Despite it being highly uncertain if the planned presidential election will be direct or indirect — or will happen at all on 24 December 2021 — a number of aspirants are positioning themselves for a potential campaign. Slowly but surely election fever is picking up as individuals and groups hold preparatory meetings and events and launch online campaigns. They include the former Libyan ambassador to the UAE, Aref al-Nayed, who remains close to and is probably financed by Abu Dhabi. He recently relocated to Benghazi in preparation for what is widely assumed to be a presidential run. There is also widespread speculation that events organised by Khalifa Haftar — including the recent Benghazi military parade — are also in preparation for a campaign. It remains to be seen whether and how Haftar would give al-Nayed space to compete with him in the east.
Meanwhile, the former Government of National Accord (GNA) interior minister Fathi Bashagha — who remains popular in many Western capitals and will be a leading election candidate — has been touring European capitals and also launched a media campaign organised by his foreign public relations consultants. Bashagha gave a strikingly frank interview in Brussels in which he argued that the UK has been distracted by Brexit and is ‘lazy’ in fulfilling its moral responsibility to assist Libya. He said that London had a special duty to come to Libya’s aid because of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s role in spearheading the NATO’s 2011 intervention. ‘The UK has been cooperating with Libya only in the field of the fight against terrorism but in all the other fields we might say that Britain has been lazy. It’s not what we were expecting from Britain. We might have justified it to a certain extent this position because of the Brexit, but now there is no excuse.’ Bashagha added that ‘I think that, in fact, Europe is morally and legally responsible for everything that’s happened as of 2011 and especially the UK and France, because this international mobilisation took place at the initiative of these two countries.’
Bashagha may be popular amongst some Western politicians but he is viewed with considerable scepticism by others — especially France’s President Emmanuel Macron — because of his perceived closeness to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. While Bashagha was tough on some militias in Tripoli and elsewhere, he tolerated others from his home city of Misrata. He admitted this in Brussels saying, ‘Of course I know them all because some of them are good people and in fact we have been fighting together.’ He continued by saying, ‘Not all of them are wicked and they never organised an attack of aggression against the state. It is true they have got weapons but they use the arms when asked for by the government when fighting terrorism. Naturally, I have good relations with them. Because they are always ready to obey. But those who use their guns against the state cannot count on my friendship.’ Such a frank admission will win Bashagha few friends in eastern Libya in spite of his efforts to blame the country’s woes on the UK and France.
This is a preview of some of the personalities and issues that will emerge if the election proceeds and as the campaigns gather pace. Launching campaigns may be explicitly designed to put further pressure on the Government of National Unity (GNU) and others to ensure the elections take place. Bashagha candidly argued that the GNU probably wants to delay the election because its officials are collecting good salaries.