Libya will hold elections in time, but what will happen after December 24th? Interview with Dr. Abdullah Othman

By Vanessa Tomassini.

“I think that Libya will reach the elections on December 24 so far, and the only impediment to holding it is the outbreak of war, whether it is a limited war within one of the cities in Tripoli or a war between the army and other groups. I am not concerned about the inability to reach the elections on December 24, but that after the 24th, the results may not be accepted by the losing parties, especially those who have military power on the ground. The candidates who have military power on the ground may not accept the victory of a particular candidate, and they may not accept the elections’ result”. To tell us that is Dr. Abdullah Othman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tripoli and member of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) which created the Libyan Government of National Unity of Abdel Hamid Al-Dbeibah.

“If this candidate does not have enough strength to exist, and all the losing opponents may unite to prevent the completion of the electoral process, or to obstruct the acceptance of the election result”. Dr. Abdullah Othman says, stressing that: “the Hight National Electoral Commission announced for November 15 the opening of candidacies, the start of accepting nominations. I think we will reach the elections in time, and if we succeed and the result is contrary to the expectations of some, after the 24th there will be big problems. If we did not go to the elections in time, as this government, which is limited to a certain period that ends on December 24, we may be in a local and international crisis. The Parliament – which withdrew confidence from it a month ago and considered it a caretaker government – may form another government that may receive international recognition because the legitimization that the Security Council recognize to it is linked to reaching the elections on December 24. If the Parliament forms a new executive, we will practically have two or more governments, and there will be a conflict of another kind and a return to the square of division, and perhaps war.”

First of all, Dr. Othman, thank you for this meeting. Please, tell us more about your political background and your experience in the previous Gaddafi regime.

“I am Dr. Othman Abdullah, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tripoli. I worked as Director of the Green Book Research Center for seven years from 2001 to 2007. I worked in the Gaddafi Foundation for Charitable Activities as an advisor to the Scientific Committee and worked closely with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in his reform program, and since 2011, I participated in many political dialogues between Libyans. After these dialogues, I became a member of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which produced the Interim Government of National Unity in the first Tunis meeting in November 2020 and then the second in Geneva, in February 2021. I returned to Libya at the beginning of 2018, after a seven-year hiatus. Now, I am in Libya as a researcher in the National Authority for Scientific Research”.

So, you know well the Gaddafi family and you have a history with Dr. Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi. What’s your opinion on the national reconciliation project: what are the challenges, and when we can see the return of the Gaddafi family to their country?

“Libya is a complicated and slightly complex situation. In 2011, the regime changed and a new political class came in. They dismissed everyone who worked with the previous regime with the Political Isolation Law, which excludes those who work with the regime. The Gaddafi family was a symbol of this large number of people, and after the political conditions allowed to participate in the political process since 2019, which is run by the United Nations mission, several meetings were held with this broad spectrum with the representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Ghassan Salameh. After the issuance of the general amnesty law by the Libyan parliament, Saif al-Islam was given freedom of movement. So far, I do not have accurate information about whether he intends to run or not, but I think he is thinking about it, because there are no local legal impediments to his candidacy, and that many of those who support him or consider themselves targeted, abandoned, isolated or excluded in 2011, call on Saif al-Islam to represent them in any upcoming elections. I think the decision has not yet been taken. Perhaps within days, the picture will become clear, and if he decides to run, I think he will be the most representative of the group of supporters of the former regime and be their candidate in these elections. I know Saif al-Islam closely, as he is a civil figure, and a person who went through the political work and had a reform program called the ‘Libya Tomorrow Program, and he had a positive openness to foreign relations, especially towards the West. He contributed to reaching many solutions to the problems that Libya was experiencing With Western countries such as Lockerbie and UTIA and relations with Britain and Europe in general. I think that he has a balance of acceptance from both these countries if the event in 2011 in which many Libyans sided with the regime led by Gaddafi father. Especially, since the Libyans consider that the West attacked this regime and that the West destroyed it. Many of the Libyans who sided with the regime in 2011 were not part of the regime, and perhaps they had many reservations about it, but they considered Western intervention and NATO’s attack on their country a national battle. Many people sided with the regime as they believe it was defending Libya. When the crisis ended in 2011, these people were targeted by isolation, marginalization, and displacement through some retaliatory measures. Today, these people are considered an important ‘electoral tank.’ They will direct their votes to any candidate affiliated with the supporters of the former regime. I expect that they will be four or five candidates. As a result, the votes may be divided between them if they do not agree on one candidate. This candidate may be Saif al-Islam if he decides to run or is able to do so…”.

If he runs, you think he will have the chance to be the next Libya’s president?

I cannot yet be sure of an accurate answer to this question, because the voting blocs in Libya are complex, complicated and fragmented. All the aspiring names have an audience that will be biased towards them. The second, and perhaps a new name will appear and come from behind and benefit from the people’s refusal of some names to contribute to the crisis. The large voting blocs in Libya are located in the western region, which I expect will be decisive. No one can now confirm which candidate will be the next president of Libya. Haftar’s supporters believe that Haftar will be the president, Fathi Pashagha’ supporters believe that he will be the president of Libya, and Saif’s supporters believe that he will be the president of Libya, and the supporters of Aqila Saleh also, and so on. Perhaps this is the luck of an unknown name that is still benefiting from the biases that are taking place now, especially since we will witness a first round, in which I expect there will be 30 or 40 candidates, and we will witness the second stage a competition between two personalities. Then, the votes that went to the losing candidates in the first round will have a role in producing a different voting map when divided between the first and second candidate, no one can say this one or the other one will be the president of Libya.”

If we look at Libya as a whole, is the country ready for elections? For example, you are from Sabha, are there in the south the requirements to hold elections in terms of security and stability?

“There is no region in Libya that has sufficient security to hold elections without violations or abuses, but a large part of Libyans is convinced that the solution lies in holding elections, and that it is the way that will change the situation. They see that security is lost due to the absence of a legitimate authority, the lack of an elected president and the absence of unified parliament, especially since all the existing bodies are in conflict with legitimacy. The national army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar does not want to submit to an authority that came with a political agreement, but it wants subordination to an elected authority even at the level of argument, perhaps after the elections. Libyans believe that the elections can lead to suggesting solutions to the various manifestations of the crisis and that there will be no political or security solutions before that.”

How do you see the Parliament’s work in the elections’ preparation?

“I think that Parliament has made most of the amendments required by the High National Electoral Commission. Disagreement remains on one or two points, and the UN mission can invite the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum or one of its committees for the purpose of understanding the views expressed, especially from the State Council for example. Some points may be added to suggest treatments that can be included in an appendix to the road map so that it leads to reaching the elections with a minimum of satisfaction for all parties.”

Do you think that there are some foreign countries against elections in Libya?

“I think that most of the countries do not want elections, despite their announcements to support them. Perhaps America is keen to hold these elections because it does not want the Russian presence in Libya, and therefore it seeks to establish a legitimate authority formed by a new president and representatives to cooperate with it, which can implement an action plan of the 5 + 5 joint military committee for the expulsion of foreign forces and mercenaries. That is the reason for the enthusiasm and not because of aligning with the desire of the Libyan people, who bear the reasons for what they have reached. If there were no Russians in Libya, the Libyan war would have continued for another 20 years.”

Do you think that Khalifa Haftar has a role in the Libya’s future?

“I believe that he has power on the ground that he is trying to use for a political goal. He has acceptance in a geographical area, which is the eastern region, but I think that after the attack on Tripoli and his return without reaching the capital, it is no longer possible to assert his future role as president of a unified Libya, especially since the largest voting bloc is in the West and the mood of the people has changed. I was in Tripoli in April,4 at that time some people thought that he should enter to change the conditions in which they live. But after the war was prolonged and its direct effects appeared on neighborhoods and regions and the extent of the destruction and the tragedies, displacement, victims, and the accompanying hate speech, led to a change of mood that will affect the direction of voices for those who wanted to impose their goal with the war.”

Regarding the economy, is Libya ready to receive foreign companies? What are the promising fields to work there for foreign investors?

“From my point of view, if an elected government comes to Libya, that could happen. Libya is a promising country, and the percentage of previous projects implemented, some of them reached 50 or 60 percent. I think that if there is an atmosphere of stability and peace, companies will come to a country that attracts investment, has many resources and enjoys a great location. It has a wide and distinctive geography, and has diverse economic resources, and if it settled, it could be an experience of growth or a miracle in North Africa.”

So, you think that it’s better for foreign companies to wait until elections…

“Yes, I think so, although after the experience of the war, even the armed groups in Tripoli have a different outlook, and tend towards peace and integration into state institutions. I have been based in Tripoli for more than 3 years. In the pre-war period, armed manifestations could be seen outside the control of the State. But today these groups have become part of the state, they have been integrated in the police and army institutions, even at the level of uniforms, gates, deployment, and the lack of violations that were frequent in the past, and it can be said that it is one of the benefits of the war’s complications. In other words, even the war parties, the armed groups from all sides, have come to believe that the solution is to integrate into state institutions. As well as official bodies and ministries are trying to develop policies to integrate them in one way or another with qualification, training and tasks. Undoubtedly, there are some beneficiaries of the climate of war trying to delay this achievement. But at the individuals’ level, they want to be part of the state apparatus. I noticed that in Tripoli and the western region in particular.”

Regarding Italy and Libya, what do you think, how did this relationship change?  Can it return to its previous era? If Italy made mistakes… and how can they be corrected?

“There are old historical relations between Libya and Italy. We have gone through painful moments in the colonial period, and good periods of understanding and settling the issue of compensation, apology and others. Until 2011, relations were good and there were huge investment projects. The mood of the Libyan people tends to the Italian, which means that there is a common ground on which to build, but that depends on the ability of the Italian government and the strategy and policies it takes to prove its existence in reality. I see that this cooperation and understanding has been delayed due to different circumstances, and sometimes for the benefit of other countries. France, for example, did not have a presence in Libya before 2011, meaning that there was no French influence in Libya, but today it exists through the relationship with some political parties. The same for Russia, it did not exist except in the framework of an official relationship with the Libyan state in the matter of armament in particular, and it is present today in the eastern region. On the other hand, I think that Italy has great acceptance in the western region if it seizes this opportunity and contributes and helps Libya in the reconstruction and investment to exist effectively. Buy if Italy delays, I think there will be other countries to replace it. I do not think that this is in the interest of Libya or Italy, because Libya is the “gate of danger” for Italy, in terms of immigration in large numbers and the terrorism issue. Italy complains about this flow and about the lack of aid from the European Union and the weakness of adopting effective policies to solve the illegal immigration crisis. Libya is the main gateway, and therefore Italy can participate and help Libya in limiting it and resisting it. On the southern borders, for example, in cooperation, training and financing for border control. That will prevent immigration and terrorism from a place far from Italy and not in the Mediterranean, also through the settlement of development projects in the regions of southern Libya. The Libyan-Italian cooperation on gas, which is the backbone of life in the world, gas comes out of Mellitah to Italy and from there to Europe, and it is a very large project, and part of the causes of the international conflict in the Middle East is a struggle over gas. The Russians aspiring to gas, the Qataris are also aspiring to gas, and other countries, and the pipeline between Libya and Italy is an artery between Africa and Europe. Therefore, the Italians must have a soft economic and investment presence, through projects and cultural relations between Libya and Italy. There is an appropriate ground for that.”

This interview originally appeared on the Italian “Strumenti Politici

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