By Daniel O’Connell & Ehsan Salah
“We are expecting that the Geneva process will fail,” one Egyptian official told Mada Masr at the time.
In the lead-up to a vote in Geneva on February 5 slated to appoint a transitional Libyan executive authority after a yearlong deadly war in the capital of Tripoli, Egyptian officials were expressing worry over how volatile they found the political and security situation in their neighbor to the west to be.
The vote was being conducted by the United Nations-assembled Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, and the resulting executive would be tasked with steering the country toward elections in December 2021.
The forum kicked off in late 2020 and brought together 74 representatives from different political corners of Libyan society to work toward producing a roadmap to unify state institutions that had become fractured in the aftermath of the contested 2014 parliamentary elections, rounds of fighting fueled by international actors, and the failure of the UN-backed Government of National Accord to receive a vote of confidence from the eastern parliament.
However, Egypt was not convinced that the process would succeed, according to the Egyptian official and an eastern Libyan political source.
First, officials in Cairo were worried that Khalifa Haftar — the leader of the so-called Libyan National Army that launched a 14-month assault on Tripoli in April 2019 with the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Russia and a begrudging Egypt — might launch a renewed attack on western forces.
“We are trying to get Haftar over preemptively, as we don’t want him to launch an attack. We think the military situation in the west is quite explosive and we are concerned that if the west were to attack the east, the east would retaliate or will start an attack saying it is a preemptive attack,” the Egyptian official said in the days leading up to the vote.
According to the Libyan political source, Egypt was very worried that the Russians and Emirates might be pushing Haftar into another round of fighting — a worry that has played out in recent months.
The second concern for Egypt centered on the role of Aguila Saleh, a Haftar ally and the speaker of the eastern-based House of Representatives who had emerged from the Tripoli war as a leading figure in peace talks.
Saleh’s ascension had driven a wedge between himself and Hafter, as the field marshal had largely been marginalized. Egypt, both sources said, was concerned that if Saleh were not to secure his coveted position atop the presidency council, he would try to spoil the process.
Looking to address both concerns, Cairo tried to arrange a meeting between Saleh, Haftar and leading Egyptian officials in charge of the Libya file to discuss a contingency plan in the event that the Geneva process was to stumble, either in the days ahead of the vote or if a government were unable to be formed. However, Haftar did not arrive for the visit, both sources say.
“The failure of the Haftar-Saleh meeting less than 48 hours before the voting was a sign that Haftar was not going to support Saleh,” the Libyan political source says. “This was a message that those who were voting in Geneva could read very easily.
Despite setbacks in the Geneva process, which included accusations of vote-buying, the February 5 vote whittled down a once lengthy number of candidates to two lists, needing a simple majority vote to win the appointment.
The heavy favorite put forward GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha for prime minister, with a three-person Presidential Council headed by House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh alongside commander of the western military zone Osama al-Juwaili and southern politician Abdel Majid Saif al-Nasr.
Running against what became derisively referred to as the “dinosaur list,” the name the list was given on social media for the figures entrenched political status, was Abdul Hamid al-Dbaiba, a prominent Misratan Qadhafi-era businessman, for prime minister with a presidency council headed by ambassador Mohamed al-Menfi alongside Musa al-Koni and Abdullah al-Lafi.
In a surprise, the Menfi-Dbaiba list upset the Bashagha-Juwaili-Saleh bid in a final vote of 39 votes to 34.
The process in Libya might not be so precarious today as Cairo imagined nearly a month ago. Dbaiba has conducted a brief but sweeping tour around Libya and leading foreign capitals, including Cairo and Ankara, to shore up political support and establish patronage networks.
However, a plan to announce his Cabinet on Thursday night in line with the three weeks set out by the LPDF roadmap was sidestepped, with Dbaiba submitting a government plan to the House of Representatives without a list of ministers.
According to a political source close to Dbaiba, in last-minute consultations, the appointed prime minister decided to postpone the announcement of his Cabinet in order to consider making amendments to the new government.
Against the backdrop of the delay, the fractious relationship between Haftar and Saleh is rearing its head. A high-ranking Egyptian delegation visited Saleh in the Libyan city of Qubbah hours ahead of Dbaiba’s planned announcement to discuss “the ongoing preparations for forming a national unity government.”
According to a second Egyptian source, Haftar’s camp has been pushing for expanded representation in the Cabinet and for key overseas diplomatic posts. Dbaiba may be in a difficult position as Haftar and his sons have made it clear that they will obstruct the government if they do not get their desired share of ministerial appointments and key overseas diplomatic posts in the new government, according to an Egyptian researcher with inroads into official channels and Libyan circles.
A political source close to Haftar confirms the field marshal’s stance, telling Mada Masr that one of Haftar’s sons is trying to arrange further consultations with Dbaiba and Saleh in the coming days to secure Haftar’s desired share of power.
The Saleh-Haftar tug of war is just one of the many competing dynamics Egypt must navigate in the new Libyan political landscape. While sources and analysts tell Mada Masr that Cairo will adopt a pragmatic stance toward the Dbaiba government should it be installed, looking to maximize economic cooperation, Egypt will face a difficult task in balancing an increasingly diverse portfolio of alliances with its own strategic interests and red lines.
The newly appointed Libyan prime minister comes with a checkered past. A businessman who benefited from a longstanding close relationship with the regime of Qadhafi, Dbaiba and his cousin Ali made their family into one of the richest in Libya on the back of their control of the state-owned Organization for Development of Administrative Centers, which was appropriated billions of Libyan dinars and was tasked with administrative development and construction work during Qadhafi’s rule, and the Libyan Investment Development Company, a major construction firm.
Dbaiba also became a close advisor to Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam, working with him on the Libya Tomorrow project that was billed to transform Libya’s infrastructure and political system, according to a former official in the Qadhafi regime.
When the Libyan revolution erupted, the family, who is from the powerful western city of Misrata, chose to adopt the city’s pro-revolution stance but also worked to keep their options open in case Qadhafi’s regime was able to survive.
“Dbaiba was diplomatic,” a fighter from Misrata tells Mada Masr. “He did not want to lose anyone. We knew he was close to Qadhafi, but he was also supporting the revolutionaries. We also later knew he was also supporting Qadhafi’s fighters. He was never ready to take a gamble on any party that could lose.”