Libyan politicians have moved with salutary speed in 2021 to reunify their divided country. With UN help, the new government should hasten to clear two last hurdles: establishing a legal framework for elections and clarity about who holds supreme command of the armed forces.
International efforts to broker a Libyan national unity government started in 2014, when contested parliamentary elections divided the country into two power centres, one in Tripoli, the other in the east, each with its own executive and legislature.
UN-backed negotiations in 2015 sought to establish the so-called Government of National Accord headed by Faiez Serraj, but it failed to secure parliament’s approval despite winning international recognition.
The government in eastern Libya, headed by Abdullah al-Thinni and backed by forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, thus continued to operate in parallel. The UN tried to forge a new consensus on a unity government in late 2017, and again in early 2019, but both initiatives failed.
Over time, the rift widened, fuelling bouts of war encouraged by rival foreign powers, which, at loggerheads over geopolitical ambitions and end goals for Libya, backed opposite factions.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, France and Russia all covertly supported Haftar-led forces, which Jordan also helped train, while Qatar and Turkey backed Tripoli-based militias and the military coalition allied with the Government of National Accord, some of whose units European countries, including France, also helped instruct and equip.
In April 2019, Haftar’s coalition launched an offensive on Tripoli in an attempt to seize power from the Tripoli-based government and unify Libya under his leadership. But after months of airstrikes and almost 3,000 deaths, the offensive collapsed, thanks to an overt Turkish military intervention that began in January 2020.
Pro-Tripoli forces backed by Turkey drove Haftar’s men from areas surrounding the capital, and in June Haftar’s forces retreated to central Libya, where the front lines cemented. As the prospect of Haftar prevailing militarily faded, the door opened to a return to UN-brokered political negotiations.
The result was, first, an October 2020 ceasefire agreed between the two sides’ military commanders, who formed a joint commission known as the 5+5 committee composed of five representatives from each side tasked with follow-up military arrangements, and then a new round of UN-led political talks in November, which built on foreign powers’ commitment that they would respect the outcome.
Over the next three months, 74 representatives of Libya’s factions, including from the two rival assemblies, as well as UN-handpicked delegates (including supporters of the deposed Qadhafi regime), met both in person and virtually in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum to negotiate a roadmap for reunifying the country.
They agreed broadly on parliamentary and presidential elections to be held at the end of 2021 and to entrust an interim prime minister and a new three-person Presidency Council with managing the country’s affairs until then.
Despite disagreements over the voting mechanism and following a fast-paced, live-broadcast vote on four competing tickets, winners emerged in early February 2021.
With 39 votes of 74, delegates chose a businessman from Misrata in western Libya, Abdulhamid Dabaiba, as prime minister-designate, and eastern Libya’s Mohamed Mnefi to head a new Presidency Council.
For these nominations to take effect, the UN roadmap said the House of Representatives in Tobruk would have to first endorse the new executive. It did so within days, setting the stage for elections at year’s end.
This report lays out the domestic and international factors that contributed to forging a consensus on a national unity government in Libya. It argues that in spite of rapid progress made in unifying the country under a new executive authority, the transition remains fragile.
It highlights two factors that risk undermining the UN-backed roadmap: lack of consensus on the constitutional framework for elections, nominally scheduled to take place at the end of 2021; and ambiguity over the powers of the newly appointed Presidency Council, which the UN-backed roadmap, but not yet parliament, has recognised as the top civilian authority entrusted with overseeing military reunification.
The report is based on over a hundred telephone interviews with Libyan politicians, members of the UN-backed dialogue, members of the new interim executive, UN officials and foreign diplomats in March-April 2021. It also relies on years of Crisis Group reporting on the conflict in Libya and UN mediation efforts there.
Dabaiba’s chances of forming a government and securing a vote of confidence appeared slim at first. Soon after the UN-backed forum nominated him as prime minister in February, he had to fend off vote-buying allegations.
News surfaced that a UN Panel of Experts, a body mandated by the Security Council to investigate Libya sanctions violations, had gathered evidence regarding bribes that he or his acquaintances allegedly had offered to some of the 74 Libyan delegates in exchange for their votes. But Dabaiba, who flatly denied the accusations, managed to brush them off.
The majority of Libyan political stakeholders either disbelieved the allegations or dismissed them as business as usual in Libya, where payoffs and kickbacks are the norm.
Subsequently published on 16 March, the Panel of Experts’ report did not explicitly say Dabaiba or his entourage had offered money in exchange for votes (though an unpublished annex reportedly did), and the vote-buying controversy died down.
His second hurdle was to obtain the support of Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives, whose members over the years had split into two groups, one based in Tobruk and the other in Tripoli.
Following two weeks of consultations in late February and early March, the legislature’s rival factions agreed to meet in war-torn Sirte on 8 March to vote on Dabaiba’s proposed government.
There were many reasons to host the meeting in Sirte. The city is halfway between Tripoli and Tobruk. A pro-Qadhafi stronghold, it briefly became an Islamic State (ISIS) outpost in 2016. It also sits on the frozen front lines of the conflict between the pro-Tripoli forces and Haftar’s. These factors added symbolism to the event.
But there were practical obstacles. Sirte is under control of Haftar’s forces, and Russia’s pro-Haftar Wagner private military contractors were stationed at the city’s airport. Tripoli-based parliamentarians opposed to the field marshal thus wondered if they could safely travel to Sirte.
Adding to the problem was the fact that pro-Tripoli military factions deployed west of Sirte refused to open the coastal road leading to the city. At first, the country’s joint military commission advised against a meeting in Sirte because of the presence of “foreigners” – ie, the Russian contractors.
But they greenlighted the gathering at the last minute, after it emerged that the contractors had temporarily relocated out of Sirte, making way for the flights carrying the parliament members.
As for Haftar’s forces, it is unclear what guarantees, if any, Tripoli-based parliamentarians secured prior to travelling to Sirte, but they ultimately overcame their hesitancy.
By 8 March, 132 of the approximately 180 parliamentarians had flown into the city, giving the House of Representatives the legal quorum to hold a confidence vote.
Over the following three days, the parliamentary sessions were livestreamed, allowing Libyans across the country to follow the proceedings.
On the first day, representatives argued over Dabaiba’s proposed 30-plus-member cabinet. While some expressed support, others saw it as bloated or accused it of lacking sufficient representation of certain tribes and towns.
Other lawmakers expressed frustration that Dabaiba did not opt for a smaller, technocratic government, something U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland and former Acting UN Special Representative to Libya Stephanie Williams had also pressed for. After the first session, the odds that Dabaiba would obtain parliament’s support appeared low.
On the second day, Dabaiba was given the stage to respond. He presented a cabinet of 26 ministers, six ministers of state and two deputy prime ministers, one each for eastern and southern Libya.
He argued that a large government would be most representative. “I would have preferred to form a mini-government”, he said, “but I took into account the [country’s] political and geographic balance”, so as to include all Libya’s regions.
He explained that he had chosen no one from the previous rival governments, so as to turn the page on the past. He said he picked ministers with nothing to fear across the country, marking a departure from the Serraj-led government, whose members never travelled to eastern Libya, and the al-Thinni-led government, whose members went to central and southern Libya, where Haftar-led forces were stationed, but never to the west.
He also talked about boosting the economy, which struck a chord with the public.
Finally, he urged deputies to vote for his government as soon as possible, rather than waiting the full 21 days accorded by the UN roadmap, and vowed to adjust the cabinet line-up if need be.
Later that day, he did just that. After closed-door consultations with several parliamentarians, he replaced ten of the proposed cabinet members, including the deputy prime minister representing eastern Libya and the ministers of foreign affairs, finance, economy and planning.
Legislators from the eastern bloc, and in particular parliament President Aghela Saleh, pressed hard for these changes. The people they sought to remove were both pro-Haftar politicians and others perceived to be close to Islamists. Those who replaced them are believed to be closer to Saleh or other parliamentarians.
This reshuffle was enough to secure a swift confidence vote, which took place on 10 March. All 132 representatives said thiqa (“confidence”) out loud, formally approving the national unity government.
The defence minister’s position remained vacant, with Dabaiba temporarily assuming the portfolio, claiming that he could not find a candidate acceptable to both rival military coalitions.
The government does not have a distinct political orientation.
It includes former Qadhafi-era personalities (such as Economy Minister Mohamed al-Huweij of Warshaffana), academics (Planning Minister Fakhr Bufarna and Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush, both from Benghazi) and a number of lesser-known individuals from across the country, including from non-Arab ethnic minorities.
The main novelties (at least for post-Qadhafi governments) were the appointment of an oil and gas minister and the appointment of women as ministers of foreign affairs and justice.
Many ministers are inexperienced, leading several Libyans to predict that the government will be centralised under Dabaiba and his close relatives, including his father-in-law and uncle Ali Dabaiba, a former Qadhafi-era official and billionaire known to have played a role in his nephew’s rise to power.