Libya's Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, has lost a parliamentary vote of confidence and suddenly found itself cast in the role of a caretaker government. In a controversial vote, 89 parliamentarians, of 113 present, voted to withdraw their support for the GNU. If Dbeibeh did not see this coming, given his repeated quarrels with MPs, he was being extremely short-sighted.
Following the vote of no confidence, the UN mission in Libya expressed its serious concern. Charged with mediating a political settlement in the war torn country and fearing renewed conflict, the mission published a statement on its website pointing out that the GNU "remains the legitimate government" in Libya until it is replaced "following elections". This was clearly a pre-emptive move by the UN to deter any attempts by local actors to replace the government, a move that could unravel the entire political process in the country.
However, the parliament has not, so far, discussed plans to replace the government or the prime minister until proper elections take place later this year.
The GNU was agreed in February's UN-sponsored political dialogue in Geneva, after marathon talks that brought together Libya's political actors, civil society and tribal leaders. The group of 75 interlocutors also produced a roadmap that, effectively, set the agenda for the government and outlined its main tasks and objectives until legislative and presidential elections planned for 24 December. Yet the GNU is apparently busy with other issues.
While all political actors in Libya welcomed the elections, they now disagree on the legal framework and constitutional basis for the votes to take place. A law governing the presidential election has been passed by the Tobruk-based parliament, but it has been rejected by the Higher Council of State in Tripoli, putting the elections in doubt once again.
Instead of mending ties with members of parliament, Dbeibeh opted to go down the vote of confidence route. Among other complaints, many MPs voiced opposition to his plans while others questioned his budget allocations. They point out, rightly, that the GNU is supposed to be concentrating on three main goals: uniting government institutions, split between east and west since 2014; improving public services; and organising elections. Nothing of essence has been achieved on any of these; it's not always the fault of the government, but mainly.
Instead, Dbeibeh promised big spending plans for local governments across Libya despite the fact that his budget proposals were rejected, twice, by parliament. He went further by signing reconstructions deals, worth billions of dollars, with countries like Turkey and, most recently, Egypt.
The latest proposed spending spree by the GNU saw nearly one billion Libyan dinars (around $200 million) allocated as a "marriage gift" in the form of government handouts to help thousands of young Libyans tie the knot. Most of them cannot afford to get married in this conservative society. Thousands of people have already benefitted from this largesse, but not everyone is happy. Many MPs and members of the public think that it is a waste of money and likely to lead to more social and legal problems. In a country where document forgery is commonplace, some people may seize the opportunity to get the promised 40,000 LYD (approximately $9,000) without actually getting married. Others could divorce after receiving the gift. Asma Al-Khoja MP criticised the government, and called on parliament to overrule what she described as an "immoral decision". Facing public uproar from potential beneficiaries, Al-Khoja justified her use of the word "immoral" because it prioritises money over "creating a family".
The GNU's economic policy is shambolic, to say the least. This government is not supposed to "take on big reconstruction projects nor start new ones" according to micro-economist Saleh Amar, from the University of Zawia. He thinks that government handouts are both counterproductive and discriminatory, because the majority of Libyans are "facing economic hardships", not just those wanting to get married. He suspects that the prime minister is "trying to bribe" young people and thus is campaigning, albeit indirectly, for the December elections.
In fact, many observers believe that Dbeibeh is attempting to cling to power for at least another six months by postponing the elections. This, said one economist speaking on condition of anonymity, will give him time to put his hands on more money to benefit "himself and his immediate circle".
However, the UN-sponsored roadmap that made it possible for Dbeibeh to be prime minister stipulates that neither he nor any of his cabinet can stand as candidates in the December elections. Breaking this condition will open the door for others to breach the agreement, which is already very fragile in many different ways.
The GNU has so far failed to make any progress towards uniting the armed forces or the security apparatus across Libya. Militias still dominate the capital Tripoli, despite the government's claims about an improved security situation and its control of all armed groups. Earlier in September, fighting broke out to the south of Tripoli between a militia allied to the ministry of defence and another group supposed to be part of the interior ministry.
As the election date draws nearer, the GNU appears to be drifting further away from its main priorities, of which organising the legislative and presidential elections is at the top. Last week Dbeibeh decided to review the Libyan Citizenship Law, a controversial and untimely move. Whatever will come out of this review is very unlikely to become law before the December elections assuming, of course, that the people of Libya actually go to the polls. Once again Dbeibeh appear to be concerned with his own popularity more than what, as prime minister, he is mandated to be doing.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.