Hopes ride on new wheeler-dealer leader
By Taylor Luck
After seven years of civil war, Libyans have finally found a leader to head a united government and end their country’s chaos.
He is not a man of principle, standing above the fray. Rather he is a wheeler-dealer billionaire businessman, tarnished by corruption claims and past ties to ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Still, Libyans – wearied by years of turmoil – are cautiously putting their hopes in him.
They are ready today to embrace someone who can cut deals and begin to rebuild. And their amenable, glad-handing new prime minister is set to offer Libyans something they have not seen for much of the past decade: modest progress.
That would be welcome. Since 2014 Libya has been ruled by two rival governments at war with one another, each backed by foreign powers. Its oil wealth has been plundered, its infrastructure wrecked.
Yet now, with local factions and their foreign patrons deadlocked and exhausted, there is hope for a shaky, eight-month-old cease-fire and a United Nations-led process to restore a stable government and pave the way for peaceful elections by December.
The fact that Libya swore in its first united government in seven years on Monday was largely down to the freshly minted interim prime minister himself, Abdul Hamid Dabaiba.
He was the dark horse of a vote last month by 73 U.N.-selected Libyan electors – a poll marred by widespread allegations of vote-buying.
Since then Mr. Dabaiba has built broad support for his new government by capitalizing on his experience and name recognition.
He has played many roles in his long and colorful career: builder of grand development projects for President Qaddafi, a revolutionary and power broker from his hometown of Misurata during the 2011 uprising that unseated Mr. Qaddafi, and later a funder of the Libyan fight against the Islamic State.
The Toronto-educated billionaire also played up his international business dealings to put at ease the foreign powers with troops on Libyan soil – Turkey, Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates – enabling him to cobble together a broad coalition government everyone could agree to.
“What Dabaiba is trying to do is please a maximum number of actors, avoid conflict, and ensure a flow of money, projects, and positions to appeal to as broad a constellation as possible,” says Jalel Harchaoui, senior fellow at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
“Dabaiba is basically saying, ‘Let’s avoid war, do what you want in your designated territory, and let’s get things done’” along the way, Mr. Harchaoui adds.
Mr. Dabaiba’s first tasks are to get Libya’s banking system unified and back online and to overhaul the electric grid to offer Libyans full days of power ahead of the sweltering summer months.
He must also unify government institutions set up by the two rival regimes in the country’s east and west that have held power for the past seven years, and tackle a surge of COVID-19 cases.
By promising local governments a flurry of construction projects in their regions with little oversight, the incoming prime minister has placated players in the east and west.
But observers warn this will lead to a rush on Libya’s treasury, which has been starved of oil revenues for a year, and may further empower and entrench militias and factions as they dole out contracts, cash, and jobs to their constituents.
“This is a government of appeasement rather than a government of national unity,” says Tarek Megerisi, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s great that we have one government rather than two. Let’s keep moving forward. But it is also embedding the deeper drivers of conflict through nepotism and corruption.”
Mr. Dabaiba’s emergence also provides deadlocked foreign powers that are eager to cut deals with a transactional prime minister who can work with every side.
Mr. Dabaiba has ties with influential businessmen in Cairo, has done business in Turkey for decades, and has had dealings in the past with both Russia and the UAE.
The incoming prime minister has promised to rid the country of 20,000 foreign mercenaries he decries as a “stab in the back of Libya.” That may not be easy.
For the past six years, foreign powers have used such mercenaries, along with local factions and rival governments, to pursue their agendas. Backing Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s breakaway Libyan National Army in the east have been Egypt, the UAE, and Russia. Turkey intervened to back the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
The two sides’ forces are currently in a stalemate around the city of Sirte, in a central oil-producing region. A cease-fire has held for the past eight months among the four outside powers, who currently seem satisfied with what they have gained.
“There is an opportunity as Cairo, Ankara, and Moscow may see Dabaiba as someone who can bring the balance they have been looking for and secure each of their interests,” says Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh. “He is a potential bridge between the different sides.”
The Tripoli government granted Turkey concessions to explore for oil off Libya’s coast, and Russian mercenaries fighting with General Haftar’s army are stationed at oil fields in the east. That leaves Ankara and Moscow happy with the status quo and unlikely to withdraw their forces soon.
Meanwhile, the U.N. process has not addressed other explosive issues dividing the country, kicking them down the road until after elections: power sharing, local governance, and institutional reform.
The most contentious outstanding point is who retains control over a united army, an issue that has sparked two civil wars since Mr. Qaddafi’s fall. Mr. Dabaiba has finessed that question by reserving the defense minister’s post for himself.
Libyan observers say the United States could play a major role in supporting the unity government as it seeks to rebuild the country and cement the cease-fire into a durable peace.
Many believe that Washington could use its influence over NATO member Turkey, the UAE, and Egypt to dissuade them from destabilizing the country when the political process is so fragile.
“The U.S. is the only actor that has the clout, the capability, to rein in the influence of foreign actors to bring them to heel,” says Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute.
Hailing the Libyan government formation as “a welcome step,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on “foreign powers to leave now.”
Other observers are less ambitious. “If we can exit the year with one unified government, with some basic improvements in daily life, that is progress,” says Mr. Megerisi, the analyst.
“Although it is faced with so many flaws, this government represents a new opportunity,” he adds. “We should take these wins when we see them.”
Taylor Luck – Special correspondent.He took the road less travelled from the Midwest to the Mideast where he is now a Middle East North Africa correspondent for the Monitor.