A Semblance of Compromise Obscures Old and New Rifts
The formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU) under Abdelhamid Dabeiba in March 2021 was a breakthrough in efforts to overcome Libya’s political division. But the settlement’s flaws are already starting to show.
So far, political actors have merely agreed to compete for access to state funds within a unified government. Distributive struggles could soon test the government’s cohesion.
Meanwhile, substantive disagreements are being shoved aside; in particular, the government is trying to ignore the challenges in the security sector.
Unless progress is made towards elections that are planned for December 2021, tensions between profiteers and opponents of the government risk provoking a new political crisis. But even the elections themselves harbour potential for renewed conflict.
In February 2021, United Nations (UN) mediation efforts met with unexpected success when the UN-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) selected a three-member Presidency Council and a prime minister.
Even more surprising was Prime Minister Dabeiba’s success in winning his government the endorsement of the House of Representatives (HoR), which is the Libyan legislative body that was elected in 2014. This endorsement has given Libya its first unified government since August 2014.
According to the LPDF roadmap, the GNU’s term ends with elections that are planned for 24 December 2021 even though there is not yet any legal basis for their implementation.
This breakthrough was unforeseen not only because the country’s political division had hardened in recent years, but also because the civil war over the capital of Tripoli from April 2019 to June 2020 deepened societal rifts.
The GNU’s formation also confounded expectations because the convergence between political representatives in the LPDF was not matched by that between the actual parties to the conflict.
The armed groups that fought each other in the most recent war remain affiliated with opposing military command structures and continue to host foreign forces and mercenaries to deter their adversaries.
Another surprise was the role of Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in consenting to the formation of the GNU, which they could plausibly have sought to prevent.
After all, a unity government could seek to expel these states’ forces or mercenaries from Libya. But no such foreign obstruction occurred; in fact, Egypt and Turkey supported the process, even though they had been on opposing sides in Libya for years.
The negotiating framework emanated from the Berlin Process that Germany and the UN launched in autumn 2019 to broker an understanding between the foreign powers involved in Libya. But the Berlin Process was not the reason why the mediation efforts were able to gather momentum. Instead, two factors were key.
First, in spring 2020, Turkey’s military intervention in support of the Tripoli government – and in violation of the Berlin declaration of January 2020 – ended the war in Tripoli and created a balance of power.
Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), could no longer hope for military victory. The ceasefire agreement signed under UN auspices in October 2020 merely formalized the prevailing stalemate.
Second, from January 2020 onwards, the warring parties deprived each other of access to oil revenues, causing growing financial difficulties for both sides. Russian attempts to negotiate the resumption of oil production in summer 2020 prompted the US to intensify its own mediation efforts on the matter.
For Libya’s politicians, forming a unity government became the only way to once again unlock access to oil revenues.
The Logic of Unification
The UN-led process that produced the GNU was selective with regard to its participants and the questions it tackled. This facilitated the GNU’s formation, but also limited its prospects for success.
The LPDF, which the UN first convened in November 2020, is one of the UN’s three negotiating forums intended to resolve conflict in Libya.
The others are the Libyan Economic Dialogue and the Joint Military Commission, the latter of which yielded the October 2020 ceasefire agreement and has also been tasked with negotiating the unification of Libyan military command structures.
Government formation through the LPDF, and subsequently the HoR, brought together politicians who mostly have only weak ties to forces on the ground. Half of the 75 representatives chosen by the UN to be LPDF participants are members of one of the two competing legislative bodies – the HoR and the High State Council.
Over the past few years, these bodies have become infamous for defending their privileges and obstructing progress. In most cases, their constituencies have long stopped seeing these parliamentarians as representing their interests.
Egypt, which exerts great influence over HoR Speaker Agila Saleh, ensured that the LPDF included numerous supporters of Saleh and that the HoR would need to approve LPDF decisions in order for them to become binding.
In addition to the parliamentarians, the LPDF includes proxies of individual political figures and, to a lesser extent, military actors, as well as civil society representatives.
By contrast, Haftar’s forces and western Libyan armed groups are weakly represented in the LPDF, as are the concerns of the conflicts’ victims – internally displaced persons, the war-disabled, and relatives of those killed in the conflicts.
Indeed, LPDF delegates came to focus primarily on selecting members of the Presidency Council as well as the prime minister. Parliamentarians played an even stronger role in forming the cabinet.
The HoR’s endorsement of the GNU was a key condition for transcending the state of institutional division. To gain this endorsement, Dabeiba allowed small groups or even individual parliamentarians to name their own ministers.
During negotiations, many members of the HoR openly demanded what they claimed was a fair share in government posts for their cities, tribes or regions. Dabeiba fully submitted to such demands and thereby arrived at a government of 35 ministers whose selection occurred on the basis of clientelist ties, and who have few common political interests.
Several have already been subject to administrative reprimands or judicial investigations for abuse of office, embezzlement and other charges. The GNU therefore does not rely on a coalition of well-identifiable political blocs.
Libya has few well-organized political forces, and they largely ended up empty handed in the process of government formation – among them Haftar’s power structure in eastern Libya and the Justice and Construction Party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Instead, the government includes representatives of dozens of different clientelist networks. To date, the UN-led process has only required these networks to agree that they will compete for access to state funds within a single government. But exactly who gets what largely remains to be negotiated.
Ministerial posts are only one aspect of this equation. Many other official positions can or must be reshuffled, and budgets are to be divided.
Dabeiba still requires the HoR’s approval for the GNU budget, and in exchange for their confirmation thereof, parliamentarians are trying to push through their choices for deputy ministers. As soon as the budget has passed, competition over the control of funds will unfold within the government.
In addition, members of both the HoR and GNU are trying to agree on new appointments to top positions, such as those of the Central Bank governor and the head of the Audit Bureau, for which they also intend to ensure proportional representation of the regions.
In sum, the new political settlement has yet to produce winners and losers. As a result, the GNU’s opponents will organize with time. Already, resentment is on the rise among the many political and military actors to whom Dabeiba had promised posts, so far without keeping his promises.
The logic of proportional representation on the basis of regional or local origin had implicitly shaped previous governments as well. But the current process has openly established it as its dominant principle.
The composition of the Presidency Council reflects this logic, as it will consist of one representative each for western, eastern and southern Libya.
The blatant demands for a proportional share of government positions are transparent attempts to receive access to state funds. They rely on a tacit understanding between political actors that these funds serve to build patronage networks, or simply personal enrichment.
This logic dominated the GNU’s formation mainly because the UN-led process depended on the lure of state wealth as the primary driver behind the LPDF.
Dr. Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Africa and Middle East Research Division at SWP.