Power shifts in Libya

Kamel Abdallah , Friday 11 Aug 2023

The long-awaited general elections in Libya seem as far away as ever despite the political manoeuvres of the country’s leading stakeholders.

Power shifts in Libya
Head of Libya s High State Council Mohamed Takala (l) with Khaled Meshari, the former head of the Council


The Libyan stakeholders have once again tried to shift the balance of power in the country while the UN-sponsored political process remains at a standstill, mired in divisions over electoral laws that need to be approved in order to hold general elections that were meant to take place in December 2021 but were cancelled at the last minute.

On 6 August, the Libyan High Council of State (HCS), a kind of second legislative chamber that emerged from the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015, elected Mohamed Miftah Takala as the new head of the body, and Masoud Abid and Omar Al-Obeidi as his first and second deputies.

The three officials replace Khaled Al-Mishri, who had earlier led the HCS’ negotiations with the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) over the electoral laws, and Al-Mishri’s deputies Naji Mokhtar and Omar Bushah.

Takala and his team were elected after a second round of voting by a majority of 67 to 62. He was backed by supporters of Abdel-Hamid Al-Dbeibah, prime minister of the interim government of National Unity (GNU). The Libyan Presidential Council welcomed the newly elected HCS leadership, and US Special Envoy to Libya Richard Norland was the first foreign diplomat to congratulate Takala.

The HCS elections were covered live on Libyan television for the first time since the body was established in 2016. They occurred at a time when efforts were in progress to bridge differences between the Tripoli-based HCS and the House of Representatives (HoR) based in Tobruk in eastern Libya to forge a path forward to general elections.

Despite the rapprochement that occurred between the two chambers some years ago, they have been unable to achieve progress towards a resumption of the UN-sponsored roadmap to the elections that the Libyan High National Elections Commission (HNEC) cancelled in 2021.

The failure of that process, backed by the UN and major Western powers, emboldened key Libyan stakeholders to seek alternative paths forward. The Tobruk-based HoR and the Tripoli-based HCS launched an initiative beneath a “Libyan-Libyan” banner, while the Tripoli-based GNU under Al-Dbeibah and the Benghazi-based Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar pursued what some observers called the “Al-Dbeibah-Haftar” track.

The first path was spearheaded by HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh and former HCS president Khaled Al-Mishri who as early as September 2021 had tried to mobilise a vote of non-confidence in Al-Dbeibah’s GNU. In February that year, the two men had stood for office in the new executive authority created by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) formed after the ceasefire that brought an end to the war over Tripoli (2019-2020) and tasked with forming a new national unity government to lead the country to elections.

However, Saleh and Al-Mishri were unable to win sufficient support among LPDF members, who elected Mohamed Al-Menfi as the head of the Presidential Council and Al-Dbeibah as prime minister of the GNU.

Aguila and Al-Mishri subsequently moved to undermine the UN-sponsored process, promoting the formation of a new government to replace the GNU in February 2022 and compel the UN to accept it. But Al-Dbeibah refused to step aside and retained the support of the UN and major world powers, even though Aguila’s and Al-Mishri’s initiative had received support from other international and regional powers.

Al-Dbeibah and Haftar, formerly on opposing sides in the Tripoli war, pursued back-channel talks towards a reconciliation. This process, backed by the UAE and Italy, led to a change in the leadership of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), but it was opposed by various forces in both eastern and western Libya.

Among the opponents was former HCS leader Al-Mishri and his allies, who launched a smear campaign against Al-Dbeibah and attempted to unseat him. The new government that the HoR had formed in February, headed by Fathi Bashagha, a former minister of the interior and political rival to Al-Dbeibah, attempted to assume office in Tripoli.

However, militia forces loyal to Al-Dbeibah barred Bashagha from entering the capital, and the Bashagha government has continued to meet intermittently in Benghazi or Sirte, although it has had little impact on the ground.

As Al-Mishri and his allies continued to push to oust the GNU prime minister, he drew closer to Saleh and the HoR speaker’s eastern allies. The tensions escalated when Al-Dbeibah launched a military operation in Zawiya to the west of Libya that Al-Mishri claimed deliberately targeted his supporters.

Al-Dbeibah then seized on the HCS elections as an opportunity to deliver a debilitating blow to the former HCS leader. He allied with a bloc of HCS members that championed Mohamed Takala, ending Al-Mishri’s five-year term as HCS chairman. He has thus emerged in a better position to advance his arrangements with Haftar, which had encountered stiff opposition from the Al-Mishri-Aguila axis.

The defeat of Al-Mishri may encourage Haftar to follow suit in the east of the country by pushing for elections for a new speaker of the HoR to replace Aguila. Some observers believe a campaign will gain momentum in the coming days, especially given the close relations between Haftar and the GNU since the creation of the Supreme Finance Committee that will oversee public spending and oil revenues, long a bone of contention between the eastern and western political leaders.

The Al-Dbeibah-Haftar track is now likely to determine developments in Libya over the next six months. This is not only due to the setback to the rival HoR-HCS track, but also to the imminent expiration of the mandate of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in September.

Renewing the mandate involves what may prove to be a lengthy strategic performance review of UNSMIL’s operations. UN Special Representative for Libya Abdoulaye Bathily has encountered opposition from some Libyan quarters that may lead the UN Security Council to consider replacing him.

The negotiations over a replacement could protract the mandate renewal process.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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