After ten chaotic, violence-filled years following the fall of the Qadhafi regime, there is a rare ray of hope on Libya’s horizon. On 10 March 2021, Libya’s House of Representatives approved a new Government of National Unity (GNU). This government, born out of the UN-backed peace process that has been in motion since 2014, is meant to shepherd the country through to elections in December 2021, a time when Libya’s fraught transition is supposed to come to an end.
The formation of this new government certainly marks an important step in a peace process that has been characterised by inertia and a conflict which has at times verged on farce, with competing governments, prime ministers, and legislatures all insisting they are the country’s only legitimate ruling power. For the first time in seven years, Libya finally has a single, unified government and a Presidency Council comprising representatives from Libya’s three regions – Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan.
There is certainly much to applaud. Unlike its predecessor the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was imposed on Libya by the UN, this new government has the approval of the House of Representatives, giving it the legitimacy that the GNA so sorely lacked. Equally significantly, the GNU is deemed to be broadly representative of the country, with its ministers drawn from across the country’s different regions and constituencies. It also contains no controversial individuals linked heavily to one or other side of the conflict, meaning that while it may be bland, it is currently viewed as broadly neutral and therefore acceptable.
Expectations are running high therefore both inside Libya and among the international community that this government will hold the key to setting the country back on the right path. Yet such hopes may well turn out to be misplaced. Although this new government might succeed in easing off some of Libya’s immediate problems, including by healing divisions in the country’s sovereign institutions and improving general living conditions, the issues that have been at the core of this conflict have not gone away. Both the government and the elections it is meant to steer the country towards may prove to be little more than mere papering over the cracks.
The GNU has been widely trumpeted as a political coming together after years of competing authorities and split national institutions, with the new prime minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, presenting himself as a leader for all Libyans. On one level, this rapprochement has been achieved; the country now has one government and is working towards reunifying its sovereign institutions, including the Central Bank of Libya (CBL).
Yet at the same time, the establishment of these new executive powers has formalised an allocation system based on regions. The GNU was carefully crafted, with ministries shared out between Libya’s three regions and done in such a way as to appease various towns and constituencies within each of them. Indeed Dbeibah did not select his own government, with ministers nominated and chosen on the recommendation of members of the House of the Representatives. National institutions – from the Supreme Court to the Auditing Diwan to the CBL – are being doled in a similar fashion, with the process to choose the heads of these bodies currently underway. As such, Libya’s division into three parts has all but been formalised.
This approach does not sit easy with many Libyans despite the fact that the country has been edging in this direction for some time. Immediately after the collapse of the centralised state in 2011, power was carved up between towns and regions, with revolutionary legitimacy and prowess on the battlefield translating into political clout. From 2014, the country was split more overtly into two competing camps – one in the west and one in the east. While the Libyan Political Agreement of 2015, which was brokered and engineered by the international community, was meant to bring the country together, in reality it only aggravated this division, establishing a Higher State Council in the west that was meant to be a consultative body, but which ended up serving as a counterbalance to the House of Representatives in the east. Indeed, the conflict which in the early years was sometimes incorrectly labelled as a struggle for power between Islamists and a more secular oriented current, ended up taking on a regional hue, with forces in the east pitted against those in the west and with both competing to bring the south into their orbit.
While these divisions were by no means clear cut, it was the realisation following Khalifa Hafter’s failed assault on Tripoli in 2019 that neither side could swallow up the other that prompted both sides to accept they had no choice but to strike some sort of political bargain. Indeed, rather than any genuine desire to compromise, it was this realisation, combined with intense international pressure and the urgent need for funds given that oil revenues had been frozen since September 2020, that pushed the warring factions to accept the new arrangement. Thus, despite the strong resistance to the concept of a federalist Libya, both sides ended up backing a solution that effectively carves the country up into three separate parts.
Although this new government is a temporary arrangement that is meant to last until elections take place, it has set in motion a process that will be difficult to reverse, and that risks deepening the regional fault lines that even Qadhafi, with all his centralising tendencies, could not overcome. While the establishment of these new executive powers may have served a purpose and helped break the stalemate that had settled on the country following Hafter’s retreat from Tripoli in June 2020, it may have inadvertently sown the seeds for trouble further down the line.
In the more immediate term, the GNU is facing a mountain of challenges, and the pressures are already starting to show.
Like all Libyan governments since 2011, the GNU has no concrete power of its own. In the absence of any national armed forces, it will be forced to rely on the goodwill of the unwieldy array of armed groups and militias that emerged during and after the 2011 revolution to serve as its security providers. While the GNU may be engaged in trying to bring some of these armed groups in the west of the country into the formal security apparatus, there is no reason to believe that it will succeed where all its predecessors have failed, especially given that some of these groups are wedded more to Turkey than to what they consider to be another solution that has engineered by the UN. Furthermore, while most of the armed formations in the west of the country appear willing for now to give this government the benefit of the doubt, their loyalty and support is not guaranteed. If they feel that there is any serious effort to undermine their power, they will not sit idly by.
Equally importantly, the GNU has yet to extend any real influence into the east despite its comprising of ministers from the eastern region. Eastern Libya remains firmly in the grip of Khalifa Hafter who remains the only real powerbroker in the region. He may be grappling with certain restive elements, including some disgruntled tribal elements, and while he may have lost some kudos on account of his humiliating defeat in the capital in June 2020, he is still ruling the east with an iron fist. While he may have been willing to accept the establishment of the GNU, he is not going to bend to its wishes and so far has paid scant regard to it. Furthermore, the departure of the interim government in the east that was meant to make way for the GNU, has opened even more space for Hafter, as has the fact that the head of the House of Representatives, Aquila Saleh, is looking more cornered than ever, with a significant chunk of MPs in the House demanding he be replaced. As such, the GNU will remain as reliant on the goodwill of Hafter as it is reliant on the goodwill of the forces of the west.
Furthermore, just like its predecessor, the GNU is already at risk of being perceived as another government for the west of Libya only. Dbeibah may be portraying himself as a leader for all, even tweeting on 19 February 2021 that he would not accept any minister who could not work in all of the country, but notably, he has yet to visit the eastern city of Benghazi. At the end of April 2021, with pressure mounting, Dbeibah scheduled a long-awaited visit to the city, where he planned to hold a cabinet meeting. However, this trip was abandoned at the last moment after an advance delegation sent from Tripoli to organise Dbeibah’s security was turned back at Benghazi’s Benina Airport. Although there are differing versions of exactly what happened, Dbeinah’s sending what appears to have been a large contingent of security personnel, some of whom are accused by those the east of having links to militias, ahead of him was an unwise move that aggravated the distrust between the two regions. Indeed, Debibah’s gesture to visit Benghazi was too little too late.
There are already complaints in the east that Dbeibah and his government aren’t giving equal weight and attention to the eastern region. In April, for example, Colonel Salah Huweidi, the head of the Criminal Investigation Agency in Benghazi expressed his anger that the process of integrating the interior ministries in the east and the west into a single interior ministry within the GNU was not done in an equitable manner, prompting some departments in the east’s interior ministry to refuse the handover. In the same month, employees of the General Electricity Company (GECOL) in the east bemoaned the fact that Dbeibah was meeting with the management of the company in the west, but was ignoring those in the east. As such, Dbeibah risks looking like a prime minister for one part of the country only.
His visit to Turkey in mid-April has only fuelled such perceptions. The decision to take a whopping 14 minister delegation to Ankara, as well as the commitment to uphold the controversial 2019 maritime agreement with Turkey, sparked anger in the east and raised fears that the GNU is intent on upholding the same pro-Ankara policy as its predecessor, the GNA. The fact that as Dbiebah was being hosted by President Erdogan in Turkey, his deputy, Hussein Al-Qatarani, was hosting the Greek Foreign Minister in Benghazi is the surest sign yet of just how deep these divisions still run. Indeed, the east and the west still look as though they are orbiting in different worlds.
In addition, the GNU is up against an even bigger hurdle in the form of the thousands of foreign mercenaries who are still in the country. While there is broad acceptance that these foreign fighters must go, actually removing them is far beyond the capabilities of the new government. Key constituencies in the west of Libya have already made clear they do not consider Turkish forces to be mercenaries, as they were brought to the country under an official agreement signed with the internationally-backed GNA, while Ankara is adamant that it will retain its presence in Libya. On the other side, Russia is not going to depart now, and the LNA will not accept such a move so long as there are Turkish forces on Libyan soil. The situation is further complicated by the presence of foreign fighters from elsewhere, including members of Chadian and Sudanese opposition groups.
This is an intractable problem, therefore, that goes beyond Libya, let alone an all but toothless government.
Heading for Elections
These obstacles notwithstanding, even if the GNU succeeds in getting the country to elections on time – something that is doubtful for a host of reasons including the barbed issue of agreeing upon a constitutional framework under which the elections will take place – these polls are not going to solve the deep seated problems that are at the root of the conflict.
While Dbeibah may have stolen the thunder of the key players in the conflict, these players are biding their time and will almost certainly reappear when the elections take place. The participation of such divisive characters will not bode well for the election process. Similarly, given that most Libyan towns are still under the control of armed groups who are not going to sit back and allow the process to take place unhindered, the potential for elections to be free and fair remains highly questionable.
Furthermore, any government born out of these elections will inevitably be yet another compromise, with ministers chosen by virtue of affiliation to town and region rather than for their competence. This means that regional fault lines and divisions will be reinforced and legitimised further. It also means that unifying the military and security spheres will remain as elusive as ever. As long as Libya does not have a proper unified military and security apparatus, any government will be another powerless institution that is at the behest of the real powers on the ground.
Libya looks to be in danger therefore of following down the same path as Iraq, where elections keep throwing up the same tired old formula, with power carved up between competing constituencies who cannot reach out beyond themselves. In such a formula, the real losers are the population who, ten years after the Arab Spring, are still yearning for security, justice and prosperity. While the GNU may be a way for Libya to take a step forward and to try to move beyond the confines of the current conflict, it by no means signals an end to the country’s troubled transition.