The announcement that the United States will conclude its combat role in Iraq by the end of 2021 appears to be no more than rebranding the U.S. troops’ current role in Iraq.
On February 5, the United Nations-led peace talks on Libya produced an executive authority tasked with forming a transitional government and leading the country to elections at the end of the year. The interim government faces a mountain of challenges, and many experts are skeptical that it can overcome the political divisions within the country. A greater hurdle may be foreign interference in Libya’s conflict from powers including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia. The cease-fire agreement reached on October 23, 2020 stipulated that all foreign fighters and military officers had to depart Libyan territory by January 23, a deadline that has come and gone without progress. And Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya Stephanie Williams said that “blatant foreign interference continues.” The administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. directly called for these three countries to cease their military interference in Libya and abide by the cease-fire deal. A new withdrawal deadline will likely be set, but there are concerns that these foreign powers have no serious plans to withdraw their forces from Libya and that their continued interference could jeopardize Libya’s efforts to form an interim government and hold elections in December.
Libya’s New “Unity” Government
The 74 members of the U.N.-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum held in early February elected a prime minister and a three-member Presidency Council to represent Libya’s three regions (east, west, and south) out of four lists of candidates. In a surprising result, the majority of the forum members chose the third list of candidates rather than, as was expected, the fourth list. This was likely due to various factions unifying against the fourth list, which included the influential interior minister of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, Fathi Ali Abdul Salam Bashagha, as a candidate for prime minister and Aguila Saleh, the powerful speaker of the House of Representatives in Tobruk in eastern Libya, for president. Both candidates were powerful and controversial and thus confronted resistance within their own factions and across the country. Emadeddin Badi and Wolfram Lacher argued that the two men were “on opposing sides in the recent civil war, had made many enemies within their own camps, and their opportunistic alliance alienated many others. Instead of having heavyweights in the warring parties lead a new unity government, a majority of delegates opted to support a group that appeared amenable to bring them to the fold.”
The third list included Abdel Hamid Dbeibah as prime minister and Mohammad Menfi as head of the Presidency Council. Dbeibah is a businessman from Misrata, in northwestern Libya, whose family became wealthy during decades of working in the public sector under ousted dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Dbeibah was chosen by the former Libyan leader to run the Libyan Investment and Development Company in 2007. Menfi is from Tobruk and has worked as a Libyan diplomat and a member of Libya’s General National Congress, the Parliament that controlled Libya from 2012 to 2014 and was subsequently supposed to be replaced by a unified House of Representatives and Government of National Accord, as laid out by the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement. The other two members of the Presidency Council include Mossa Al-Koni, a politician from southern Libya and a former deputy prime minister in the Government of National Accord, and Abdullah Hussein Al-Lafi, a member of parliament from Zawiya, in western Libya. All four of these individuals have held leadership positions in Libyan governments at various points in the past and are known to be more independent and open to a broad range of political alliances. They are considered less polarizing than candidates like Bashagha and Saleh. They come from diverse regions, backgrounds, and political persuasions, which could hinder their ability to create a unified political vision and win institutional approval for their new unity government. However, this lack of a shared political vision could also help explain their broad-based appeal among the Libyan delegates.
Their task is to now form an interim government and win approval from the divided House of Representatives in Tobruk, in eastern Libya. The eastern government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, announced qualified support for the new unity government, saying it would endorse it only if the eastern-based House of Representatives approved it. This will be difficult because the House of Representatives hasn’t been able to meet quorum for years and the speaker, Saleh, will likely oppose a unity government that he lost out on. He has already warned that no vote of confidence will be given unless the unity government meets in Sirte and until Tripoli is “cleansed” of armed groups and alleged terrorist activity. However, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum process lays out a second option for approval, going back to its 74 members for a second vote, a task that could also pose challenges. The interim prime minister and Presidency Council have 21 days to put together an interim government and then must focus on preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections on December 24. All candidates for the new government have promised not to run for office in the upcoming elections. Much will depend on how other key players will align themselves concerning the unity government in the coming days and months, notably General Khalifa Hifter, whose Libyan National Army still controls a majority of territory in Libya’s east and south.
Some Libya observers argue that the new prime minister and Presidency Council are aligned with Turkey and more Islamist-leaning factions in Libya. This perception stems from Dbeibah’s background as a businessman from the western city of Misrata with significant business ties to Turkey. Even though he is not known to have deeply rooted ideological leanings, analysts such as Mohamed ElJarh contend that his business dealings over the years have cultivated strong ties with the Turkish government. Some of these perceptions were not helped by Dbeibah giving his first exclusive interview after his appointment to the Turkish Anadolu Agency, where he reaffirmed that Turkey was a “friend and an ally.” Moreover, Menfi, though from eastern Libya, is perceived as politically close to the Government of National Accord and does not maintain strong ties with Hifter, which could motivate Hifter’s camp to raise further objections to the affiliations of members of the Presidency Council.
Support for Unity Government
Currently, there are an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters in Libya, including Russian and Sudanese mercenaries (reportedly supported by UAE funding) and Syrian mercenaries, funded by Turkey, among others. The UAE ambassador to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, said that the UAE welcomed the Security Council’s “call for all foreign forces to withdraw from Libya.” She reaffirmed that, “Foreign intervention in the conflict must end now.”
Soon after this statement from the UAE, the Presidency Council and prime minister were chosen, and Libyan political factions and foreign governments issued a chorus of support, including defeated Libyan candidates like Bashagha and Saleh. The UAE, Egypt, and Russia, which have backed Hifter throughout the conflict, expressed their support, despite their preliminary support for the fourth list of candidates for the Presidency Council and prime minister. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced a phone call between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Libya’s Presidency Council during which “Lavrov reaffirmed Russia’s readiness for constructive engagement with the transitional administration of Libya with a view to overcoming the protracted crisis in that country as soon as possible.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Dbeibah and Menfi by phone soon after the vote. European leaders and the United States also praised the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum and expressed cautious optimism about elections this year. Even though Hifter has not yet made a public announcement, Reuters reported that “his general command headquarters said it welcomed the agreement and called for all to help reaching the December elections.” Hifter has since met with the Presidency Council’s leader in Benghazi. Menfi tweeted a photo of their meeting, called for reconciliation, and promised that “we do not follow any political orientation.”
Will Foreign Powers Stop Intervening in Libya?
While these public displays of support are encouraging, similar statements and promises to support peace efforts and limit foreign interference have been made before. The U.N. has stated that Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia all violated a U.N. arms embargo that they had publicly supported. Furthermore, Ghassan Salame, the former U.N. special envoy on Libya, has also publicly accused the Security Council of “hypocrisy,” arguing that some of its members were directly undermining U.N. efforts to end the war.
On February 9, Erdogan said that Turkey would withdraw from the Libyan conflict if other countries withdraw first, arguing that its presence was there to support and defend the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli from Hifter’s military offensive against the government that started in April 2019. Given the gap between rhetoric and practice throughout the Libyan war, the promises to end foreign interference made by countries heavily involved in the conflict, such as Turkey and the UAE, are being met with skepticism. Confidence-building measures will be among numerous steps that must be taken by Libya’s political and military factions, as well as their foreign backers, if the cease-fire stipulations are to be effectively implemented and if the unity government is going to have any chance of moving beyond Libya’s years of war and political stalemate.
The United States and European countries can keep applying pressure on these foreign powers to withdraw their fighters and stop their interference in Libya, a strategy that the new Biden administration seems to be pursuing. However, the U.S. administration would have to maneuver around strained relations as it attempts to exert influence. The U.S.-UAE relationship is facing challenges as the Biden administration seeks to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, push for an end to the war in Yemen, and promote human rights and regional stability. U.S. ties with Turkey and Russia are also currently under strain. Secretary of State Antony Blinken alluded to an increasingly tense U.S.-Turkey relationship during his confirmation hearing in January, arguing that Turkey is “not acting like an ally” and that the administration would be reviewing the possibility of further sanctions against Ankara. Blinken also suggested that the administration is debating a tougher U.S. response for Russia’s crackdown against widespread protests calling for the release of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Will the Biden administration be able to push the UAE to change course in Libya and genuinely halt its support for Hifter’s forces? Will the United States and Europe be able to pressure Turkey, a NATO ally, and Russia, a Security Council member, to get out of Libya? If external powers do not stop interfering in the Libyan conflict, and if Libya’s work to assemble a new interim government cannot unify around a single political vision that is endorsed by Libya’s opposing political and military factions, history is likely to repeat itself. As the country approaches the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Libyan revolution on February 17, without widespread support, from inside and outside Libya, there is a real possibility that this new government will not be able to move ahead with elections and that Libya’s political and military conflict will continue.
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.
Divisions among Libya’s political, security, and financial institutions remain a key obstacle to the political transition process, and foreign powers still stoke many of these divisions for their own strategic interests.
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