Karim Mezran and Tahani Elmogrbi
On March 10, Libya witnessed an unprecedented breakthrough after years of political stalemate when the Libyan parliament agreed to ratify the Government of National Unity (GNU).
This coalition government is the product of United Nations-led political negotiations under the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). This assembly was appointed to draft a new roadmap to end the Libyan conflict after a civil war erupted in 2014 between the faction led by former General Khalifa Haftar in the Eastern part of the country and its mostly pro-Islamist adversaries.
The breakthrough happened when the House of Representatives—the legitimate parliament elected in the 2014 elections—managed to—in an uncharacteristically, smooth, and orderly manner—grant a vote of confidence to the GNU’s proposed cabinet.
Since the 2014 parliamentary elections, Libyan representatives have been notorious for their stalling behavior, which has prevented the country from moving forward. In fact, for more than five years since the inauguration of the first UN-led negotiations on the Government of National Accord (GNA), the House never managed to agree to ratify the GNA.
The majority of representatives endorsed the GNU, including Aghela Saleh, speaker of the House of Representatives since 2014. Saleh described the moment as historic, stressing the need to “remind the GNU that its mandates ends on December 24 of this year to conduct the elections on the agreed set-date…then the GNU will operate as a steering government until the elections [are] concluded.” Cheers and applause filled the event venue, something rarely witnessed in post-revolution Libya.
Former Libyan Prime Ministers Fayes Sarraj and Abdullah Thini swiftly conveyed their congratulations and wishes to the GNU and expressed commitment to handing over power. Additionally, foreign actors involved in the Libyan conflict—such as Egypt, Turkey, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates—were also quick to express their congratulations and voice support for the GNU.
The GNU Prime Minister, Abdulhamed Dbeiba, has high expectations from the exacerbated Libyan population and will face many challenges. Of utmost importance is Libya’s security situation, which involves the presence of more than twenty thousand mercenaries from competing factions alongside regular troops that belong to a number of foreign actors involved in the Libyan conflict.
This is without mentioning the tens of thousands of militias that exercise de facto control over a large part of Libya’s territory, meaning that they constitute the biggest threat to the country’s stability. Dbeiba remarked: “Mercenaries and foreign forces are a dagger in the back of Libya, and we must work to liberate the country from them wisely and calmly, not with trumpets and media talk” during a House session.
Given the complicated situation on the ground, it will not be easy for the prime minister to dismantle local armed groups and to liberate Libya from the grip of mercenaries.
Another big challenge will be to accommodate the demand of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) chairman and popular figure Mustafa Sanallah to ensure oil revenues are paid directly to the NOC and not the Central Bank of Libya (CBL).
The personal rivalry between the head of the NOC and the powerful Governor of the CBL, Sadiq al Kabir, has plagued the relationship between the two institutions and hindered many need reforms to Libya’s crippled oil industry.
The fact that Dbeiba has appointed an oil minister—which did not exist under the GNA—may signal the prime minister’s intention to reject Sanallah’s request and have revenues sent directly to the oil ministry and to be under the GNU’s responsibility.
It is possible that, if the government succeeds in implementing some of the necessary reforms and completing the much-needed infrastructure plans, Dbeiba may try to extend his mandate to complete such a “virtuous” performance and postpone the elections.
In this case, the United Nations Security Council will be instrumental in ensuring that all the international actors involved in supporting the Libyan transition act cohesively against this possibility to ensure the realization of elections, as all committed to do so at the time of the signing of the LPDF in February 2021.
In conclusion, if badly managed, any of these challenges could turn fatal for Dbeiba’s government. It will take a lot of goodwill from the Libyan population and from the new elite of the country to allow space for compromise and acceptance of differences to ensure that the path is one of political dialogue and peaceful confrontation rather than one of armed conflict.
International actors, particularly regional ones, must understand this is the only way to stabilize the country and guarantee some security for Libya’s borders. Thus, these actors must—with cautious optimism—exercise all efforts to guarantee the successful completion of the roadmap designed by the LPDF in Geneva.
Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
Tahani Elmogrbi is a Libya expert and international development specialist.