Breakthrough in Libya

Kamel Abdallah , Tuesday 9 Feb 2021

Members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum chose the members of the new Libyan executive authority in Geneva this week

Breakthrough in Libya
(photo: Reuters)

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has finally made a breakthrough in the political stalemate that has reigned in the country since 2014.

After five days of talks, participants in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Geneva chose the members of the new Libyan unified interim executive authority that will remain in power until elections are held on 24 December 2021.

The choice took place according to the roadmap towards a comprehensive solution to the crisis in Libya adopted by the LPDF during meetings in Tunisia in November 2020. But there are bumps on the road before the new authority takes power in a few weeks.

The LPDF chose a new presidential council comprised of three members led by Libyan Ambassador to Athens Mohamed Al-Manfi, who represents eastern Libya, and two deputies, Abdullah Al-Lafee, an MP from the city of Al-Zawyah representing the west, and former member of the incumbent council Musa Al-Koni representing the south.

Prominent businessman Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah from Misrata was appointed prime minister of the new national unity government.

The new executive team was on List 3 that saw a run off against List 4 that included Tobruk Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh, who nominated himself for chair of the presidential council, along with running mates Osama Juwaili from Al-Zintan representing the west, Abdel-Majid Seif Al-Nasr representing the south, and minister of interior in the previous Tripoli government Fathi Bashagha as prime minister.

Many expected List 4 to win the race for leadership, especially after it won more votes in the first round at 25 ballots compared to 20 for List 3. The final outcome was a surprise, but it restored confidence in the political process and UNSMIL among local leaders, because it resulted in fresh faces and less polarising figures leading the country.

The formation of the new authority has been warmly welcomed in Libya and outside, even by candidates who lost. The authority will officially take power after receiving a vote of confidence from the Libyan parliament within 21 days of forming a cabinet. If the parliament does not endorse the new cabinet, the process will return to the LPDF for a vote of confidence in the new government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by telephone with Al-Manfi, the new chair of the presidential council, and Prime Minister Dbeibah to congratulate them on their victory.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi described the formation of the new authority as “a step in the right direction” and promised to work with the new body after a government is formed and endorsed by Libya’s parliament.

US Ambassador to Tripoli Richard Norland urged Dbeibah to identify a competent government team that can quickly gain the confidence of parliament and based on the roadmap of the LPDF. He said it was important to begin working on pressing issues such as electricity production, the Covid-19 pandemic, and preparing for the December elections.

In the Libyan capital Tripoli, the previous Government of National Accord (GNA) welcomed the results of the LPDF and said it was willing to hand over power in a statement by chair of the incumbent presidential council Fayez Al-Sarraj, his deputy Abdel-Salam Kajman, and member Mohamed Al-Amari Zayed.

The rival government in the east of Libya also said it was ready to hand over power to the new authority as long as it was endorsed by parliament. The leadership of the Libyan National Army (LNA) confirmed its approval of the new authority, with spokesman for LNA leader Khalifa Haftar describing it as the new commander in chief of the army.

Many believe that the victory of List 3 was a result of punitive voting against List 4 headed by Saleh and Bashagha. Its victory was a relief for many parties inside and outside Libya because it removed Islamist and military elements from power. Over the past few months, there have been skirmishes between Bashagha and armed groups in the Libyan capital due to the former’s attempts to undermine the latter’s hold on power.

Haftar appeared to be reassured by the result, which removes his main ally Saleh, ensuring that he can dominate the east of the country and assuage concerns over its representation on the council. Haftar is a member of the Al-Manfa tribe and not the larger Al-Obeidat, Al-Baraasah, Al-Awaqeer, Al-Magharbah and Al-Azawyah tribes.

Other than security and economic challenges, the new authority faces political obstacles before it can take power, and it must overcome them before addressing challenges on the ground. Dbeibah must choose a cabinet that satisfies the expectations of influential local players, and at the same time strikes a balance between their demands and roadmap requirements that state that the cabinet must include 30 per cent women and young people.

After this hurdle, the new government will be put to a vote in parliament, a chamber that has been divided since 2016. The fracture has deepened since the war over Tripoli after the majority of MPs began meeting in Tripoli instead of Benghazi, the constitutional seat of parliament, and Tobruk, the temporary seat, due to Saleh’s dominance.

The new political settlement states that the parliament’s speaker should be chosen from the south, which raises the question of whether uniting the parliament or endorsing the new government should take priority.

If closing parliament’s ranks is the priority, then this would delay voting on the new cabinet. If parliament procrastinates for longer than 21 days, the endorsement will be decided by the LPDF.

Resorting to the Libyan Supreme Court to endorse the new government would be a precarious option and could be contested. Some participants in the LPDF have chastised the judiciary for negating the outcomes of the February 2014 elections that stripped the parliament of its legitimacy.

The new executive authority in Libya is looking for international recognition through a UN Security Council resolution. This support must come quickly, as it did for the previous GNA and the Berlin Process on which the new authority is based.

However, some believe a resolution will be contingent on the positions of the major world powers regarding the formation of the new government in Libya and political and security arrangements that could delay the resolution.

Disagreement is most likely between the western powers and Russia, which are competing for a foothold in Libya. The West may object to Russia’s attempts to install a permanent presence, especially since a report by UN experts to be issued next month confirms that Haftar suggested redeploying combatants from the Russian private-security Wagner Group in Libya to a military base in the south or at the port of Soussa.

 This would be troubling for the European powers and NATO since they reject the Russian presence in the southern Mediterranean.

Last week, the Security Council granted the UN secretary-general 45 days to appoint observers to oversee the ceasefire in Libya, present an action plan, and decide requirements before it issues a resolution. This could mean that a resolution could be postponed until the composition of the new government has been reviewed and the publication of a report by international observers.

On Monday, UN Special Envoy to Libya Yan Kobish officially began his leadership of UNSMIL. He succeeds Stephanie Williams, acting special envoy to UNSMIL, who directed the mission for nearly a year after former chief Ghassan Salame resigned in March 2020.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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