On Thursday 25 February, Libyan Prime Minister designate Abdel-Hamid Dbeiba announced he had submitted his cabinet proposal to the House of Representatives, but he did not disclose the names of his candidates. On Saturday, the speaker of the House invited representatives to meet in Sirte on 8 March to deliberate and vote on Dbeiba’s slate of ministers. As Dbeiba has indicated, that is time when the names and other details concerning the composition of the government will be made public.
While Dbeiba and lawmakers prepare for that session, controversy has erupted over information leaked from the annual report by the UN panel of experts on the situation in Libya in 2020. Attention converged on alleged attempts to bribe members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) during its meetings in Tunisia on 9-15 November 2020. At the time, more than 50 LPDF members asked the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to bar anyone involved in bribery from participating in the LPDF’s activities. UNSMIL promised to investigate the allegations and refer the suspects to the International Sanctions Committee and to the Libyan Public Prosecutor’s office.
According to Agence France Press (AFP), which reproduced passages of the confidential report, at least three people taking part in UN-led Libyan peace talks were bribed for votes. Researchers said that two people taking part in the LPDF “offered bribes of between $150,000 and $200,000 to at least three participants if they committed to vote for Dbeiba as PM.” The report, which is to be presented to the UN Security Council in mid March, was prepared by UN officials tasked with examining breaches of the international arms embargo on Libya. The researchers recount how one delegate “erupted in anger in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Tunis on hearing that some participants may have received up to... $500,000 for their Dbeiba votes, whereas he had only received $200,000.”
The expert panel’s report has riveted the public glare on a process that the former acting UN envoy to Libya and head of UNSMIL Stephanie Williams had proudly described as fair and transparent. Some observers believe that participants disadvantaged by the corruption might now launch appeals against the outcomes of the process.
According to the AFP report, two women participants in the LPDF sent Jan Kubis, who has replaced Williams as the UN envoy to Libya, a letter asking him to make the experts’ report public. They said the allegations, which were also directed at female participants, were an “affront to their dignity, honour and transparency.” In a related development, the Libyan Ambassador to Jordan Mohamed Al-Barghathi, who had been a candidate for the new transitional executive authority, wrote on his Facebook page that, during the LPDF meetings, he had received an offer of 50 million Libyan dinars (over $11,255,000), half paid up front, in exchange for naming the briber as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs.
Naturally, all eyes immediately turned to Dbeiba who, after a period of silence, denied any connection between the alleged bribery and the elected members of the new executive authority.
In an interview with a local Libyan television station on Wednesday 24 February, Stephenie Williams insisted that, to her knowledge, no political money had found its way into the hands of LPDF members. Once again stressing the transparency and integrity of the process, she said, “The UN was very enthusiastic about the political dialogue forum. All the decisions were mine.”
In the statement he released last Thursday after submitting his proposed slate of ministers to the office of the speaker of the House of Representatives, Dbeiba expressed “his great hope that the House of Representatives will grant its vote of confidence to the National Unity Government” and noted that he had taken into consideration “the dimensions of the country’s recent experiences, its recent emergence from an acute state of conflict, the widespread sense of marginalisation and lack of representation among many Libyan people, and the question of political and legal legitimacy and institutional division.” As Dbeiba said in his statement, he had presented his cabinet proposal within the 21 days stipulated in the roadmap adopted by the LPDF. The House of Representatives (HoR) now has three weeks to deliberate and take a vote of confidence.
On Sunday, the 5+5 Joint Military Committee (JMC) approved the proposal to hold the House’s vote of confidence meetings in Sirte. The JMC stated that the assembly would receive full protection throughout the period of its session. Some HoR members had voiced reservations on Sirte as a venue.
In a joint press conference with the Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in Rabat on Friday, HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh said that the House would grant a vote of confidence to a transitional government headed by Abdel-Hamid Dbeiba “if it is presented in the appropriate manner.” He explained that he was looking forward to a “small interim government” made up of technocrats representative of all Libyan regions. Under the roadmap, if a government is unable to obtain a vote of confidence from the HoR after the stipulated procedures, it must go to the LPDF for approval. Saleh said he opposed that notion because most of the LPDF’s 72 members are unelected.
The HoR speaker had already asked MPs to meet in Sirte from 8 to 19 March when he decided to postpone the session until after the above-mentioned report by the UN panel of experts on Libya is released so as to clarify questions surrounding the allegations of vote purchasing during the LPDF’s meeting in November. At the time, Aguila Saleh had been contending for the presidency of the new three-member Presidency Council. In the vote that took place at the time, his list lost to that, headed by Libyan Ambassador to Athens Mohamed Al-Manfi, contrary to most expectations.
Western governments quickly moved to persuade the HoR speaker to change his mind. The US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland phoned Saleh on Wednesday to impress on him Washington’s belief that the House should meet for a vote of confidence as soon as possible. The US, too, hopes the question of a vote of confidence does not reach the LPDF stage.
But the task of assembling the MPs in Sirte for that purpose does not look easy given the sharp divisions between them, especially over the question as to which should come first: the vote of confidence for a National Unity Government or holding elections for a new speaker of the House. On this matter, Saleh’s view that the vote of confidence should take priority has received the support of Western diplomatic circles who have intensified their communications with Libyan parties in order to stimulate efforts to ensure the necessary quorum for the House’s proceedings.
It remains unclear how MPs opposed to Saleh’s continued tenure will act. But there are other uncertainties. One is how Saleh will react if the size or composition of the proposed cabinet is not to his liking. Another is the Libyan National Army Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who, apart from welcoming the new executive, has maintained an enigmatic silence. Haftar will certainly want a say in the composition of the new government.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly