Libya will host its first round of presidential elections later this month, raising hopes of uniting the war-torn and divided country under one elected leader. 

Libyans have lived through more than 10 years of nearly constant civil war since February 2011 when the upheavals of the Arab spring spread across the Middle East. The North African country became the scene of a violent struggle between rebels – which the West recognized as the legitimate representatives of Libya – and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, which failed to topple as easily as some neighboring countries did and held on to power by, among other things, bombing its own civilians. 

Gaddafi’s response drew widespread international condemnation, which led to the decision to launch comprehensive NATO air strikes. By October 2011, the air strikes had assisted the rebels in ousting and killing the man who ruled Libya for more than four decades. 

Following the success of the rebels, Libya descended into chaos and its first civil war with rival Islamist and other factions fighting each other to gain control over the oil-rich state. One victim of that chaos was U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens who was killed during an Islamic terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012.

Various international attempts at finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict failed. Instead, the country fought its second, multi-sided, civil war from 2014 until 2020 but the underlying power struggle remains far from resolved. The war was a power struggle between warlord Khalifa Haftar, a former general and early associate of Gaddafi’s and commander of the Libyan National Army in eastern Libya, and the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord. Turkey and Qatar have been aiding the UN-backed government, while Haftar’s Libyan National Army, on the other hand, has received backing from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia, among others. 

In March this year, as part of UN-backed efforts to steer the country toward a more stable future, a unity government led by Interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has declared that he is running in the elections, was formed with the mandate to rule the country until the upcoming elections have been held. Haftar has announced that he is also running for president.

The first round of the elections will take place on Dec. 24, while the second round will take place a month later, on Jan. 24.

As candidates begin to submit their candidacies, however, fears have emerged that the elections will stir up renewed conflict and violence between various factions. The Libyan election commission recently disqualified Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the country’s former ruler, from running in the election due to an earlier conviction, in absentia, for war crimes committed during the 2011 civil war. When his lawyer, Khaled al-Zaidi, tried to submit his client’s appeal of the disqualification at the Sebha Court of Appeal, armed men reportedly raided the court and stopped him from entering. 

“Attacks against judicial or election facilities or judicial or elections personnel are not only criminal acts, punishable under Libyan law, but also undermine Libyans’ right to participate in the political process,” the U.S. embassy in Libya said in a statement. 

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said it was greatly concerned about the attack in Sebha and warned against acts that could interfere with the elections. 

“The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is following with great concern the continued closure of Sebha Court of Appeal, in addition to reported threats against the judiciary. An armed group, allegedly affiliated to forces controlling Sebha, has reportedly, again, violently obstructed the work of the Sebha Court of Appeal. The reports also indicate that judges were physically prevented from conducting their legally mandated duties, directly impeding the electoral process. UNSMIL is also alarmed by increasing reports of intimidation and threats against judges and judicial employees, particularly those dealing with electoral-related complaints, as well as against candidates, in a number of locations in Libya.” 

Peaceful elections leading to some level of stability in Libya would not only benefit the country’s long-suffering population, but would also have a positive impact on the region where neighboring countries such as Algeria and Egypt have long feared that the conflict could spill over its borders in the form of Islamist terrorism.

Egypt, which assumed the presidency of the African Peace and Security Council on Nov. 1, has made fighting terrorism in Africa one of its main priorities.

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