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Dbeibeh has few options left after a Libyan court suspended his hydrocarbon deal with Ankara

Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar (R) meets with Libya's Prime Minister of National Unity Government Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh (L) in Istanbul, Turkiye on October 25, 2022 [Arif Akdoğan/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar (R) meets with Libya's Prime Minister of National Unity Government Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh (L) in Istanbul, Turkiye on October 25, 2022 [Arif Akdoğan/Anadolu Agency]

Social media in Libya is abuzz following the news that a Tripoli court has suspended the implementation of the Libya-Turkiye hydrocarbon exploration deal that was signed last October between Ankara and the Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh-led Government of National Unity (GNU). The Memorandum of Understanding gives Turkish oil companies the right to explore for oil and gas in Libya, as well as its territorial waters. Most Libyans criticised the deal for being what they believe was a sell out to Ankara.

The legal case was filed by a group of lawyers citing "violations" of two Libyan laws: Libya's basic oil law, known as the Oil Law of 1955; and law number 69 of 1970 governing the trade in hydrocarbon products. Led by Thouraya Eltwebi and her husband Magid Mayet, a veteran lawyer and former judge, the group members were motivated by their "audacity" to seek the truth and collective wish to "serve Libya," Eltwebi told MEMO. She added that their action has nothing to do with the current political division in the country. She also cited the fact that the MOU clearly violates the political roadmap that brought the GNU and Prime Minister Dbeibeh into power in 2020.

Article six of paragraph ten of the roadmap says that the executive authority (led by Dbeibeh) "shall not consider any new or previous agreements or decisions" that might harm, in any way, Libya's foreign relations or "impose long-term obligations" on the state. The MOU, even before being implemented, is already harming the country's regional and international relations.

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When the document was signed, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece rejected the deal and said that it was "illegal". Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias went further by describing it as "a threat to regional stability." France, which is supporting Greece in the dispute with Turkiye in the eastern Mediterranean, said that the MOU is not in "accordance with international law of the sea." Even Libya's eastern based parliament rejected the document, describing it as a violation of Libyan sovereignty. The European Parliament joined in by warning both Tripoli and Ankara against implementing "any" hydrocarbon related "clause" in the MOU. Greece and Cyprus claim some of the maritime territory covered by the MOU, while Egypt believes that the GNU does not have the right to enter into such arrangements.

Most Libyan commentators criticised the MOU because it gives Ankara favourable economic status which, they say, limits competition, denying Libya the possibility of having a better deal with other companies that are better equipped in the field. When it comes to oil and gas, Turkiye is not the best choice deserving any favourable treatment or special status from Libya. The North African country is ranked 17 among world oil producing countries and it is the third in Africa, while Turkiye is ranked 53 globally. Moreover, Turkiye is not a member of OPEC; nor is it recognised as a country with plentiful experience, technology and know-how in the oil industry. Commentators also pointed out that Libya's National Oil Corporation was not consulted about the deal.

Faced with public condemnations, the GNU's Minister of Economics and Trade, Mohammed Al-Huweij, the acting Oil Minister, signed the deal in October, then appeared on local TV to come down hard on the public. At the time he said that the deal with Ankara was not binding on Tripoli and does not, in any way, harm Libya's interests. However, Eltwebi and her colleagues think the minister failed to see how the deal violates the country's oil laws and the political roadmap that brought his boss to power in the first place.

The latest controversy came three years after the initial agreement demarcating the maritime borders between Libya and Turkiye was signed in November 2019, which was even more controversial and drew widespread outrage from inside Libya and its eastern Mediterranean neighbours such as Egypt. At the time, Tripoli was under attack by the eastern-based General Khalifa Haftar, who threatened to take power in the capital. The then desperate Government of National Accord needed urgent help to fight Haftar off. Ankara, already locked in a long-running dispute with Athens and Nicosia over maritime borders, saw an opportunity and took it, offering Tripoli a security deal in return for the maritime deal that marked the boundaries between both countries, angering Cairo, Athens and Nicosia in the process.

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Inside Libya itself the agreement cannot be implemented since any international agreement must be voted on and ratified by parliament before it becomes binding. Libya's eastern based parliament rejected the initial agreement of 2019 and also rejected the 2022 MOU, describing both as "illegal" and harmful to Libya's sovereignty in the long run. The Greek foreign minister, after meeting Libyan Speaker Aguila Saleh last November, tweeted that his country is "satisfied" that the Libyan legislature has rejected the GNU's 2019 and 2022 deals with Ankara.

"The court ruling is definitely setting a precedent," said a Tripoli-based lawyer speaking on condition of anonymity. He pointed out that this ruling could also mean that "the security deal of 2019" is now in doubt. His colleague Salem Hussien, an eastern Libya-based expert in international relations, said that the GNU "is not known for its respect for the law" but the court ruling remains an important milestone nevertheless. Hussien added that this is the first time in Libya that independent lawyers have moved "to hold the corrupt government accountable" despite all "the bad things it has done so far," he added.

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On 12 January, GNU spokesman Mohamed Hamouda described the court verdict as a "preliminary" step, but did not say if the government is planning to appeal. At the same time, Turkiye's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the GNU had told Ankara that it should not take the court ruling seriously.

Asked if she and her colleagues will be asking the same court about the security deal, Eltwebi said that "everything is possible". The security deal gives Ankara permission to station troops on Libyan soil. Hundreds of Turkish soldier and thousands of Syrian mercenaries are still in Libya.

If the GNU loses the case on appeal it will find itself in an awkward position, damaging whatever little credibility it has, said Hussien. He concluded that the government might choose to "keep quiet" while, on the ground, continue to take practical steps to implement the MOU, something that Cavusoglu said he was assured of. However, the legal fight might take new turns if Eltwebi and her colleagues decide to press on down the legal path.

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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