Rival administrations reappear
After weeks of manoeuvering since December 24 elections were indefinitely postponed, the House of Representatives in the country’s east on Thursday picked former interior minister and ex-fighter pilot Fathi Bashagha to replace interim prime minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah.
But Dbeibah, a construction tycoon appointed a year ago as part of United Nations-led peace efforts, has vowed only to hand power to an elected government.
Peter Millett, a former British ambassador to the country, told AFP the main division now “is between the Libyan people — who want elections — and the political elite, who don’t.”
He noted that more than two million Libyans, out of a total population of seven million, had collected voter cards last year, showing a desire to pick new representatives in December when both legislative and presidential polls were supposed to be held.
“The motivation of many MPs is to hang on to jobs and privileges rather than allow for a smooth process leading to elections,” Millett said.
It’s not the first time the oil-rich North African country has found itself with two premiers.
Torn apart by a decade of strife since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi, Libya had two rival heads of government between 2014 and 2016.
The UN has been working to reunite the country’s divided institutions since the end of the last major fighting in 2020, but many analysts have accused the entrenched political elite of blocking reconciliation efforts.
However unlikely, there is a possibility that removing Dbeibeh might ignite another war, ending the cease-fire that has been holding since Oct. 23, 2020. Libya’s military commission, known as the 5+5 Commission, made of an equal number of military officers representing both east and west regions of the country, has been meeting regularly to maintain the cease-fire across the country. The commission is also charged with arranging for all foreign mercenaries, currently in Libya, to leave the country. It has been the only real success so far in the decade-long conflict.
But the political landscape is different now. Libya’s political divisions are not as severe as they were in “2019, when the war over Tripoli was going on,” Milad Said, an economics lecturer at Bani Walid University, southwest of Tripoli, told Al-Monitor. On top of that, Said pointed out, “Calls for Dbeibeh to go are coming from all over Libya,” unlike previous political quarrels that were “conducted along regional lines,” Said concluded.
Many, though, think that the HoR has its own hidden agenda in calling for the removal of the prime minister. The legislature is not being “honest and particularly speaker Saleh,” according to Benghazi lawyer Fatima Hussein, who told Al-Monitor the HoR is making Dbeibeh a “scapegoat” to further delay proposed elections.
The HoR came up with its own road map calling for elections to take place no later than 14 months from now, going against the LPDF’s adopted road map that envisions polling to take place by June this year after they were suspended last December.
Saleh and many others are using the controversy surrounding Dbeibeh to discredit Williams by accusing her of interfering in Libya’s internal affairs. After a Feb. 1 session, the HoR issued a statement calling on the Foreign Ministry to take the necessary “diplomatic” steps to inform “the Secretary-General of the United Nations to stop foreign interference in Libyan affairs.” Hussein thinks that indeed Williams is not mentioned by name but she is the “target here and the goal is to disrupt” her work.
Postponement of elections
Libya was scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in December, but arguments between factions and bodies of state about how they should take place led to the process collapsing days before the vote.
Nearly three million Libyans signed up to vote, and the political jostling and delays that have followed have infuriated many.
The cancellation of the December elections should come as no surprise. The lead-up was marred by disputes over the eligibility of various candidates, and even over the elections’ legality and basic rules governing their conduct. In such an environment, the cancellation may not be such a bad thing.
Ninety-eight individuals had put their names forward for the December presidential election. Most had no chance of success, having only narrow regional or tribal bases of support. Instead, many were staking a claim for a place in a future government.
Three names stood out, however. Saif Al-Islam, the son of Muammar Qaddafi, was nominated despite a Libyan court’s warrant for his arrest for war crimes and another from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. Self-styled field marshal Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) and who is also of interest to the ICC for similar reasons, registered as a candidate. And, despite having promised not to run in the elections, Abd Al-Hamid Dbeibah, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based interim Government of National Unity (GNU) put his name forward too.
The abandonment of the elections highlights the tragedy of Libya’s post-Qaddafi experience, but also flags the danger of elections in such a divided country. Libya’s first post-Qaddafi elections in 2012 were enthusiastically supported, with over 60 percent of eligible voters participating. Since then, the country’s political class has been unable to agree on a national vision, which has prevented progress towards a stable political system in Libya.
The UN has been active in trying to reconcile the various divisions in the country. It has set elections of a new president and parliament as priorities, vital to the efforts to end the violence that has plagued Libya since the overthrow of Qaddafi. The UN-supported Government of National Accord sought to bring the main parties togetherbut was sabotaged by Haftar’s attempt to gain power by force. With Haftar’s defeat, the UN endorsed the GNU, whose task was to prepare for elections and the establishment of a legitimate national government, after which a constitution was to be drafted. The continued abandonment of the elections is, therefore, a major setback to UN efforts.
However, it now appears that this may prove to be a blessing in disguise. It seems clear that none of the leading candidates are willing to contemplate an electoral result that is not in their favour. Dbeibah, whose mandate ended in December, has demanded that a constitution be agreed before “real” elections are held, and Haftar is likely to reject an unfavourable result and fall back to his LNA stronghold in Benghazi.
Can this crisis be resolved?
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has promised to draft a new election law to resolve the intensifying political crisis in the North African country.
The pledge came as UN chief Antonio Guterres called on Friday on “all parties to continue to preserve stability in Libya as a top priority”, a day after the country found itself with two competing prime ministers – raising the spectre of renewed violence.
In a statement, Guterres reminded “all institutions of the primary goal of holding national elections as soon possible”, saying he “takes note” of the Libyan parliament’s naming of the new prime minister.
A day after surviving an apparent assassination attempt, Dbeibah told Libya Al Ahrar TV on Friday a bill focusing on elections would be presented to the House of Representatives, then transferred to the presidential council for ratification.
The absence of an agreed framework or basic principles for a constitution serve as an indicator of the depth of the divisions in Libyan society. Though a new government may produce one, for now questions such as whether the country is to be unitary, federal, or a variation of the two approaches are deeply divisive and unresolved. Underlying these concerns are the country’s energy resources and how the wealth they produce is to be distributed.
In such a volatile environment, elections that are challenged by the leading candidates could be more damaging to Libya’s long-term prospects than their failure to take place. Until the major powers agree that a negotiated solution to Libya’s chaos is in their interests, there is little incentive for Libyan politicians to compromise in search of a lasting structure for the country. At the present time, there are no signs that those powers see any need to change their approaches.