Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters

Why elections won’t save Libya

Last month's parliamentary vote may alter the balance of power, but it will not fix Tripoli's security challenges

July 4, 2014 12:00AM ET

On June 25, Libyans went to the polls to elect a new 200-seat Council of Deputies that would replace the General National Congress. Three years after Libya’s revolution overthrew Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, the country’s security continues to deteriorate, and its economy has been crippled by endless protests at its oil facilities. The ruling Congress, whose mandate expired in February but which has continued to limp along until these latest elections, became so dysfunctional that many of its members simply stopped attending meetings. Most Libyans feel their politicians have failed to deliver basic government. As such, many hoped the elections would offer the promise of a much-needed new start and help salvage the country’s ailing transition.

But these elections may not usher in a new era. Libya’s political institutions have proved weak and ineffectual, and there is little to suggest that the new ruling body will be any different. Moreover, the struggle between liberal and Islamist political forces, which left the Congress paralyzed and prompted calls for its dissolution, continues to play out in the country.

A loose grouping of liberal forces opposed to Islamist takeover, including the National Forces Alliance, the federalists, and some tribal sheiks, has claimed victory across large swaths of the east, including in Benghazi, as well as in the south and some parts of the west. However, despite early indications showing liberals had surged ahead, their margin of victory is not yet clear. Final results are not due until mid-July, and since candidates were permitted to stand only as individuals, not as members of political parties, it is difficult to assess the extent of the informal coalition’s success.

By contrast, the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party and the Al-Wafa for Martyrs bloc that is close to former jihadist elements linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, appear to have suffered a heavy blow. Provisional results show that the Islamists have won in Misrata and parts of Souq al-Juma in Tripoli — both Islamist strongholds — but suffered heavy losses in other key areas.

This is not surprising. Amid accusations of obstructing the transition and power grab, the Islamists have seen their support dwindle considerably. In addition, many Libyans link Islamist political forces to the more militant brigades and militias that are implicated in a wave of attacks and assassinations in eastern Libya. If these preliminary results prove to be correct, the Islamists will likely lose their dominance in the country’s ruling body.

A crisis of legitimacy

While the liberal coalition’s victory will alter the political equation in Libya, it may not resolve the protracted political crisis. First, the legitimacy of the new Council of Deputies is likely to face challenges from the outset. Turnout was strikingly low at the polls. Only 630,000 Libyans, or 45 percent of the 1.5 million who registered to vote, cast their ballots. While unsurprising, the low turnout underscores the extent to which Libyans have turned their backs on the political process.

Moreover, in many parts of the country the security situation was so bad that voting did not even take place. A number of polling stations were forced to close as a result of attacks or the threat of attacks by competing militant groups. While there are plans to reschedule elections in some of these localities, some places might still be left without representation, given the deteriorating security climate.

To make matters worse, in accordance with the March 2014 election law, the council is expected to be even weaker than its predecessor. “The new council won’t have all the legislative and sovereign powers that the Congress had,” Congress spokesman Omar Hmeidan explained after the elections. “It has the power of a legislative body only.”

Unlike the Congress, the new council cannot declare a state of emergency or act as the supreme commander of the armed forces. These executive powers will now fall to the new head of state or president, who has yet to be chosen. In fact, there is still no agreement as to whether the new president should be elected or appointed by the council. Considering that the president will wield significant executive powers, including those that once fell to the Congress, appointment is going to be highly contentious. Meanwhile, the country is left with no head of state or legitimate representation. 

These elections will not pull Libya out of the abyss, because real power remains firmly outside formal state institutions and in the hands of an array of local power brokers that emerged during and after the revolution.

Balance of power

Libya’s political woes don’t end there. Even if the current elections shift the balance of power, it is unlikely that the disparate political players will come to the table with a different approach to politics. Libya’s political scene has become so polarized that the kind of zero-sum politics displayed over the past few months are likely to continue. Unless there is a fundamental shift in attitude among the country’s key political stakeholders, the new ruling body may soon find itself as choked and stagnated as the old one.

Ultimately, however, these elections will not pull Libya out of the abyss, because real power remains firmly outside the country’s formal institutions and in the hands of an array of local power brokers that emerged during and after the revolution. These players include brigades, militias, tribes, militant Islamist groups and even towns that act outside the governmental structures. In effect, the state has failed to create an army or police force that is capable of dealing with these actors or tackling the many security challenges facing the country.

As a result, the state is forced to rely on these local power brokers, many of whom are on state payrolls, calling on them to come to the rescue when crises arise. For example, earlier this year the Congress was forced to dispatch revolutionary brigades to deal with federalist rebels in the east who were trying to sell oil independently. In August 2013, the head of the Congress, Nouri Abusahmain, mandated that the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Chamber secure the capital, Tripoli. In April, the Congress issued Decision 33, entrusting revolutionary brigades with protecting Libyan towns and “the gains of the 17th February revolution.” Given the state’s reliance on these powerful local actors — whose primary loyalty is to factional commanders, political persuasions or ideologies rather than to the state — the new Council of Deputies will remain subservient to these forces that it cannot control.

The new leaders will also need to decide how to deal with Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, which is currently waging a war against Islamists in the east. While the liberal elements in the new ruling body, and particularly the federalists, might throw their full weight behind the renegade general, it is unlikely to make the battle in the east any easier or less protracted. 

In all, while the new elections might bring new players to Libya’s political scene, they will not fix the fundamental problems or issues that continue to hamper the country’s transition to any semblance of normality. 

Alison Pargeter is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a senior associate at Menas Associates. She is a specialist in North Africa with a particular focus on political Islamist movements and radicalization, and has published widely on her areas of expertise. Her books include “Libya: The Rise and Fall of Gaddafi,” “The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition” and “The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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