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What awaits Libya’s novice prime minister-designate

March 4, 2021 at 2:00 am

Libya’s new Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh attends the celebration marking the Libyan Revolution, known as the 17 February Revolution, which ousted former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, at the Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya on 17 February 2021. [Hazem Turkia – Anadolu Agency]

Libya’s designated Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, in his first press conference on 25 February, did not name the expected cabinet line-up. Many, in Libya and abroad, eagerly awaited the unveiling of the Government of National Unity (GNU) after the novice politician was elected by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) organised by the United Nations (UN) in Geneva on 5 February.

The GNU formation is not a straight-forward process, particularly when such a government is not directly elected by a popular vote. Different political actors are jockeying for ministerial positions, while key regional countries, like Egypt and Turkey, are also trying to have their say in Libya’s government.

However, Dbeibeh will soon be required to unveil his full cabinet before the House of Representatives (HoR) for a confidence vote which should take place by 8 March, as stipulated by the roadmap. The roadmap also dictates that the LPDF should take over the process of approving the government if the HoR fails to do so for any reason.

To understand the difficulty of nominating individual ministers, Dbeibeh said his team received more than 3,000 nominations – an average of 100 candidates per ministry in a cabinet with an average of 30 portfolios.

The prime minister-designate, as well as the LPDF, prefers that the GNU is voted on by the HoR to give it more legitimacy and public support, since it is not a political majority government voted in by the people. Dbeibeh held two separate meetings with two groups of MPs in Tripoli, followed by another session in the HoR’s hometown of Tobruk on 21 February. After both meetings, he appeared confident that his cabinet, once formed, would be approved.

The United Nations and Libya: The habit of putting the cart before the horse

In the meantime, the HoR is still divided over where to meet to vote on the GNU. Aguila Saleh, the current HoR chairman, wants the meeting to take place at the HoR headquarters in Tobruk, while other MPs prefer Sirte, located in the country’s centre. Another group, mainly from western Libya, prefers to meet elsewhere, like Sabratha, to the west of the country. They claim Sirte is under the control of “Russian mercenaries” who are in the area supporting General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

What is certain, though, is that the GNU will be in power by the end of March, at the latest, with or without parliament’s approval. A prominent LPDF member, speaking anonymously, explained: “Parliamentary is the option, but it is a technicality since the LDPF has the ultimate say.” He went on to emphasise that what is important: “Is for the GNU to get going and start working on its priorities” already set out by the LPDF.

However, this is now doubtful given the recent press leaks of the UN Panel of Experts report, due to be published on 15 March, confirming vote-buying for Dbeibeh. The UN mission in Libya, on 2 March, stated that it is not authorised to deal with the matter. Could this derail the LPDF? My source does not believe so.

Zahra Langhi, an LPDF member, tweeted that the investigation outcome “should be published”, warning that any cover-up will undermine the entire process.

Libya's Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh speaks on the latest state of government formation efforts during a press conference in Tripoli, Libya on 25 February 2021. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]

Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh speaks on the latest state of government formation efforts during a press conference in Tripoli, Libya on 25 February 2021. [Hazem Turkia – Anadolu Agency]

Whatever happens, the GNU is already facing a host of problems on the road to the LPDF’s election deadline of 24 December. The top of the agenda features the preparation and organisation of the elections in around 200 days, assuming the GNU will be sworn in by the end of March. Among the top challenges facing the GNU are armed militias, foreign forces and mercenaries, and the millions of arms circulating in the country, to name a few.

Unifying the divided country is another big problem. Libya, since 2015, has been divided under two competing governments – one in Tripoli and the other in Al-Bayda in the east – and unity is essential for any credible national elections.

While full disarmament of militias is impossible in such a short time-frame, confining them to their barracks might be an achievable goal, at least before and during the elections. Foreign mercenaries, estimated by the former UN envoy to be around 20,000 in at least ten bases, are not leaving either. In fact, the ceasefire agreement, signed in Geneva on 23 October, 2020, set 23 January, 2021, as a deadline for all foreign forces to depart; but no one has left so far.

In his candidacy presentation on 3 February to LPDF members, Dbeibeh declared that if he wins, he will make sure that arms are “collected” and will not be allowed outside of government control. That is far too ambitious in a country awash with arms, particularly in the western and southern regions where the Tripoli government has little to no authority.

READ: Some Libyans do not want democracy 10 years after NATO forced it upon them 

In fact, the government survived the 13-month Tripoli siege by the LNA, thanks to dozens of militia fighters and heavy Turkish military intervention. These militias, especially in the capital, now see themselves as legitimate after defending the capital and are unlikely to accept either giving up their arms or disbanding.

Syrian mercenaries, brought in by Turkey to support the government in Tripoli, are still in the country, while Russian mercenaries, supporting the rival LNA, have not left either.

Again, just like with the militias, the best practical option might be to confine those fighters to their locations outside population centres and banning them from leaving during the election period. Any talk of eliminating them is merely wishful thinking.

Libya’s election authority has confirmed having the necessary resources to conduct elections. However, conducting successful and transparent elections requires much more than logistical and financial resources. While the election authority did not split along political lines, maintaining its unity and ability to conduct successful and democratic elections depends on the government’s performance in securing the process. This means that nationwide elections can only occur after the GNU succeeds in uniting government institutions and reinforcing security.

With the UN Panel of Experts report expected to confirm vote-buying, the GNU’s very legitimacy is now tainted, even if none of its members is directly implicated. Yet another serious problem for a government still to take office

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.