Whatever the plan’s merits, the two assemblies have a record of striking deals and then backtracking, and there are other potential hurdles besides.
The first is that Dabaiba and his supporters could reject his being unseated as prime minister without elections. They could mobilise their armed allies in Tripoli to keep him in power. If they do, clashes could break out between Dabaiba backers and opponents, or individuals tied to efforts to replace Dabaiba could be kidnapped, a tactic commonly used in Libya to silence political opponents. Any of these events could halt the selection process and have destabilising effects.
The second possible obstacle is that, thus far, the main international actors in Libya appear not to support a move by the House and Council toward selecting a unity government. As noted, the UN has opposed the idea outright, saying it runs counter to UN-backed efforts to pave the way for elections.
In a 26 July statement, the UN Support Mission in Libya called it a “unilateral initiative” that flies in the face of popular demand for elections, warning it could have “serious consequences for Libya and trigger further instability and violence”.
But in a strongly worded response, the House Foreign Affairs Committee accused the UN of misleading the Libyan public in describing the plan as “unilateral”, contending that the proposed selection process is consistent with the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, which requires both assemblies’ imprimatur for major political decisions.
The Committee is technically right, but the UN appears to believe that the two assemblies’ agreement is insufficient, and that legitimacy requires greater buy in, including from pro-election and possibly pro-Dabaiba factions – however far-fetched that may be.
As for other outside actors, their views fall along a spectrum. Like the UN, Western capitals have distanced themselves from the interim government plan. In a 27 July joint statement, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the U.S. underscored the need to “address all contested elements of the electoral framework”, arguing that the focus of Libya’s leaders must be on responding to the “Libyan people’s continuous demands for national presidential and parliamentary elections as soon as possible”.
In neglecting to mention the notion of a unity interim government, the statement suggested these capitals would not support one. This posture is no surprise: officials from these countries have been adamant that the next step should be presidential and legislative elections, followed by formation of a government by the new president based on the existing legal framework.
They see no benefit to appointing a unity government, contending (not entirely plausibly) that the country can embark on elections just as easily with the two rival governments still in place. Some Libyans interpret such positions as a tacit endorsement of the Dabaiba government, which enjoys close relations with many of these countries.
Middle Eastern actors have a range of perspectives. The Egyptian foreign ministry called for “respecting the role of Libyan institutions” and avoiding “any diktats or external interference from any party”.
In doing so, it seemed to suggest that Cairo stands behind the plan to form an interim government – consistent with its repeated calls for appointing one before general elections and its longstanding support for negotiations between the two assemblies. By contrast, the United Arab Emirates has not expressed a view but is unlikely to throw its weight behind the 6+6 Committee’s plan.
It probably leans toward a deal between Dabaiba and Haftar as the best way forward. Abu Dhabi has tried to forge an arrangement between the two power brokers over the past year, and Emirati officials have indicated to Crisis Group that they prefer that path.
Officials in Qatar are less enthusiastic about a Dabaiba-Haftar deal as such, but they consider it more realistic than any other option that would require ousting Dabaiba. Many Libyans, however, contend that although Haftar and Dabaiba appear to cooperate on a host of matters, especially related to the oil sector, there is little chance that they will strike a political bargain that could lead to the appointment of a unity government.
An Opportunity to Break the Deadlock?
With the prospect of elections more remote than ever, it is possible that the UN and foreign governments are being too hard-nosed in opposing the idea of forming a unity government as the necessary first step.
Of course, if the main Libyan parties could agree on elections, the ballot box would be the best way forward. But they remain divided over the same issues that torpedoed the 2021 elections, namely identifying the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates and the sequencing of presidential and legislative elections.
The chance of overcoming these disputes right now is very low, despite the 6+6 Committee’s ideas about how to do so. Libyan politicians tend to profess publicly their support for elections but to temper or withdraw it when they suspect polls would threaten their own political aspirations.
For its part, the UN is in no position to impose a different solution on the Libyan parties. In late February, Abdoulaye Bathily, the UN special representative, proposed that the UN appoint a High-Level Steering Panel for Elections to complete the electoral roadmap. But after the two assemblies objected, and Egypt lobbied the UN Security Council against the idea, Bathily reversed himself.
The UN’s role has since shrunk, reflecting the desire of Libya’s political leaders to make their own decisions about the country’s future.
With the UN thus constrained, and no viable alternative on offer, external actors concerned with Libya’s path to stability and good governance should soften their opposition to forming an interim unity government prior to elections.
Instead, they should make clear that they can get behind the idea if the two assemblies agree on clear, transparent procedures for selecting a prime minister and if the mandate of the new executive is clearly defined to support electoral preparations.
Both bodies should thus make refinements to the approved plan, offering further commitments and details concerning how they will organise internal voting. The House and the Council should also invite the UN to oversee the selection process to ensure that it is free and fair; the UN’s involvement would reduce the chances that other Libyans, including Dabaiba supporters, will contest the outcome, as occurred with the Bashagha government in 2022.
Once a unity government is in place, the prospects for getting to new polls become much greater, although still fraught with challenges.
Outside actors are right to see risks in following this path, but if the two assemblies make the changes and commitments suggested above, those risks will be worth taking.
The plan approved by the House on 25 July might not be the ideal way out of Libya’s political crisis, but for now it is the only realistic path to reunifying the country.
Claudia Gazzini is the International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Libya. She has covered this role since 2012. Between October 2017 and March 2018 she also served as policy advisor to Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). She researches and produces reports on security, politics and economic governance of Libya, including its oil sector. She travels regularly throughout Libya.