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.
Parliament’s approval of the new cabinet was a momentous achievement by itself, but within days more important steps followed. The first was the government’s swearing-in ceremony at the legislature’s headquarters in Tobruk on 15 March, with Dabaiba and the other cabinet members taking the oath of office one after the other.
The last time a Libyan government was sworn in before an elected assembly was in 2012. But what added a further layer of surprise was that Tripoli-based parliamentarians, who amount to roughly half the total members, agreed to travel to Tobruk, which they had not done during the time the city had been under Haftar’s military control.
Participants described the atmosphere as “festive” and “celebratory”. House of Representatives President Saleh called on Libyans “to shake hands and seek forgiveness over our differences”, and repeatedly called for leaving “the mistakes of the past” behind. He added: “The file of the past should be wrapped up and left in a prison cell to be forgotten and never see the light of day”.
Although parliament organised the swearing-in ceremony at the last minute, a handful of Libyan personalities and foreign diplomats, including from the UN, the U.S., the European Union (EU), Italy, France and the UK, attended.
The participation of two people in particular stood out: Turkish Ambassador Kenan Yılmaz and Khaled Mishri, a high-profile Muslim Brotherhood member and head of the High State Council, the Tripoli-based rival assembly.
Their attendance in Tobruk, which was a bastion of the anti-Turkey and anti-Muslim Brotherhood camp less than a year ago, is a testament to the rapid shifts in political alliances that are playing out in Libya and beyond.
Diplomats from Egypt, the UAE and Russia – Haftar’s main backers – did not attend, reportedly due to logistical difficulties related to the short notice.
The second surprising development was the smooth power transfer that followed. Libya’s rival governments had always refused to recognise each other. On 16 March, a ceremony took place at Serraj’s office in Tripoli in the presence of Dabaiba and the new president of the Presidency Council, Mohamed Mnefi.
At the end of a solemn and somewhat apologetic speech that touched upon his difficulties over the previous two years of war, Serraj said he was handing over to Dabaiba his political and military responsibilities “in order to consolidate the principle of the peaceful transfer of power”.
After handshakes, Dabaiba and his staff took office in Tripoli. Likewise, on 23 March, al-Thinni’s (unrecognised) east-based government held its own transfer ceremony in Benghazi.
Al-Thinni welcomed in person the new government’s Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Qatrani (from eastern Libya) and ten other ministers, and symbolically handed power (and the offices the east-based government had used) to them. Dabaiba, who visited eastern Libya before the vote of confidence, did not go to Benghazi for this event.
These fast-paced political developments are astounding. Libya’s institutional rifts persisted for over six years, and rival military coalitions were fighting deadly battles on the outskirts of Tripoli only a year ago.
The seamless power transfer – with no armed group mobilising to prevent it and no foreign power trying to obstruct it – is historic for a country awash with militias and where foreign meddling has become the norm.
Several interlocking developments contributed to this outcome. The first is Turkey’s military intervention, the end of the Tripoli fighting in June and the new balance of power that followed. The repulsion of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli and their withdrawal to central Libya put a nail in the coffin of his foreign backers’ hopes in military victory and chipped away at their trust in his forces’ capabilities.
For a brief moment, it looked as if the conflict would move into eastern Libya, as Turkish-backed forces allied to the Tripoli government, riding the wave of their successes, drew up plans to pursue the Haftar-led forces to Benghazi and beyond.
But the fighting did not spread, due mainly to U.S. diplomats’ cautions against it to all parties, including Egypt which had threatened to intervene if Turkish-backed forces entered eastern Libya. A military stalemate ensued, with no active conflict.
In subsequent months, the UAE began withdrawing its military equipment from Libya, a process completed by late 2020. Russian-backed Wagner forces and their equipment, including Russian fighter jets, remained.
They became Haftar’s main foreign military backing (reportedly funded by the UAE) in areas under his control, which included eastern, central and parts of southern Libya. In the west, Turkey became the major military protagonist within a few months, providing air defences to Tripoli-based forces during the war and continuing to airlift materiel to western Libya even after hostilities had ended.
This state of affairs froze the conflict, but divided Libya into two main regions, with Russia and Turkey each carving out spheres of influence.
In principle, a frozen conflict in a divided Libya could have perdured, but other dynamics put into motion at the end of 2020 helped move along the peace process.
Many Libyans have become weary of external interference in their affairs, particularly the presence of foreign forces on Libyan territory, whether Turkish officers and their Syrian proxies supporting Tripoli or Russian private security contractors on Haftar’s side.
A sense of urgency about cutting ties with foreign sponsors became palpable during the UN-backed negotiations between representatives of Libya’s two military coalitions that had been taking place since October.
All these interests converged within the political class to push forward an agreement over a unified interim government, which the Libyans believed would be the starting point for ridding the country of foreign troops and influence.
Another important element that made an agreement on a unity government more palatable, at least in the eyes of pro-Haftar constituencies, was progress in addressing financial disputes that have tarnished relations between Tripoli and its eastern rivals for years.
In early February, the Tripoli government agreed to shoulder all the expenditures of the parallel authorities in the east, including the Haftar-led forces’ salaries and operating costs, and to incorporate these outlays into the 2021 national budget.
In exchange, the east-based government committed to stopping its use of parallel revenue sources, such as treasury bills, on which they had relied since 2015. Moreover, also in early February, the Central Bank of Libya agreed to offer a zero-interest credit line to a group of banks, for the most part based in eastern Libya.
Financial considerations also factored into pro-Tripoli constituencies’ acceptance of the new executive. The region has been badly affected by a financial crisis triggered when the central bank, along with the country’s other institutions, split in two in 2014.
Authorities in western Libya knew that only a unified government would enable oil revenues to revert to the state; these revenues are the country’s main source of income but have been sequestered in an account managed by the National Oil Corporation following a U.S.- and UN-backed deal in September 2020, openly conceived with the objective of persuading Libya’s rival factions to reach a political agreement.
UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé and Acting Special Representative Stephanie Williams also played an important role in fostering this convergence.
First, they initiated a dialogue with Libyan actors’ foreign sponsors, known as the Berlin consultation process, which brought to the table the principal foreign actors involved in the Libya conflict throughout 2020, keeping them abreast of and on board with UN mediation efforts. Securing their buy-in prevented them from torpedoing local political mediation efforts.
Secondly, they helped convey, in their outreach to rival Libyan political and military leaders, the notion that agreeing on a unified interim government was the necessary first step toward regaining control over their country’s destiny, rather than allowing foreign capitals to carry out their own plans for Libya – at Libyans’ expense.
Thirdly, they supported and sometimes hosted the economic track negotiations that helped pave the way for some of the above-mentioned financial agreements.
De-escalation between the war’s main foreign protagonists also set the stage for a constructive approach to a peaceful settlement.
De-escalation between the war’s main foreign protagonists – Turkey and Qatar, on one side, and Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the other – also set the stage for a constructive approach to a peaceful settlement.
In January 2021, the four states that had severed ties with Qatar in 2017, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, agreed to formally end their four-year dispute with the country and lift their economic blockade; they had accused Qatar of supporting opposition movements on their soil, funding the Muslim Brotherhood region-wide and promoting Islamist militancy, including in Libya.
The nominal end of this intra-Gulf Cooperation Council squabble led to restoration of diplomatic relations and increased bilateral economic cooperation.
At the same time, back-channel communications resumed between Egypt and Turkey, paving the way for what may be a tentative rapprochement – even if big disagreements remain.
The two countries’ relations badly soured after the 2013 military coup against the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, and deteriorated further when they took opposite sides in the Libya war.
In early 2021, Turkish officials began to soften their rhetoric toward Egypt, though Cairo has yet to reciprocate, its officials insisting that, despite the resumption of informal contacts, Egypt’s relations with Ankara have not moved “one inch”.
That said, the two countries seem now aligned in their Libya policy. They both support the national unity government and the roadmap toward elections. But the presence of Turkish forces and Ankara-recruited Syrian contract fighters in Libya remains a sticking point.
In Libya itself, war fatigue has long been widespread, along with an aspiration to see a functional government in place after years of disarray. What changed is Libyan leaders’ calculations about the prospects of gaining the upper hand in their long struggle.
When they took stock of the new military realities, the changing regional environment, the eroding economy and the deteriorating security landscape of divided Libya, they realised that they had more to gain from a political process than an indefinite military confrontation. The logical next step was to cooperate in, rather than obstruct, choosing a new prime minister.
Haftar and his entourage, in particular, came to understand that, with their defeat in Tripoli and a UAE recalibration of its foreign policy priorities, the Emirati military and financial support on which they had depended might be coming to an end.
They also anticipated that, unlike former U.S. President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden would be less likely to tolerate Haftar’s adventurism or that of his Gulf backers.
Some Libyan stakeholders close to Haftar were also under the impression that the Biden administration would not overlook the multiple human rights abuses and killings that Haftar affiliates allegedly perpetrated in eastern Libya and during the Tripoli war. For this reason, they advised him to be cooperative with the new authorities.
Widening rifts among the Haftar-led Libyan Arab Armed Forces further weakened the field marshal’s grip. Additionally, pro-Haftar politicians had to fend off growing public discontent over the declining security and economic situation in areas under his control.
As a result, the pro-Haftar camp lacked sufficient leverage to repeat the past strategy of obstructing UN-backed Libyan leaders and instead chose to work with them, though neither the new prime minister nor the Presidency Council members are their allies.
The head of the Tobruk-based assembly, Aghela Saleh, also collaborated with the new authorities, to the surprise of many Libyans who believed he would obstruct the parliamentary approval process, as he had with the Government of National Accord in 2016.
This time, the reverse occurred. He facilitated the House of Representatives’ meetings in Sirte and Tobruk, and weighed in heavily on Dabaiba’s choice of ministers, which turned him into the new government’s kingmaker.
His new attitude reflects both the shifting regional consensus and his personal choice to emerge as the leading pro-reconciliation champion in eastern Libya.
In western Libya, where support for Faiez Serraj had long eroded, it was no surprise that most politicians and military leaders supported the political process.
Broadly speaking, and to different degrees, the new authorities are aligned with the Tripoli-based camp and thus met most western Libyan political and military heavyweights’ expectations for the new executive.
Additionally, Dabaiba comes from a millionaire family in Misrata that, after severing ties with the Qadhafi regime, helped finance rebel groups and still enjoys the support of some of these militias. Libyan big business also backed him, hoping that a business-savvy and pragmatic leader will relaunch a failing economy and unlock public-sector investments
That said, some politicians and activists in western Libya have expressed unease in private about Dabaiba’s rise to power. They believe the vote-buying allegations and cringe at the notion that someone whose record they think is stained can help author a new chapter in Libya’s history.
But they lacked leverage to change the course of events, especially in view of widespread popular and foreign support for the interim government.