarded one of the last militant strongholds in the city’s Ganfouda district.

Nonetheless, it is being suggested that Benghazi Islamists in Tripoli decided to mark his death with a revenge attack.

Another theory is that the attack was in response to the announcement by House of Representatives (HoR) President Ageela Saleh that he was going to ask it to pass legislation for elections to take place. That, however, was only three days before the attack, hardly enough time to prepare an assault so preparations likely had already been made.

Putting a brave face on matters, the UN Support Mission in Libya, which Salame heads, tweeted that “terrorist attacks will not deter #Libyans from moving forward in the process of consolidating #national unity and building the state of law and institutions.”

Similarly, the attack drew widespread condemnation from the international community and from both sides of the Libyan conflict, with many voicing support for elections. The head of the HoR-recognised but internationally spurned administration in the east, Abdullah al-Thani, not only condemned the attack but invited the HNEC to relocate to “safer” premises in Benghazi.

International condemnations and support for elections do not change the fact that they now look more unlikely than ever.

Speaking a few hours after the suicide attack, Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mismari condemned the attack but gave elections a firm thumbs down. The LNA supported them, he said, but not while Islamists were present in Tripoli. He included the Muslim Brotherhood in that grouping.

Even Saleh’s call for elections appears to be limited to a presidential contest. He said nothing about parliamentary ones. He added there was no chance for a deal with the State Council to amend the LPA within the time available. Without an amendment to the LPA to define the roles of a president, a prime minister and the HoR, a presidential election is likely to result in more squabbling and chaos.

There are many in Libya who want elections, not least former Qaddafi supporters who say their candidates can win. For many more who have come to distrust the main political players on all sides, who long for stability, security and peace and who increasingly regard 2011 as a stolen revolution, there is little belief that elections will take place this year or,  if they do, that they will cure the divisions and chaos.