On 10 February, the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) launched a new interim political process under the banner of “Libyan-Libyan dialogue”, charging Fathi Bashagha with forming a new government. Bashagha, who had served as interior minister until 2020 under the Government of National Accord (GNA), has been given until 25 February to produce a slate of ministers to present to the HoR for a vote of confidence.
The interim phase also requires a referendum on an existing draft constitution or, if that fails, a new constitutional declaration. Abdel- Hamid Al-Dabeiba, who heads the Government of National Unity (GNU) formed in March 2021, refuses to step down, raising the spectre of a return to institutional bifurcation and a resurgence of military tension, especially now that militia activity has returned to the capital, Tripoli.
A procession of militias greeted Bashagha’s arrival in Tripoli, which has been interpreted as muscle flexing. Significantly, he hails from the same town as Dabeiba: Misrata, the power-making hub of western Libya. However, the fact that Bashagha made a point of addressing diverse political forces when he arrived at Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli sent the message that he hoped for a peaceful transfer of power and was open to suggestions.
A close associate of Bashagha’s said the media has exaggerated fears over a backslide into violence. But at the same time, he added, it was important not to underestimate such concerns. “Dabeiba has the Nawasi militias behind him and they have certain interests and not just those shared with Dabeiba. They don’t want Bashagha in Tripoli because he’s backed by parliament and the General Command,” he said, referring to the HoR based in Tobruk and the Libyan National Army (LNA) headquartered in Benghazi which, under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, launched a military campaign to take control of Tripoli in 2019-2020.
The western camp in Libya appears to be disintegrating. Although skirmishes have erupted between the Western militias from time to time, including in the period following the ceasefire between eastern and western forces in October 2020, they still shared a general rejection of any allegiance to the east.
The HoR’s choice of a western-based strongman such as Dabeiba has driven a wedge into a militia map that spans Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan. If most of the militias in this area have been aligned with Dabeiba, they do not necessarily feel the same degree of loyalty. Nevertheless, according to sources close to him, except for Zawiya and parts of Zintan, the balance would still favour Dabeiba. As for Misrata, the city’s authorities would be keen to avert strife so they will try to work out an accommodation between the pro-Dabeiba and pro-Bashagha factions.
On the other hand, some Tripoli-based militias that had taken part in the “Volcano of Rage” operation against the LNA siege of the capital have declared their support for Bashagha. One of their commanders, Colonel Faraj Khalil, believes that a meeting will arrange between Bashagha and Dabeiba in Misrata to persuade the latter to step down in order to avert violence and also to save face. Another source close to Dabeiba ruled out that possibility, reiterating Dabeiba’s stance that he will only hand over power to a popularly elected authority.
The HoR’s interim plan faces other challenges from other quarters apart from Dabeiba. One is the High Council of State (HCS), which insists that Bashagha’s appointment as prime minister designate or any new constitutional declaration should require its approval.
That said, HCS Spokesman Khaled Al-Mishri has hinted that the HCS would support Bashagha. He also mentioned that this essentially consultative body had some observations regarding the proposed creation of a 24 member commission drawn from Libya’s three provinces (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan) to amend various provisions of the draft constitution adopted by the constituent assembly over three years ago. According to the current system, after the amendments, the constitutional bill would be put to a referendum.
If it failed to secure the required majority, the bill would be referred back to the constituent assembly for revision. If the amended bill failed to pass a second referendum, a constitutional declaration would govern until general elections were held, a new legislature established, and another round of drafting a constitution set in motion.
Another challenge would emerge if Dabeiba not only continued to refuse to step aside but also launched a parallel roadmap, perhaps to be unveiled on 17 February, the anniversary of the Libyan Revolution. On 14 February, he formed a ministerial committee, headed by the minister of justice, to create a committee to draft a proposal for the legal measures needed to hold elections. Dabeiba’s position is inherently contradictory. He refuses to recognise the recently adopted parliamentary decision to replace him, calling parliament “fraudulent,” but he acknowledges that the output of the committee he forms would have to be approved by parliament and the HCS.
Egypt, for its part, supports the steps the HoR has taken on the grounds that, as the country’s elected legislative body, it has the legitimate authority to take such measures. Cairo also supports Bashagha. However, as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri has stressed, Cairo works with all stakeholders.
While Russia too supports Bashagha, Washington is uncomfortable with the parliament’s actions and has not come out in support of Bashagha. Nor does it support Dabeiba, however, whom it regards as one of the chief culprits behind derailing the electoral plans. It is noteworthy that the recent developments have excluded Seif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi, another figure Washington blames for the cancellation of the elections in December.
The overall political and military power balance ultimately favours Bashagha. However, there are no guarantees that parliament’s new roadmap will as publicly stated. Meanwhile, although some Western militias may find their wings clipped, this does not stay fears regarding the continued presence of foreign forces, mercenaries and militias. Bashagha helped engineer the Turkish military presence in Libya during the time he served with the GNU. Some believe that his close contacts with both Ankara and Moscow will enable him to solve the problem of the continued presence of forces affiliated with Turkey and Russia as soon as he takes office.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly