CAIRO -- Hundreds took to the streets in several Libyan cities to protest the cancellation of Friday's long-awaited presidential election, a blow to hopes of ending a decade of chaos in the oil-rich North African country.
Several parliamentary candidates and political groups have called for the protests, which underline risks to a fragile stability in the oil-rich nation that's a haven for militias and still riven by an east-west divide.
Libya’s election commission has proposed Jan. 24 as a new date for the presidential poll, which was to be followed by parliamentary elections on Feb. 15. But no dates have been officially set or agreed upon by the country's rival factions.
At a Benghazi rally, protesters raised banners reading “yes for elections, no for postponement."
“All of Libya must have elections on time. We reject any postponement or manipulation of the Libyan will," Mohamed Alorfy, an activist told the crowd.
Earlier, many parliamentary hopefuls have circulated a poster calling for rallies on what they dubbed “Salvation Friday.” The poster listed the demands of protesters, namely to set Jan. 24 as a final deadline for the poll.
“Do not be passive. Take to the streets and express your opinion. Force them to respect your will,” AlSalhen AlNihoom, a parliamentary candidate from the eastern city of Benghazi, wrote on his Facebook page.
Protesters have also rallied for the same purpose in other cities and towns of eastern Libya including Tobruk and Derna. Small groups also took to the streets in the western city of Misrata, the southern village of Gatroun and the town of Hun in central Libya.
Earlier this week, some 50 parliamentary hopefuls denounced the cancellation of the vote, insisting in a joint statement that the commission should set another final date for holding it. The statement called on Libyans to take to the streets to defend their “right to a safe, stable and sovereign” country.
For nearly a year, the planned election was the lynchpin of international efforts to bring peace to Libya. But with several well-known figures — including the son of ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi — declaring candidacy despite officials bans, the election commission never published a list of accepted candidates.
Many observers had warned that either scenario — holding the vote on time or postponing it — would be a destabilizing setback.
The U.S, U.K., France, Germany and Italy on Friday jointly called on Libyan authorities to swiftly determine a date for the polling and to issue the final list of presidential candidates.
“We recall that free, fair and credible elections will allow the Libyan people to elect a representative and unified government, and reinforce the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya,” the Western nations said in their statement.
They also warned that that local or foreign individuals or entities who obstruct or undermine the electoral process in Libya might face UN-imposed sanctions.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that elections should be held “in the appropriate conditions,” according to a statement issued by his spokesperson. The U.N. top diplomat vowed that his organization will continue to support Libyan efforts to overcome challenges and hold both presidential and parliamentary elections as soon as possible.
Libya plunged into turmoil after the 2011 uprising that culminated in the overthrow and killing of longtime strongman Gadhafi. Eventually, the country split between rival governments — one in the east, backed by military commander Khalifa Hifter, and another U.N.-supported administration in the capital of Tripoli, in the west. Each side is supported by a variety of militias and foreign powers.
In April 2019, Hifter and his forces, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive to try and capture Tripoli. His campaign collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support of the Tripoli government with hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
Mediated by the United Nations, an October 2020 cease-fire led to the formation of a transitional government with elections scheduled for Dec. 24. But with the vote now cancelled, the fate of that government is now unclear. The parliamentary committee said the government’s mandate ends on Friday.
On Friday, the interim president of the east-based parliament called on members to convene in a general session on Monday in the city of Tobruk. The call came two days after the parliament's presidency announced that it had tasked a 10-lawmaker committee to propose within a week a new roadmap. It said then that lawmakers would discuss the proposal in the next general session.
The poll cancellation coincided with the 70th anniversary of the independence of Libya. In Tripoli, the mood was festive but more subdued than previous years, with folk music and people waving flags in Martyrs’ Square.
Libya was occupied for decades by various nations, and it was not until 1947 that both Italy and France relinquished claims to parts of the country. The United Libyan Kingdom was announced with U.N. backing in late 1951 under King Idris. In 1969, Gadhafi led a military coup that deposed King Idris and subsequently forced him into exile until he died in Cairo in 1983.