The interim phase in Libya appears to have unlatched itself from the UN-sponsored roadmap that was to culminate in parliamentary and presidential elections on 24 December 2021.
On Monday 31 Jan, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) announced that it would be accepting candidates for a new prime minister on 8 February in accordance with the newly adopted nomination mechanism. If it goes ahead, the process will further confuse an already complicated political process.
Libyan government officials who spoke with Al-Ahram Weekly from Tripoli said the incumbent prime minister, Abdul-Hamid Al-Dabeiba, will only hand over the government to another elected authority. Observers fear an east-west standoff over this question could drive the country back to the intense polarisation that had prevailed before the current government was formed.
To compound tensions, militia factions from Misrata and Zawiya have amassed forces around the capital, Tripoli. For the moment at least, sources in Libya feel confident that the situation will not deteriorate back into war, primarily because the problem this time is not related to the clash between rival chiefs of staff in Tripoli and Benghazi.
Nevertheless, a security breakdown is always a possibility given the east-west institutional bifurcation. The situation could become particularly volatile if the HoR elects a prime minister from the west, as observers predict will happen. That could usher in an unprecedented problem. On top of rival governments in the east and west, there would be rival premierships within the west.
Anticipating this, HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh has proposed turning Sirte into the new administrative capital, thereby keeping the new government aloof from the tugs-of-war in Tripoli.
It is still not clear whether political forces will support the new government and, accordingly, what bases of legitimacy it would have, apart from the HoR. As of writing, not even the east based general command of the Libyan National Army (LNA) has expressed a view on the matter, though it is likely to support the HoR’s actions.
Early January brought about an unexpected rapprochement between the LNA Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who is based in Benghazi, former interior minister Fathi Bashagha and former vice-chairman of the Presidency Council Ahmed Maiteeq who hail from Misrata. The three are believed to be the most likely candidates to head the new government.
At the same time, there is no love lost between Haftar and Dabeiba. That said, the army general command still has to go through Tripoli for crucial administrative and financial matters. In this context, it is noteworthy that shortly before the HoR announced the opening of nominations for a new prime minister, Dabeiba met with the Governor of the Libyan Central Bank (LCB) Saddek Omar Elkaber and with the Chairman of the Presidency Council Mohamed Al-Manfi to discuss the reunification of the bank.
This suggests that, under any new arrangements, the unified LCB will continue to work with the current caretaker government and will have no official relationship with the new government formed by a prime minister elected by the HoR.
It is doubtful that the new government will garner support from abroad. The UN has already expressed concerns regarding the creation of a new government. The UN Special Adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams believes that moves towards that end work against Libyan priorities which are an end to endless interim phases and a stable and accountable government.
She has stated that it is still possible to hold general elections in June 2022 in line with the UN-brokered roadmap and that forming a new government would hamper this. Williams believes that some Libyan officials are manoeuvring to remain in power and therefore working together to obstruct the political process by orchestrating a “musical chairs game”.
In addition to opposing the direction taken by the HoR she is clearly uncomfortable with the new political alliance that has brought former officials in the west (Bashagha and Maiteeq) into alignment with Haftar and Saleh. But nor does she support Dabeiba whom she accused of “violating a moral pledge” when he nominated himself as a candidate for the presidency in contravention of the roadmap and the commitment he made when he became prime minister.
More generally, she believes that such existing government institutions as the HoR and its counterpart in Tripoli, the High Council of State (HCS), have lasted long beyond their sell-by date and need to be changed. Elections by no later than June are the only way forward for the Libyan people who “thirst for elections,” she said.
Creating a new government would raise another question, namely what to do about the Presidency Council which was formed at the same as the government. Although the Presidency Council did not require a parliamentary vote of confidence, it is still a governing body associated with the current roadmap.
Forthcoming political developments in Libya will undoubtedly be shaped by reactions to the creation of a new government to replace Dabeiba’s, if indeed that occurs. Some sources predict that the HoR will not even be able to summon the quorum needed to hold a vote on a new government.
The HoR is deeply divided and many MPs are expected to boycott next week’s session because they support Dabeiba or favour the continuity of the current government and roadmap. It is conceivable that the boycotters will return to convening separate sessions in Tripoli, as occurred during the battle over the capital in 2020. On the other hand, in the HoR session on 31 January, Saleh warned that he would dismiss boycotting MPs and those who work in embassies and other positions.
As Al-Ahram Weekly goes to press, other international stakeholders in the Berlin process have yet to declare an official stance on the HoR’s decision to form a new government. That silence speaks of considerable confusion even if statements from Washington and European capitals continue to stress the need to sustain momentum leading to elections as soon as possible for fear that they will be put off indefinitely.
In Cairo, observers are concerned by the situation in Libya. Last week, the Egyptian and Algerian presidents stressed the need for Libyans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously, signalling that Cairo and Algiers are in line with the position of the UN. However, the above-mentioned developments, which have occurred since Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s visit to Cairo on 24 January, show that the main Libyan stakeholders are not interested in holding elections in the foreseeable future.
Cairo, for its part, is keen to preserve the progress that has been made in Libya since the ceasefire reached in October 2020. Egypt was instrumental in preparing the ground for the ceasefire and has since been a key actor in helping Libyans build on the understandings reached and realise the aim of durable stability. In this regard, Bashagha and Saleh visited Cairo simultaneously shortly after a visit by Stephanie Williams in mid-January, but no clear or convincing plan has emerged to contain the crisis that set in following the cancellation of elections in December.
The road ahead for Libya is very foggy indeed. Not only is the HoR in the process of launching a new political process, but the roadmap committee that was formed after 24 December 2021 also favours amending the constitution and holding a referendum on it before holding elections.
This process followed by new arrangements for the elections based on the new constitutional provisions would extend the current interim phase to around two years. It also means that the roadmap committee would effectively take over from the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum which had formulated the current roadmap. That would give rise to even more uncertainties, tensions and issues. In short, there is nothing to inspire confidence that Libya will find a safe road to stability.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.