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Signal Risk on Libya – One and United

PUBLISHED: Mon, 29 Mar 2021 16:57:40 GMT

Key Points
  • Libya’s new government was inaugurated in Tobruk on 15 March, following a lengthy transitional process which followed a ceasefire agreement in October 2020.
  • The government – which is comprised of representatives from various interest groups in Libya – is mandated with stabilising the country ahead of elections in December.
  • While some semblance of political stability is possible until at least the election, undertaking security-related reforms will remain a challenge throughout the transitional period.

*This analysis was produced by the team at Signal Risk 

“This will be the government of all Libyans… Libya is one and united.”

These were the crowning words of Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s inaugural address as he and his government of national unity (GNU) were sworn into power in Tobruk on 15 March. The inauguration concluded the first part of Libya’s United Nations (UN)-led transitional process, which began in October 2020 with the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the formerly adversarial Tripoli- and Tobruk- based governments.

The structure

The GNU is composed of four structures: a three-member presidential council, a three-member prime ministerial office, 26 cabinet ministers, and six ministers of state. In keeping with the principles of the UN-led transition, different geographic regions and interest groups are represented in the GNU with a view to creating a balanced and stable power-sharing formula. This includes natives from each of the historic Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica regions, tribal leaders, and those from the commercial, legal and military fraternities.

The GNU’s mandate is simple: to stabilise and prepare Libya for general elections that have been scheduled for December 2021. After this, the structure will be dissolved and a permanent administration will come into power.

The dominant formations

Pre-eminent among the GNU’s structures are the prime ministerial and presidential councils, which will jointly spearhead governance in Libya and perform mutual checks and balances. The prime ministerial council is headed up by Dbeibeh – whose seat will remain in Tripoli, in the west of Libya – alongside two deputies “overseeing” two geographic demarcations: Hussein Atiya Abdul Hafeez Al-Qatrani (who is deputy prime minister for east Libya) and Ramadan Ahmed Boujenah (who is deputy prime minister for south Libya).

The three-member presidential council is led by chairman Mohamed Yunus al-Menfi, who will also serve as the representative for Cyrenaica. He is joined by two vice chairmen, Abdullah al-Lafi (who is the representative for Tripolitania region) and Musa al-Koni (who is the representative for Fezzan).

The transition

Dbeibeh and his government’s ascent to power was somewhat smoother than expected.

After the ceasefire agreement in October 2020 – which was arguably preserved by factors such as a stalemate between warring sides, conflict fatigue, and increased international engagement – the UN seized the opportunity to expedite the transitional process.

Led by acting Libya envoy Stephanie Williams, and drawing on the roadmap put forward by the Berlin conference in January 2020, the UN began formalising the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). The 74-member body, which was also composed of a diverse array of Libyan stakeholders, was established in 2019 to guide the country through a potential transitional process; however, its formalisation was stalled due to a resurgence of conflict.

In February, the LPDF gathered in Geneva to elect the heads of a potential unity government. Specifically, in this exercise, leaders from the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) were tasked with presenting a candidate list that comprised a prime minister and members of the presidential council; the LPDF would then vote on the list (and in effect, the leaders of Libya’s transition).

A total of four lists was presented to the LPDF. Most notable among these was that comprised of HoR speaker Aguila Saleh (who was running for head of the presidential council) and GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha (who was running for the prime ministerial seat). Given their prominence, the Saleh- Bashagha union was thought to be undefeatable, especially by the Dbeibeh-Menfi ticket which lacked the familiarity and influence of its rivals.

This appeared to be the case in the first round of voting, as the Saleh-Bashagha ticket claimed an indecisive victory (less than 50 percent or 37 votes); second was Dbeibeh and Menfi. However, in a surprising turn, the Dbeibeh-Menfi ticket claimed 39 votes in the second-round poll, and with that, leadership of Libya’s transition.

Immediately after the vote, there were loose allegations of vote buying by Dbeibeh and Menfi; however, these remain unsubstantiated and were not acted upon.

The pledge and the buy-in

Following the Geneva vote, Dbeibeh made several key promises, in the hope of expediting Libya’s break from its tumultuous past. These include:

  • Electing a competent government that represents all constituencies
  • Reforming state institutions
  • Resurrecting the economy and improving service delivery
  • Fostering peace and stability
  • Combatting corruption
  • Centralising the country’s security apparatus (including the departure of foreign militias and the demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration of local forces)

Unsurprisingly, his cabinet selections were partly aimed at fulfilling these ends, with fresh faces deployed to all government portfolios. This includes the ministries of finance, interior, foreign affairs, economy and trade, industry and minerals, and oil and gas. Tellingly, the country’s contested defence portfolio – which was long sought by HoR-aligned warlord Khalifa Haftar – was not handed to a single individual. Instead, it will be jointly held by members of the country’s presidential council.

Despite the upset, Haftar is among many domestic and international stakeholders to have lauded Dbeibeh and his new formation. In a statement following the inauguration, Haftar expressed “the support of the armed forces for the peace process”. Dbeibeh’s predecessor, Fayez al-Sarraj, also honoured his commitment to hand over power peacefully to the incoming prime minister. Furthermore, Dbeibeh’s candidate picks were endorsed by 132 of the 133 members of the HoR that were present at confidence sessions in Tobruk during the week of 08 March.

Just as important, Dbeibeh and his government have received a stamp of approval from Libya’s external partners, which were informally divided between supporters of the GNA and HoR. Since 15 March, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and France have all pledged their support for the prime minister, his new government, and the transitional process.

The Signal

Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s ascent to power is seen as the outcome of exasperation with the political status quo, and the desire among Libyans for a consensus candidate who could unite the country’s myriad factions. Indeed, Dbeibeh’s rivals – Saleh and Bashagha – were arguably seen as remnants of old and failed regimes (in the form of the HoR and GNA). The two statesmen also had strong ties to limited interest groups, which could prove to be an impediment in a transitional administration. Saleh was seen as an exponent of general Haftar, Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. His historic support for the general has been a particular point of contention and has resulted in serious criticism from populations that have been negatively impacted by the general’s military campaign. In keeping with his GNA stead, Bashagha is strongly aligned with Turkey, Italy and Qatar. However, his reputation as an unscrupulously ambitious politician who is willing to court all sides to advance his interests has also resulted in some disaffection among sections of the Libyan polity.

Positively, Dbeibeh has demonstrated the political expertise to navigate a complicated Libyan landscape. A businessman by profession, the new prime minister is said to curry favour from most sides of the Libyan polity and the country’s divided international partners. Hailing from Misrata, he has firm ties with one of the strongest tribal groups in Libya, which has historically propped up the GNA. Furthermore, although controversial, his ascendance under former ruler Muammar Gaddafi has also allowed him to establish links with the HoR, much of which consists of supporters of the deceased dictator. Testament to Dbeibeh’s political nous are his cabinet picks. The prime minister has temporarily eased concerns over political bias with a representative and technocratic cabinet. Furthermore, in opting to centralise the defence portfolio, he has outmanoeuvred Haftar in a manner that avoided upsetting the general and other rival armed interests.

Some semblance of political stability is likely to endure until elections are held in December. It appears as if all internal and external stakeholders are on board with the transitional process and the upcoming election, with very few incentives to spoil the process. This may be rooted in the fact that the GNU must dissolve ahead of the ballot; although it is unclear if Dbeibeh and members of his government can compete in the upcoming election and therefore wield the power of incumbency. Regardless, the likes of Saleh, Bashagha – and indeed, Haftar – could make a claim for power in December, in what could amount to a more legitimate administration with a longer stay in office and a less restricted framework. Accordingly, relative calm is expected in the political realm unless Dbeibeh makes any unexpected moves to unsettle powerful stakeholders. These could include the prosecution of an individual such as Haftar. Nonetheless, closer to the election, increased political competition could have a destabilising impact.

Improving the country’s security environment will remain a challenge and require strong assistance from international allies. While the centralisation of the broad security apparatus is a key step towards mitigating the country’s myriad security threats, Dbeibeh’s GNU does not have the military and financial means – or authority – to bring the armed actors under its rule. For one, the GNU has inherited no army, and governing institutions remain relatively bankrupt. Second, militants aligned with the GNA – including those from Misrata and Tripoli – did so largely out of self-interest and self-preservation as opposed to concrete allegiance to the governing structure. Similarly, Haftar’s self-styled Libya National Army (LNA) is also ostensibly aligned with his personality as opposed to the HoR, to which Haftar loosely belongs. As such, the GNA and HoR’s “surrender” to Dbeibeh does not necessarily guarantee the fidelity of its militant backers. Furthermore, any move that poses an existential threat to such groups – such as a proposed disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) campaign – could prompt a backlash, especially in the absence of the threat of coercion, or incentives from the GNU. To circumvent this, international allies will need to add concrete pressure on militant actors (and their leaders) to participate in the DDR and avoid disruptive tendencies, especially close to the December elections.

Economic growth is possible in Libya in the coming year.Relatively sustained oil production during late 2020 has significantly boosted a Libyan economy that was severely impacted by a lengthy force majeure and coronavirus-induced shocks in 2020. Indeed, the halt to oil production resulted in financial losses of more than USD 9 billion in 2020. This, along with demand and supply pressures linked to the coronavirus pandemic, led to a 58.7 percent GDP contraction according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In a marked change in fortunes, the IMF has forecast growth of 76 percent in the current year, principally led by the commodity market rally, although this is in the context of a markedly low growth base. Nonetheless, growth should stabilise Libya’s deficit and debt metrics. Furthermore, should the transitional process proceed as planned, the country could benefit from expanded development assistance from external partners. However, any flare-up in conflict could see the force majeure reinstated, production halted, and the possibility of comprehensive donor assistance reduced.