By Thomas O. Falk
With the United Nations’ support, Libya has elected an interim government. The country’s new prime minister is now tasked with maintaining the peace and, most importantly, facilitating the December 2021 general elections. While these developments are positive, questions around stability remain, and the situation in Libya is still highly volatile.
Since the fall of Muammar al Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been devastated by rival militias’ fighting. For years, the country had been divided between the UN-appointed government in the capital Tripoli and an alternate government in Tobruk, eastern Libya.
As a result of the ongoing discord and conflict, at least 1.3 million people depend on humanitarian aid while 150,000 Libyans have fled their homes, according to the United Nations.
Hope for a better future was provided via a ceasefire Libya’s rivals agreed upon in October 2020.
The international community has now attempted to utilize the agreement in efforts to further domestic stability. A meeting of Libyan representatives was convened in Geneva, titled the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), from February 1 to February 5 with the aim to elect an interim government that would organize general elections scheduled for December 24, 2021.
The LPDF consisted of 75 Libyans, who represented the country’s various political, regional, and tribal groups, including members of the two rival de facto governments – the one in Tripoli, in the west, and Tobruk, in the east.
This composition was chosen deliberately, as it sought to represent Libya as comprehensively as possible and thereby provide the greatest conceivable legitimacy.
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum consisted of 75 Libyans, who represented the country’s various political, regional, and tribal groups, including members of the two rival de facto governments.
On February 5, Abdul Hamid Al-Dabaib was subsequently elected Libya’s new interim Prime Minister. He and a three-member presidential council, which Mohammad Junes Menfi will chair, have been tasked with delivering the aforementioned election.
The international reactions were unanimously positive. Politicians from the US to Russia and Germany to the United Arab Emirates welcomed the new government and pledged their support. The UN diplomat Stephanie Williams, who led months of negotiations between the groups, spoke of a “historic moment” after ten years of chaos and violence.
However, the successful Geneva election results notwithstanding, skepticism regarding an end to Libya’s chaos might still be warranted.
There are, for one, concerns regarding Al-Dabaib. He is the founder of the Libya of the Future movement and was head of the Libyan Investment and Development Company under the long-time ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi. His name has been associated with corruption, even money laundering. Moreover, he is also said to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
These concerns did not stop Al-Dabaib from obtaining 39 out of 73 valid votes, hence prevailing against the UN-newly formed unity government’s influential Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, who received 34 votes. It was a result that was as close as it was surprising.
After all, both Bashagha and Aguila Saleh, the President of the Eastern Parliament— who ran for the council presidency— are strong opposite political poles of the Libyan post-Gaddafi order and have maintained relationships with foreign supporters and domestic armed groups. Both were largely seen as the favorites to win.
Haftar, even after his failed offensive on Tripoli from 2019-2020, continues to control armed forces in eastern and central Libya.
In particular, Saleh’s defeat can be considered a loss for General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar, even after his failed offensive on Tripoli from 2019-2020, continues to control armed forces in eastern and central Libya.
It is why his role in Libya remains crucial, and his conduct over the next few months will significantly impact whether the transitional government can be a success. So far, Haftar offered “the support of the armed forces for the peace process, to defend democracy and the peaceful transfer of power,” via a statement from his office – despite the fact that winner Mohamed al-Menfi is not considered a Haftar ally by any means.
Thus, the road to December 24 remains challenging as the process could derail before it has been fully established. Al-Dabaib must present a cabinet and get it approved by the eastern parliament within three weeks. If Haftar or any of Libya’s foreign stakeholders chose to do so, they could easily manipulate members into rejecting Al-Dabaib’s cabinet members.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister of Libya’s parallel eastern administration, Abdullah al-Thani, has already stated his reservations. Though he welcomed the election results, he will only be inclined to resign once the eastern parliament approves the decision.
Libya has been divided between east and west since 2014, with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and a rival administration in Benghazi backed by Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA). The parliament had opposed the GNA’s formation and appointed its own parallel eastern-based administration under Abdullah al-Thani.
If parliament does not approve, the LPDF’s decision will suffice, nonetheless. However, this could spark the moment when the Libyan fractions once again question the new interim government’s legitimacy. It would not be the first time. In 2015, the United Nations installed a government in Libya, but the parliament in Tobruk rejected it, and the war continued.
Besides the uncertainty of internal factors, a complicating dynamic caused by outside influence has remained present despite the ceasefire. Approximately 20,000 foreign troops and mercenaries who were active on both sides of the conflict remain in the country, even though they were required to leave on January 23 based on the October agreement. The arms embargo that has been in place since 2011 has also been violated repeatedly.
A swift change of this situation is somewhat unlikely as several actors continue to have interests in the county – albeit for different reasons – and neither seems inclined to relinquish their intentions any time soon. Haftar’s defeat last summer forced his supporters – notably Russia – to alter their tactics and approaches. Instead of an overwhelming military victory, they are now betting on deepening the inner Libyan rift to protect their own interests.
Russia is reportedly in the process of setting up a series of elaborate fortifications in the country, thus making it apparent that it is not leaving Libya.
Russia is reportedly in the process of setting up a series of elaborate fortifications in the country, thus making it apparent that it is not leaving Libya but instead seeking to secure its presence in the Mediterranean region. The trench the Russians have built extends dozens of kilometers south from the populated coastal areas around Sirte towards al-Jufra.
Meanwhile, Turkey is trying to assert its interests in the dispute over the gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean via Libya, while Europe seeks to stop the refugee and migration movements off the southern tip of Europe, which makes lasting peace in Libya pivotal for the European Union.
Despite the arduous process in Libya and the open questions, the conference in Geneva was a testament to the progress made so far. Such a meeting would have been unimaginable only a year ago. At that time, Libya was still at war. Now, there is at least the possibility for a democratic and peaceful change of power in the near future.
How successful Libya’s future can become will depend on how stable the interim government can remain, considering that foreign actors may still be interested in chaos, despite their public statements to the contrary. Thus, tensions and power games will likely persist as a prominent feature of Libya’s political and military landscape, the December election notwithstanding.
Thomas Falk is a London based freelance journalist, political analyst and commentator who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East. He has worked for Al Jazeera, The New Arab, il Giornale, and others.