Libya’s mayors attempt to move into the driver’s seat

The country’s mayors and councillors are widely seen as legitimate representative of the local population.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Acting Benghazi Mayor Abdelrahman Elabbar speaks during an interview in Tunis. (Reuters)
Losing patience. Acting Benghazi Mayor Abdelrahman Elabbar speaks during an interview in Tunis. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Faced with a political crisis at the national level, Libya’s mayors and other municipal leaders have taken it upon themselves to try to break the stalemate.

At a meeting in Tripoli, representatives from 120 municipalities and towns took the unprecedented move of issuing an ultimatum to the House of Representatives (HoR) and the State Council (SC) to pass a law for elections for a new HoR and a president and the appointment of an interim government.

They said that if no action was taken by April 18, they would call on the Supreme Judicial Council to set aside the HoR and the SC, take over Libya’s legislative authority, issue an elections law and appoint a caretaker administration.

The creation of a local government system, with some 100 municipalities, elected councillors and mayors, is seen as Libya’s only significant political success since the revolution. Even that did not come easily. The government of former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan had wanted to appoint mayors and councillors itself and had tried to prevent municipal elections by not providing sufficient funds, refusing to set boundaries and creating other delaying tactics.

Given the political divisions and lack of funding, it was impossible to have all local elections on the same day so those tasked by the former parliament, the General National Congress, to supervise the process decided to have each municipality vote when it was ready. By the end of 2014, most municipalities had functioning mayors and councillors.

There have been backward steps. In August 2016, the Libyan National Army, led by eastern Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, replaced some elected mayors and councillors in the area with military appointees. Divisions in Misrata resulted in the city’s mayor being killed last December.

Nonetheless, the country’s mayors and councillors are widely seen as representative of the local population and legitimate in a way that neither the elected HoR nor the unelected SC are, which are generally viewed as self-serving and incompetent. Even the unelected military appointees in the east are more respected than the HoR.

Significantly, a recent meeting in Tripoli included all the functioning elected mayors or their representatives and eastern military appointees, plus those running towns where elections are yet to take place and delegates from a small number of municipal subdivisions.

The gathering had the support of both Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the internationally recognised, Tripoli-based Presidency Council and its Government of National Accord (GNA).

It is inconceivable that the eastern representatives would have gone to Tripoli without Haftar’s consent, although acting Benghazi Mayor Abdelrahman Elabbar played no small part in persuading others in eastern Libya to attend. They did so under condition that no member of the GNA or anyone directly linked to the Libyan political agreement attend.

Elabbar’s move was welcomed by UN Special Representative Ghassan Salame, who has proposed elections as a solution to the Libyan crisis. However, neither he nor the UN Support Mission in Libya was involved in the initiative.

Haftar has blown hot and cold about elections; he is known to want to stand as president but fears the humiliation of losing. Sarraj, too, has publicly endorsed elections but understands he could be swept into political oblivion by the results.

There are increasing reports that both have accepted that neither is strong enough to succeed alone and that they need to work together to have any chance of success.

This tentative rapprochement ties in with recent talks in Cairo on reuniting the Libyan military between chiefs of staff Abdel Razek Nazhuri and Abdul Rahman al-Tawil.

The question is whether the mayors will follow through with their ultimatum and, if they do, whether the Supreme Judicial Council will accept the challenge.

Another issue is how the HoR and SC will respond. For all their public endorsements of elections, both State Council leader Abdulrahman Sewehli and HoR President Ageela Saleh are considered to be happy with the status quo. Carrying on talking is widely viewed as a delaying tactic.

There are questions, too, about the response of the militias, particularly the all-powerful ones in Tripoli. A united government and new elections would end their freedom of action.

The ultimatum is potentially a game-changer but, as with so much else in Libya, it could end in nothing.