Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
Libya’s High National Commission for Elections delayed the presidential election scheduled for December 24, 2021 over disputes related to the rules of the electoral process, the list of candidates, security concerns, voter intimidation by armed militias, and continued divisions among the country’s political institutions. The challenge is now figuring out how to fix the underlying problems in Libya’s electoral process and deciding when to finally hold the vote. With this goal, the eastern, Tobruk-based Parliament, or House of Representatives, has set up a Roadmap Committee to establish a path forward toward holding free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.
However, developments in recent weeks have furthered jeopardized Libya’s elections and its tenuous peace process. Parliamentary elections, which had been slated for January, were supposed to replace the Tripoli-based and United Nations-recognized interim government, the Government of National Unity, led by interim Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh. As the House of Representatives began discussions on a new roadmap to hold elections, during a session February 10, it took the liberty of dismissing Dbeibeh and naming a new prime minister – Fathi Bashagha, the former interior minister in the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, in a move that was supported by Parliamentary Speaker Aguila Saleh and the eastern-based recently retired general, Khalifa Hifter. However, Dbeibeh refuses to step aside until elections are held and criticized the move as a unilateral power grab.
This is a return to an all-too-common situation in Libyan politics: two prime ministers vying for power, and institutional divisions between a western-based government and eastern-based parliament crippling political progress.
Old Divisions, New Alignments
Libya had two separate governments from 2015 to 2020. In western Libya was the U.N.-recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. In eastern Libya, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, led by Parliamentary Speaker Aguila Saleh and Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani (and supported by Khalifa Hifter), was dominant. In both western and eastern Libya, a variety of armed militias supported specific political factions and fought until a cease-fire was agreed upon in 2020 and the U.N.-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum process was established. This helped usher in a roadmap to elect an interim government – the 74 members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum elected Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh as prime minister and Mohammad Menfi as the head of the Presidency Council.
This “Government of National Unity” was charged with overseeing a presidential election in December 2021, with parliamentary elections following. Then, according to the roadmap, the interim government would hand over power to the new government in June 2022. Establishing the Government of National Unity was a crucial first step in unifying Libya’s long-divided political institutions, but the holding of elections was critical to maintain the international and domestic political consensus surrounding this interim government. Since the elections were postponed, and the political roadmap is in the process of being rewritten, various political factions on both sides have taken advantage of the void to reassert their influence over Libya’s political landscape and try to gain more control over the future of Libya’s electoral process, including key issues such as the list of candidates and voting rules.
The prime minister-designate, Fathi Bashagha is from Misrata, a western city that is also Dbeibeh’s power base, and was interior minister in the previous Serraj-led Government of National Accord. However, Bashagha allied himself with the parliamentary speaker, Saleh, running alongside him in the February 2021 vote by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum for the Government of National Unity, which they lost to the Dbeibeh/Menfi ticket. Bashagha, along with Dbeibeh, Hifter, and Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi (the son of slain authoritarian ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi), also registered his candidacy in the presidential election that was supposed to take place December 24, 2021.
Now, Dbeibeh’s government will need to negotiate with the Bashagha-Saleh-Hifter alignment taking root in the east and potentially in parts of western Libya. Bashagha submitted his Cabinet for parliamentary approval February 24. In a speech February 21, Dbeibeh reaffirmed his commitment not to hand over power until elections are held and announced a vague plan to hold elections in June. He emphasized that the House of Representatives’ decision to appoint a new prime minister was a “failed maneuver” that would lead to “war and chaos.”
The threat of instability and violence increases by the day. Hours before the February 10 vote in the House of Representatives, gunmen attacked Dbeibeh’s convoy in what many reports called an “assassination attempt.” The ubiquity of armed groups across the country backing specific political factions means that a return to fighting remains an acute concern.
The aim of these political elites and the armed groups that back them will be focused on preserving and likely expanding their power centers, but they also likely do not see an interest in an outright return to armed conflict. If they hope to obtain any degree of political legitimacy and basic institutional functionality, they will need to build consensus around one government, create a new roadmap, and hold elections. Libya expert Tarek Megerisi argued Bashagha and Saleh’s “bid for power rests on three pillars: greater legitimacy than the GNU, a solution to the failed election, and the military backing to make their leadership a fait accompli. All three pillars look more than a little wobbly.”
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the wider international community have expressed their commitment to international stability and are focused on intensified mediation among Libya’s various political factions, preventing a return to armed conflict, and pushing for a roadmap to hold elections.
It is no secret that external actors have played a major role in Libya’s conflict and political developments on the ground. Turkey and Qatar provided military and financial support to the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in the west, while France, Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates funneled similar support to the eastern-based House of Representatives and its military wing, led by Hifter
However, once the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum elected the Government of National Unity in February 2021, the regional and international community rallied around Dbeibeh’s government in a rare show of unity. Now that there are potentially two prime ministers in Libya, it will be important to see how regional and international actors react. Will they support the House of Representatives’ decision to appoint Bashagha, or will they stand behind the U.N.-backed interim government in Tripoli?
U.N. Special Advisor on Libya Stephanie Williams held separate meetings with Dbeibeh and Bashagha after the February 10 vote, when she “reiterated the importance for all actors and institutions to work within the political framework and, above all, to preserve calm on the ground in the interest of Libya’s unity and stability.” She emphasized that the U.N. “remains committed to raising the voices of the 2.8 million Libyans who registered to vote.” In her meeting with Bashagha, she underlined “the need to go forward in an inclusive, transparent, and consensual manner, and to maintain stability in Tripoli and throughout the country.”
The U.N. and most international actors are seemingly trying to avoid taking an overt position on these recent developments and are opting for further mediation to ensure stability and a roadmap for elections. Some powerful external actors, such as Russia and Egypt, were quick to express their total support for the House of Representatives’ appointment of Bashagha. Some analysts contend that backers of Dbeibeh’s Government of National Unity, such as Turkey, could be in the process of reassessing their alignment with the Tripoli-based government. On February 16, during his flight returning from the UAE, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave an ambiguous response to the events in Libya, saying “Fathi Bashagha announced his candidacy. Our ties with Fathi Bashagha are good.” However, he continued that, ties “are also good with Dbeibah … The important thing is who the Libyan people choose and how.”
Libya expert Karim Mezran underlined that there has been a shift in external support since the announcement of Bashagha’s appointment. He posited that, “The novelty of this latest episode in Libya’s recent history is that it has caused a reshuffle of the positions of these external actors … France, and surprisingly, Qatar, are the main supporters of the Saleh-Haftar-Bashaga block along with, more reluctantly, Egypt. Even more surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates is allegedly the leading supporter of Dbeiba, siding with the United Nations, US, Italy, and the United Kingdom.” Other experts, such as Megerisi, argued that Bashagha and Saleh should be able to count on support from Hifter’s traditional external backers, including “the UAE, Egypt, and France.” It’s still early to draw definitive conclusions since many of these external actors, including the UAE and Qatar, have yet to make statements.
Repercussions for the Region
Many of the current regional rapprochement efforts seem to be on solid ground and rooted in a wider commitment to greater regional dialogue and cooperation in the shadow of widespread conflict fatigue and the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The optimism surrounding a potential return to the Iran nuclear deal, as well as wider U.S.-Iran, Gulf Cooperation Council-Iran, and Saudi/UAE-Turkey dialogue efforts, also point to continued momentum behind regional de-escalation. Erdogan’s recent UAE visit and steadily improving Qatar-UAE dialogue reflect this. However, just as Libya’s cease-fire and unity government helped contribute to regional de-escalation, a return to instability and fighting could do the opposite.
Political developments in Libya have significant consequences for wider regional de-escalation efforts given the preeminent role of regional powers in the country’s long conflict. Libya’s return to a situation with two opposing governments, divided along eastern and western lines, could intensify regional proxy competition as it has many times in the past. As AGSIW Senior Resident Scholar Hussein Ibish emphasized, while the Libya stalemate played a significant role in easing regional tensions, a resumption of political infighting among Libyan political factions and their foreign backers could do the opposite, adding uncertainty to some of the rapprochement efforts between Turkey and the UAE and within the GCC.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a consultant with the Shaikh Group’s Track II “Dialogue for Mutual Security in the Middle East” initiative.
Qatar’s emir has made a flurry of diplomatic visits to Iran, Turkey, the UAE, and Europe to bolster regional relations, energy cooperation, and the Iran nuclear deal.
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