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US lawmakers warn against foreign interference in Libya's election

State Department official pushes back against claims Libya is not ready for 24 December poll, saying electoral 'machine' is rolling
Libyans gather in Tripoli's Martyrs Square on 19 November 2021, to protest against the candidacy of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the country's slain longtime ruler (AFP)

US officials were pressed at a hearing on Thursday about potential headwinds facing Libya, including the presence of foreign fighters and the influence of regional powers, as the country prepares to hold presidential elections later this month.

Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch, chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism, said that with barely two weeks to go before the 24 December election, "the stakes for US interests and the Libyan people are very high".

Libya, an oil-rich country, has been rocked by turmoil since a US-backed Nato intervention overthrew long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

'As Libyans prepare for elections, it is critical that these be undertaken without the presence of coercive or interfering efforts by foreign governments'

- Republican Congressman Tim Burchett

In 2019, the country descended into full-scale war when eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar launched an assault on the UN-recognised government in Tripoli.

The fighting devolved into a proxy conflict with the UAE, France, Egypt and Russia backing Haftar's forces, and Turkey intervening on the side of the Tripoli government.

A UN-brokered ceasefire in October 2020 ended the fighting and ushered in an interim government tasked with steering Libya towards elections. However, the country remains divided into warring eastern and western halves.

While western powers, such as the US, have pushed Libya's political leaders to stick to the UN election schedule, some analysts and officials warn that holding a vote too early risks imperilling the tenuous transition.

'I am going to vote' 

Questioning whether the US was doing enough to consider the potential danger of holding a vote when armed groups continue to wield power across vast amounts of territory, Democratic Congressman John Connally said, "sometimes having elections in countries that don't have any democratic tradition can actually lead to more instability because they are not ready".

In a forceful response, Karen Sasahara, deputy assistant secretary of state for North Africa, said that nearly three million Libyans had registered to vote and that the "electoral process machine is moving forward".

"They [Libyans] know what is going on with the militias… They have seen it and lived through this and they are like, 'I am going to vote. I am going to have this right'."

"They are watching what we say. They are watching what every Libyan politician says about the elections because they want it to happen," she added.

Other lawmakers raised concerns that foreign powers, many of whom continue to deploy armed actors on the ground, will seek to influence the vote.

The UN estimates that 20,000 foreign proxies remain in Libya, including several thousand Chadian and Sudanese fighters, Russian Wagner Group mercenaries, and Turkish backed forces.

Lawmakers take aim at foreign fighters

"As Libyans prepare for elections this month, it is critical that these be undertaken without the presence of coercive or interfering efforts by foreign governments," said Republican Congressman Tim Burchett.

Last year, the US imposed sanctions on entities linked to the Moscow-backed Wagner mercenary group and its founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, in part over their role in Libya’s conflict.

Sasahara said that "the Russians are definitely looking to get a foothold into the continent [of Africa] and Libya is an extremely attractive launching pad for them".

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Turkey's military presence also came under fire from lawmakers. In addition to dispatching thousands of Syrian mercenaries to the conflict, Ankara has established a formal military presence in Libya and is reportedly trying to develop a naval base along its Mediterranean coast. 

Turkey, whose military intervention is widely credited with turning the conflict in favour of the government in Tripoli, has pushed back on calls that it withdraw its forces, claiming they were invited in 2019 by the country's internationally recognised government. 

Sasahara said she believed a successful election would remove the "pretext" Turkey uses to justify its military position. "I think it would be very difficult for any country to defend its extensive military presence there [after elections]." 

In another round of questioning, the US official appeared to cast doubt on claims that Moscow and Ankara had staked out military positions in Libya in return for lucrative construction and energy projects.

When asked by Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman if the US was "aware of any plans that would provide tens of billions of dollars of profit to either Russia or Turkey as a result of their involvement [in Libya]", the US official replied, "No."

'Million dollar question'

The lawmakers also tried to gauge the trajectory of internal actors inside Libya, who have increasingly been squabbling amongst themselves over the electoral framework and eligibility of candidates for the presidential race. 

One contender is current Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, a Gaddafi era construction magnate who initially promised not to run for office as part of an agreement that made him head of the interim government earlier this year.

Dbeibeh has used his position to dole out state funds to Libyans and has won some support across the east and west with programmes including state payments of more than $8,000 to newly married couples.

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He is joined in the race by other contentious figures such as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya's former strongman, and Haftar, who critics say is responsible for war crimes during his assault on Tripoli.

As the election date approaches, there are already signs that some factions in Libya may be positioning themselves to dispute the poll.

Khaled-al-Mishri, head of Libya's High Council of State, and a close ally of Turkey, called last month for a boycott of the vote after previously claiming the electoral laws had been written by Haftar's foreign backers.

Libya's interior minister pointed to a recent standoff at a courthouse in the country's south between supporters of Haftar and Gaddafi as evidence that the security situation in the country did not permit holding elections on time.

Asked by Burchett if Libya would remain stable in the case of a Gaddafi or Haftar victory in December, Sasahara said that it was "the million dollar question, and it's one that every Libyan is asking themselves".