Newly designated Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dbeiba promised to submit a proposed cabinet team to the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) for approval as soon as possible this week, so that the new government could get to work on its heavy agenda.
The HoR has to shoulder many responsibilities under the UN-sponsored roadmap to national reconciliation in Libya. However, despite initiatives backed by a significant number of MPs, it has not yet been able to convene as a unified body due to the continued polarisation in the country. There is still a legislature based in Tobruk in eastern Libya, while a large number of dissident MPs are also based in the west.
Two HoR “consultative meetings” convened simultaneously on 15 February, one in Tobruk with HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh presiding, and the other in the western city of Sabratha chaired by Abu Bakr Baera, a MP from Benghazi, in his capacity as the parliament’s eldest member.
Prior to this there were attempts to persuade MPs to meet together for purposes on which they all agree, despite how far apart they remain on other issues. The main purpose was to discuss arrangements for a vote of confidence in a new national-unity government.
A HoR spokesman made the first attempt, with an invitation to MPs to visit Tobruk and meet to discuss the arrangements. The second attempt was an invitation sent out by the western-based camp headed by business magnate Mohamed Al-Raed, a MP for Misrata, to convene in Sabratha and reorganise the divided House.
That two separate HoR sessions had to be held in the east and the west is indicative of how deep the gulf is between the two camps. These need to come together to ensure that the forthcoming government does not suffer the legitimacy crisis that plagued the former Government of National Accord (GNA).
In his speech to the MPs who met in Tobruk on Monday, HoR Speaker Saleh said that he had launched his peace initiative in April 2020 “on certain foundations that include reactivating the political process, separating its political, military, economic and constitutional tracks, halting the warfare, and launching a political dialogue aimed at attaining a political settlement despite how some on our side saw this as a disappointment and a renunciation of faith, while others on the opposite side saw it as an awakening that came too late.”
Saleh stressed that his initiative was inspired “firstly, by necessity, and, secondly, by the outputs of the Berlin Conference that led to the Cairo Declaration.”
The Cairo Declaration, launched by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 20 June last year, was instrumental in bringing a halt to the fighting in Libya. As Saleh put it, “it was a necessary step to avert the perpetuation of the conflict... because Tripoli had not been waiting for us, as we had imagined... and even the international community feared the costs of an invasion of the capital.”
In this rare criticism of the 14-month military operation that leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar launched in April 2019 with the aim of liberating Tripoli from the control of radical militias, Saleh added that the “tendentious media succeeded in transforming [the campaign] into a civil war between the two Libyan regions of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.”
After the meeting in Tobruk, HoR Spokesman Abdullah Belheeg told reporters that the participants had agreed that a session on a vote for the new cabinet could be held in Sirte on the approval of the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC). They also held that the new government should begin work in the city and that the new government must be inclusive so as not to marginalise any of Libya’s three regions or any urban centres within them.
They urged action to remove all foreign fighters from Libya and called for the implementation of a development project for the city of Tobruk as a way of paying tribute to it for hosting the HoR after 2014. They also voted to revoke a resolution to rescind the membership of the 36 MPs whom Saleh had wanted dismissed and referred to the public prosecution for investigation.
The MPs meeting in Sabratha also committed to finding the means necessary to hold a vote of confidence in a new national-unity government. Following through on their meeting in Ghadames last month, they agreed on the need to restructure the HoR so as to better enable it to undertake its responsibilities in accordance with the roadmap for the new interim phase.
In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic and other circumstances, they agreed to use Zoom to allow MPs to participate in parliamentary debates and voting sessions and to form a communications team tasked with contacting other MPs in order to “unify efforts and attain the necessary quorum for tomorrow’s session,” according to a joint statement released by the MPs.
More than 30 MPs attended the session in Tobruk and around 65 attended the session in Sabratha, of whom 17 were from the east, according to Libyan MPs who attended them.
Differences between the rival camps are now focused on immediate priorities. HoR Speaker Saleh believes that the first priority should be the vote of confidence in the new government and then the question of restructuring the legislature.
In his April initiative, he proposed that the internal restructuring process should include the election of a new spokesperson, specifically from the southern region of Fezzan. He also wanted the session on the vote of confidence to be held in Tobruk or Benghazi, where the HoR is headquartered under the constitution. But he has indicated that he will defer to the 5+5 JMC, if it determines that it would be better to hold the session in Sirte.
Saleh, whose initiative calls for him to step down as HoR speaker, has served as speaker since the House first convened in August 2014. He has been frequently criticised for controlling the agenda and throwing spanners into the decision-making process. However, he has always claimed that under his tenure the legislature has “done a good job,” and lawmakers have enshrined the principle of the three regions and their rights to equitable shares of national wealth and political power.
Saleh’s adversaries are determined to hold the session in a city outside his control to circumvent his pressure and evasion tactics, however. This is why they want a new speaker elected first, as agreed on in Ghadames. According to Libyan news reports, some MPs at the meeting in Sabratha said they had received threats warning them against proceeding with steps to remove Saleh.
As of Monday evening, it was not clear what the participants had resolved, though it was reported that some MPs had tried to promote a compromise solution that involved having the 5+5 JMC determine the venue for the joint session for a vote on Dbeiba’s slate of ministers.
On the eve of the HoR sessions, Dbeiba said that he was committed to forming a government within the stipulated 21-day period and that his team had begun to review the CVs of candidates for various ministerial portfolios. He did not clarify how large a cabinet he had in mind.
Western governments have urged a smaller cabinet, while domestic political forces expect an expanded one. The latter also appears to be the view of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian who in a recent discussion with new UN Special Envoy for Libya Ján Kubiš “emphasised the importance of the swift formation and investiture of an inclusive, representative government.”
In another development, the new president of the three-member Libyan Presidency Council, Mohamed Mnefi, arrived in Tripoli on Tuesday over a week after his appointment to the post and following a visit to Tobruk. According to sources, he plans to visit other cities in Tripolitania before heading south to Fezzan, thereby demonstrating his determination to advance the process of national reconciliation.
On Wednesday, Libyans celebrated the tenth anniversary of the 17 February Revolution that overthrew the rule of former leader Muammar Qaddafi. Celebrations this year took place in an atmosphere of relative calm, thanks to the UN-brokered ceasefire that continues to hold four months after it was signed in Geneva.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly