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Replacing Libya’s corrupt Prime Minister could be a risky business 

February 3, 2022 at 9:00 am

Tunisian President Kais Saied and UN Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs in Libya, Stephanie Williams attend an opening session of Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunis, Tunisia on November 9, 2020 [Yassine Gaidi – Anadolu Agency]

On Monday, 1 February, Libya’s Tobruk based parliament started accepting nominations for the post of Prime Minister to replace the current caretaker premier, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, in what is seen as a sign of deepening divisions in the country. Dbeibeh was first elected to the job by a United Nations-led (UN) Libyan Political Dialogue Form (LPDF) last February, before winning parliament’s vote of confidence on 10 March. His administration, consisting of 33 ministers, was supposed to act as an interim government until the 24 December presidential and legislative elections.

However, in September, parliament withdrew its support but kept Dbeibeh’s government as a caretaker administration until the election date. The LPDF’s roadmap dictated that elections be held last December but that never happened after disagreements among different factions about election laws passed by the parliament. A nominal date of June is announced, but far from certain.

Next week, the parliament will start debating on nominees for prime minister. Once that is settled, a new government is likely to be formed shortly afterwards.

Many parliamentarians and political actors believe Dbeibeh has failed in his main task of organising elections, besides accusations of corruption and stalled economic reforms. In fact, the Prime Minister, from the day he was elected, has been mired in bribery charges. He was first accused of paying bribes to some LPDF members to re-elect him last February. Last May, in a MEMO interview, then acting UN envoy, Stephanie Williams, admitted there were accusations of bribery and a UN Libya sanctions committee took over the issue for further investigations, but nothing has come of it.

READ: UN calls on Libya leader to put people’s interests above individual interests

As of today, four ministers of Mr Dbeibeh’s government are being detained on the orders of Libya’s Prosecutor General, accusing them of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds. The latest minister to be jailed, as he arrived from abroad, is Health Minister, Ali Al-Zanati, who is accused of irregular contracting for importing oxygen processing plants needed to help supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic. His deputy, Samir Koko, is also detailed on the same charges.

On a Facebook post, the Prosecutor General’s office accused the Minister and his deputy of buying “oxygen generating” equipment at 1000 times more than the market prices. The Minister is also accused of buying Russian Sputnik V anti-Covid-19 vaccines at five times higher than the manufacturer’s announced price. A source in Libya’s Anti-Corruption Commission, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEMO that his organisation has obtained evidence “implicating the Minister of Health and his deputy” in what he described as “corrupt” deals in buying vaccines.

In any normally functioning state, the detention of four ministers is likely to force the entire cabinet to resign, but not in Libya where corruption and wasteful spending is part of daily life. The current government, for instance, has been spending billions of dollars, with nothing to show for it. The country’s infrastructure is in a dire state, while schools lack textbooks and the health sector has already collapsed.

Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh speaks at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya on September 21, 2021 [Mücahit Aydemir/Anadolu Agency]

Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh speaks at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya on September 21, 2021 [Mücahit Aydemir/Anadolu Agency]

Defiant  Dbeibeh still wants to cling to power even if the parliament decides, next week, to appoint his replacement. This would be not the first time he rejects what legislators decide. Last September, after the parliament withdrew its support from his Government of National Unity, the Prime Minister publically rejected the decision and called for parliament itself to be dismissed. He also did not keep his pledge, when he was elected as Prime Minister, not to run for president in the now postponed elections. It is a pledge he had to make in writing, as a requirement by the LPDF which elected him.

Mr Dbeibeh stands accused of forging his university degree in his presidential bid. The election law requires that anyone contesting the polls should be, at least, a university graduate. The Prime Minister claimed to have graduated from a Canadian University with Masters in Engineering. However, the University denied that he ever studied there. One of his classmates, speaking anonymously, told MEMO that Dbeibeh left Canada “before even completing English language courses” – a prerequisite for university enrolment.

However, the man might be lucky this time around. Replacing him is a risky venture that could lead to more divisions, while keeping him is just as risky, given his corruption and track record for failure.

READ: Libyan parliament committee urges change of Prime Minister, risking new strife

Stephanie Williams, the UN mediator who devised the LPDF, has been reappointed as a UN special advisor last December. She has been very busy trying to contain the damage done, so far, to the political process. Her top priority is to have the postponed elections organised as soon as possible, and not later than June this year. However, she is facing a changed political landscape that is no longer accepting LPDF’s roadmap drawn up under her leadership last year. The parliament has already formed its own committee, drawing up its own roadmap while calling on the UN Secretary-General to stop “foreign meddling” in Libya’s internal affairs.

Williams, with a good, successful track record, might find herself a victim of her own success in Libya. After her contract with the UN mission in Libya expired last summer, the UN-appointed Jan Kubis to continue her work and oversee elections, but the man, suddenly, resigned last November. During Kubis’s short tenure, LPDF became more polarised, and divisions within the 74-strong group became even more serious.

Mrs Williams, so far, appears to reject replacing the current government of Dbeibeh before elections take place, hopefully, in June. She claims the current administration’s mandate, meant to end in elections, ends in June this year and “elections must” take place by then. However, LPDF’s roadmap says the mandate should have ended last December. Rejecting a new government is easily interpreted, by different Libyan factions, as support for corrupt Dbeibeh. To Salem Belgasm, a political sciences professor at the University of Benghazi, it is really hard to “defend such a corrupt government.” He explains that, if Williams rejects the parliament’s planned new government, many factions will no longer see her as “an impartial mediator.”

In any case, the idea of forming a new government is risky and has the potential of derailing the entire political process and could even lead to violence. If the legislators go ahead next week and name a new prime minister and Dbeibeh refuses to hand over power, that could lead to a  similar situation in 2014, when Libya had two administrations, one in the east and another in the west. Armed conflict might not resume this time, but political deadlock is likely to be created with the potential for further delaying the already delayed elections, and further frustrating and angering Libyans.

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