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A war, two prime ministers and two roadmaps clearly not enough to end Libya's long transition

Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh hold a joint press conference in Tripoli, Libya on February 14, 2022 [Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency]
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh in Tripoli, Libya on February 14, 2022 [Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency]

The current political impasse in Libya is unlikely to be solved over the next two months. By June, it is likely to become even more complicated because the United Nations' sponsored roadmap that brought in Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh as Prime Minister will expire then. This has the potential to create a power vacuum in already unstable Libya.

That roadmap was approved by the House of Representatives (HoR), the High Council of State and other factions, but it has not been implemented since it was adopted in 2020. All parties, now, do not have any ready contingency plans on how to handle the possibility of a power vacuum.

Another complicating factor came into play on 10 February, when the Parliament appointed Fathi Bashaga as Prime Minister, a step described by Dbeibeh as fraudulent. True to his word, Dbeibeh has, so far, refused to hand over power, leaving the new government team unable to enter the capital to take up office. Bashaga's two deputies have set up offices in eastern and southern Libya where Dbeibeh's government has little or no power. This move could split the country again; however, it is unlikely.

Dbeibeh claims he is the legitimate Prime Minister, based on the UN's roadmap which expires in June, while Bashaga counters by claiming legitimacy based on HoR's roadmap which elected him Prime Minister. Interestingly, Dbeibeh never said that publicly but always implied it. HoR's roadmap is in conflict with that of the UN on one critical issue: when elections could take place.

While the UN's roadmap mandated elections on 24 December 2021 (that never happened), HoR's own plan, adopted on 7 February, calls for elections after 14 months starting last February, after the plan was enshrined in the country's temporary constitutional declaration.  The UN's Stephanie Williams is not impressed and does not trust the political elite, particularly when they try to sideline her efforts to press for elections as soon as possible.

To solve the contentious issue of the constitutional base for elections, both HoR and the Council of State agreed to form a committee to draft the required legislation. Williams welcomed the step by both institutions, which rarely agree on anything, but wanted such a committee to work under her auspices as an impartial facilitator.

READ: Libya's Bashagha says he has 'good relations' with Turkiye

Williams knows only too well that HoR and Council of State are playing for time to stay in power longer. Her previous experiences, since she first came to Libya in 2018, taught her not to trust them both. In a MEMO interview earlier this month, she predicted that "impasse" between HoR and the Council of State is imminent. That came rather soon, as the Council of State rejected the election of Fahi Bashaga, implicitly, rejected HoR's roadmap too, despite agreeing earlier. This kind of twist made Williams insist on playing the role of facilitator in any talks between the two. She even met the Council's nominated six members in Tunis, Tunisia, on 22 March, but the HoR members did not show up—another example of difficulties to make HoR and the State Council agree.

June this year remains an important milestone in Libya's long transition towards stability and peace. It appears that neither the current institutions in the country nor the UN has any workable plans as to what steps to be taken if the current government fails, as expected, to organise elections by then and its terms expire.

Daw Al-Mansouri, Law Professor and member of Libya's constitutional assembly, thinks that there are plans to fill any potential executive vacuum that might occur. He told MEMO that the three-member Presidential Council has the legal power to govern by decree until elections take place. In this scenario, which is being debated according to Al-Mansouri, Mohamed Al-Menafi, the Presidential Council chairman will "run the country by decrees". He will dissolve all current institutions, including HoR. Al-Mansouri believes the legal basis for such a move are already in place. He said "necessity" make it possible for Al-Menfi, as an interim president, to take such "legitimate actions" to end the legal impasse that is paralyzing the country, particularly over elections.

The Professor is projecting some kind of an amended Tunisian model where President Kais Saied suspended parliament and took over power last July. He, also, cited "necessity" and danger to the State as justifications for his actions.

But can such a model really work in Libya? Professor Al-Mansouri believes it would work simply because there is wide support for it, both locally and internationally. He points out that the war in Ukraine pushed Libya up on the list of international priorities, given its oil and gas potential. Libya is an important energy producer and many European countries import large portions of their energy needs from the North African country. This means, according to Al-Mansouri, all EU countries, the United States and others, would prefer to see a stable Libya that could help ease the energy crisis engulfing the world in the wake of the Ukrainian war.

Domestically, it is unclear if the Presidential Council can really rule by decree, given the fact that it has almost no control over any of the different armed groups in Libya, particularly in Tripoli. Al-Mansouri thinks that most armed groups would support Al-Menafi if he dissolves both HoR and the Higher Council of State. Most militias, he thinks, would prefer to see both institutions disappear.

In the meantime, ordinary Libyans keep paying the price for every political twist. The majority of Libyans want elections as soon as possible to replace all political institutions because they have failed them. Williams considers her role is to make sure that Libyans get to vote, sooner than later.

Libyans' wish is not about to come true despite having two prime ministers and two road maps. It is almost certain that Libyans will not be voting this year, and their only hope is to cast their ballots sometime next year, even if the Presidential Council takes power.

READ: Turkey warns Libya not to create new clashes as peace sustained

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

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