What You Need to Know About Libya's Elections

With the country in turmoil and potentially on the brink of a civil war, Libyans head to the polls today.

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With the country in turmoil and potentially on the brink of civil war, Libyans head to the polls today. We may only hear about Libya these days from the nine million Google results relating to the infamous B-word, but the pre-election picture of the country is something pretty dire.

Let this one curtain raiser from Reuters help set the context:

Heavily armed militias outgun its fledgling army. A renegade former general has launched a purge of radical Islamists. Weapons looted from arsenals of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi help fuel the bloody conflict in Syria. And an estimated $30 billion in oil revenue has been lost in the past 11 months.

Even by the (flawed) metrics of the Good Country Index — in other words, how much a country contributes to the global community — Libya came in dead last.

This dysfunction notwithstanding, the elections today are being viewed as a test of the popularity of the Islamists, which have provided some security in the absence of a strong central government, police force, army, et cetera. Turnout has been low compared to the 2011 post-Gaddafi elections, which were widely celebrated and marked by broad participation.

The white knight (bearing many shades of gray) leading the charge against the Islamists is General Khalifa Haftar, a beguiling character (to say the least) who survived a recent assassination attempt while leading a military offensive against Islamist militias. He's not on the ballot, but he is seen by some as a potential leader. Or a new dictator.

A former ally of former Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi (Haftar later defected and left Libya for the United States), his triumphant crusade is being viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Writing in the Times, Ibrahim Sharqieh shatters the mythology:

When the 2011 uprising began, General Hifter came back to Libya and fought side by side with the Islamists he has now condemned. While he presents himself as the unifier of Libya, some view his movement as a reaction to Libya’s controversial banning of all high-ranking members of Colonel Qaddafi’s government from holding public office, including General Hifter."

Sharqieh adds: "Regardless of General Hifter’s motives, Libya needs an inclusive national dialogue, not the formation of an additional militia or a coup."

Given the conversation happening about Iraq, which has descended into sectarian chaos and has a prime minister in Nouri al-Maliki who has done little repair the fissures across the dividing lines, the shape of a new Libya led by a divisive figure seems unpalatable.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.