Dbeibah and Libya

Is Abdul Hamid Dbeiba’s Government Reaching its Expiration Date in Libya?

On the night of 27 August, videos surfaced on social media showing protesters storming one of the residences of Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeiba in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighbourhood—the chaotic scenes depicted youths vandalising Dbeiba’s house, setting fires, and defacing walls with graffiti[i]. The attack on the Prime Minister’s house was part of larger demonstrations that swept across Tripoli, Zawiya, and other western cities in late August.

The protests erupted on Sunday evening, against the backdrop of the revelation that Foreign Minister Najla Al-Manqoush had met her Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, the previous week in Rome. The meeting was perceived as a step towards the normalisation of ties with Israel, which a majority of Libyans fervently oppose. Al-Manqoush tried to downplay the meeting by saying that it was an unofficial encounter. However, protests were already well underway, with demonstrators on the street demanding that she be held accountable.

That same evening, Prime Minister Dbeiba announced the suspension of Al-Manqoush and the beginning of an “administrative investigation”[ii]. However, this did little to appease the anger on the street. For the third night in a row, Libyan youths took to the streets. Demonstrators started chanting slogans no longer exclusively targeting Al-Manqoush, but also against Dbeiba, calling for the overthrow of his government. Simultaneously, various political, tribal and social councils across the region expressed condemnation, seeking accountability from the Government of National Unity[iii].

These protests signal a possible tipping point for Dbeiba's leadership.

These protests constituted the most substantial demonstrations in Libya since October 2020, and signal a possible tipping point for Dbeiba’s leadership. While the political track is still at a standstill, oscillating between the possibility of appointing a new interim government and back-and-forths between the House of Representatives (HoR) and the High Council of State (HCS) regarding electoral laws, opposition to the Dbeiba administration has steadily grown in the Western region over recent months. As such, questions have begun to arise about the fate of his government.

A Government Tasked with Leading the Country to Elections

Established on 10 March 2021, following the Libyan Peace Dialogue Forum, the Government of National Unity was expected to lead the country to elections by December 2021[iv]. Despite its inability to achieve this, Dbeiba managed to retain support in the West of the country by positioning himself as an alternative to the Eastern camp led by Khalifa Haftar. Although officially unified, Libya continued to experience East-West rivalries, which paradoxically sustained Dbeiba’s grip on power beyond his mandate’s expiration.

Over the past two years and a half, Dbeiba cultivated his relationships with powerful armed group leaders both in Tripoli and other cities in the western region. In exchange for generous budget allocations, administrative positions, and favours, Dbeiba expects loyalty and protection for himself and the GNU. It was the overall understanding among Libya observers that Dbeiba was someone who could “work with the armed groups” and maintain a fragile equilibrium in the region[v].

Dbeiba was able to leverage these patronage networks with the emergence of the Government of National Stability (GNS) in March 2022, the first time that support for his government significantly teetered. In the West of the country, some perceived the GNS as a government that would channel the interests of Haftar and the House of Representatives. However, some decided to support it as an alternative to the GNU, which had proven unable to lead the country to elections. Others supported the newly formed government because of their ties to the former minister of the Interior, Fathi Bashagha, now Prime Minister of the GNS. However, Dbeiba came out victorious in the competition between the two governments, as Bashagha was unable to enter Tripoli in 2022, and the armed groups that supported him both in and around the capital were expelled[vi].

Without a unifying external threat, Dbeiba’s appeal is shrinking.

While the GNU came on top in this fight, it appears as if, without a unifying external threat, Dbeiba’s appeal is shrinking. Over the past few months, opposition to the Prime Minister and the government has been mounting throughout the Western region. The most recent waves of protests highlight this, as pro-Palestinian rallies quickly turned anti-government, and as Dbeiba grows politically and socially cornered in Tripoli.

Tensions on the West Coast

On the third day of demonstrations, youths from the western city of Zawiya issued a video statement, where they called for the overthrow of the Dbeiba’s government and called on “their brothers in Tripoli and other cities of the western region” to join them[vii]. That night, a caravan of cars travelled the 46 kilometres separating Zawiya and Tripoli, but forces of the Ministry of the Interior and armed groups supportive of Dbeiba blocked their access to downtown.

Opposition to the Government of National Unity had been mounting along Libya’s West Coast. The region has seen an increase in crime and insecurity since the beginning of the year. Many have been abducted and clashes broke out in several instances between local armed groups, contributing to a feeling of insecurity among the local population[viii]. In late May, Dbeiba ordered a series of drone strikes on local armed groups following weeks of escalating tensions.

The GNU justified the operation on the grounds of targeting “criminal gangs involved in fuel and drug trafficking, as well as migrant smuggling.”[ix] However, a prevailing belief among residents suggested ulterior motives. Many suspected that the strikes were politically driven — a tool to weaken opponents of Dbeiba[x].  While the strikes were successful in destroying depots where fuel was being stored for smuggling, a majority of the locations they hit belonged to individuals and armed groups opposed to Dbeiba, such as the Abu Zariba family. Conversely, other armed groups and individuals known to partake in smuggling, but supportive of the GNU, were not targeted.

Opposition to Government Decisions in the Nafusa Mountains and Al-Khums

Parallel contestation unfolded in the Nafusa Mountains last July, when the Amazigh Supreme Council threatened to stop recognising the Tripoli-based government after the Ministry of the Interior issued a decision reorganising the Security Directorates of the Nafusa Mountains region[xi]. In a video-statement, they accused the Minister of the Interior, Emad Al-Trabelsi, of orchestrating a power shift in favour of the majority-Arab city of Zintan, at the expense of the Amazigh-majority towns in the Nafusa mountains. They criticised the lack of consideration for local power dynamics and conflicts and demanded the withdrawal of the decree.

In the wake of the video’s release, protesters converged outside the Ministry of the Interior’s headquarters, and the Prime Minister’s Office. Several weeks later, the Minister of the Interior issued an amendment to the decree, which elicited mixed responses from Amazigh cities within the region. While some welcomed the amendment, others staunchly rejected it. Notably, the mayors of Yefren and Aqala accused the Minister, who hails from Zintan, of attempting to curry favour with certain Amazigh cities to undermine their joint opposition to the government.

East of Tripoli, in Al-Khums, protests flared twice in August in response to a decision by the Dbeiba government to annex part of the city’s commercial port to an adjacent military base[xii].

Political, social, and economic stakeholders of Al-Khums held an emergency meeting at the municipality’s office to discuss the economic implications of the annexation of the port, and protests subdued as negotiations with the government began. However, protests erupted anew after online media outlets reported that the government had entered a 99-year lease agreement with Turkey for the port[xiii]. Despite the government’s denial of such a lease, protestors took to the streets, blockading key thoroughfares, including the Coastal Road that links Tripoli and Misrata.

The authorities intervened to disperse the protesters and made several arrests, including that of civil activist Sheikh Osama Aqil. His arrest was widely criticised on social media, where residents of the city also shared their opposition to the government’s decision which they consider goes against the population’s interests.

Challenges in the Prime Minister’s Hometown

Just five days before the leaking of the meeting with the Israeli foreign minister and the onset of protests, a movement named ‘February 17th’ emerged in Misrata, in opposition to the Tripoli-based government[xiv]. Misratan businessman, Muhammad Al-Taher Issa, was allegedly behind the creation of the movement, which “seeks to restore the democratic process, regain the trust of the population and let Libyans choose their representative through elections”.

Key Misratan figures who formerly supported Dbeiba ... [are] now actively organising against him.

Issa had initially supported Dbeiba in his hometown, even after some local political and armed figures aligned themselves with the Government of National Stability and Fathi Bashagha, also a Misratan. Ground reports suggest that Issa’s motives might not be entirely altruistic, as some suspect he aims to expand Misrata’s armed influence in the capital by opposing the government[xv]. However, it is significant that Issa, alongside some other key Misratan figures who formerly supported Dbeiba, is now actively organising against him. If Dbeiba loses the remaining support that he has in his hometown, which was key during the executive crisis between his government and the GNS, this could seriously threaten his survival as Prime Minister.

Similarly, two weeks prior to the beginning of the protests, Misratan armed commander, Salah Badi, organised a demonstration in opposition to both the GNU and the House of Representatives urging citizens “to denounce the corrupt and illegitimate authorities”[xvi].

On 2 September, pictures and videos circulated on local media of Badi wearing a military uniform and posing in front of rows of armed vehicles at one of Misrata’s military camps. In the videos Badi criticised the repression of protests and the armed group’s role in defending the government. He declared that the situation is now unacceptable and that “the failure of peaceful efforts to overthrow the government will constrain us to do it by force”[xvii], whilst announcing the activation of the Misrata Military Council, a direct threat to the Prime Minister. Since then, Badi has organised rallies and protest almost daily, and met with influential Misratan actors, including Issa.

It is not the first time that Badi has called the government illegitimate and threatened to overthrow it. However, Dbeiba’s Misratan opponents appear increasingly willing to support any opposition movement against the government, and while the civil protests are dying down, it can not be ruled out that some of his opponents are covertly working to form a more organised political and armed opposition.

What Does the Future Hold?

While [the HoR and the HCS] ... could not agree on the details of the electoral laws, they both agreed on their staunch opposition to Dbeiba.

While it is clear that many in the west of the country never supported Dbeiba, or stopped supporting him after he failed to deliver the elections, the current surge of popular opposition against his administration is unprecedented. The fires raging in Tripoli and other cities in the west of the country underscore Libyans’ profound anger and exasperation with the status-quo established under the Dbeiba government. A status-quo that allowed armed groups’ leaders to amass wealth and power unchecked at the expense of ordinary citizens, whilst the prospect of imminent elections remained dim.

Last March, the House of Representatives unilaterally amended Libya’s interim constitution triggering an acceleration of the political process after it had stalled following the annulment of the December 2021 elections[xviii]. The HoR and the HCS agreed to form a 6+6 members committee tasked with the drafting of the electoral laws. Despite these advances, the issues left over from 2021, the eligibility of double nationals, military personnel, and individuals previously convicted or under investigation, remain unsolved.

While the two bodies could not agree on the details of the electoral laws, they both agreed on their staunch opposition to Dbeiba. Over the past few months, Khaled Al-Mishri and Aqilah Saleh had been campaigning to rally support for the appointment of another interim government, or at least a reshuffle of the GNU’s cabinet that would see Dbeiba lose his position.

However, in a turn of events, 67 members of the Council voted last month to replace Al-Mishri with Mohammed Takala[xix]. Some Libya experts have pointed out that Dbeiba might have influenced some of those members to have Mishri removed in favour of a friendlier head of Council, which can protect his interests in the face of the HoR and prevent his ousting.

On 1 September, big demonstrations were expected in Tripoli, both as a continuation of the protests that had been raging for the past weeks, and in celebration of the Al-Fateh Revolution of 1969. However, Tripoli-based armed groups mobilised hundreds of armed individuals and armoured vehicles through the capital, declaring a state of emergency[xx]. The display of force, coupled with warning fires shot at protesters the previous nights and the arrest of over 130 civil leaders and participants in the demonstrators were enough to deter demonstrators from taking the street one more night[xxi].

While Dbeiba appears to have survived this crisis as protests have died down, he seems increasingly entrenched in Tripoli, encircled both politically and, potentially, militarily by his opponents. The fate of his government and the potential resurgence of armed conflict hinges on how the next few weeks unfold as Dbeiba tries to balance delicate alliances.

[i] @emea_intel. (2023). ‘#Breaking Protesters set fire to residence of Libyan Prime Minister Dabaiba in Shatt al-Hanshir area of Tripoli #Libya #Protests #Fire #Tripoli’, Twitter, 8 September 2023, Retrieved from https://twitter.com/emea_intel/status/1695967445767291321.
[ii] قرار رقم 368 لسنة 2023 م بتشكيل لجنة تحقيق إدارية. Prime Minister’s Office. https://lawsociety.ly/legislation/%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%B1%D9%82%D9%85-368-%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%86%D8%A9-2023-%D9%85-%D8%A8%D8%AA%D8%B4%D9%83%D9%8A%D9%84-%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%86%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%82%D9%8A%D9%82-%D8%A5%D8%AF%D8%A7/.
[iii] LIBYA IFTA. (2023). بيان مجلس البحوث والدراسات الشرعية التابع لدار الإفتاء بخصوص لقاء وزيرة الخارجية لوزير خارجية الكيان الصهيوني. Facebook, 28 August 2023, Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/LIBYAIFTA/posts/pfbid038Nt4QUeTpeuKVoaPcaMCBBt3BGrZ7WfGt5qP4pWV9KgAS5WW4zhdpour3RJr3JzAl?ref=embed_post; LYabparty. (2023). بيان حزب العدالة والبناء رقم 10 لسنة 2023 بشأن لقاء وزيرة الخارجية لحكومة الوحدة الوطنية بوزير خارجية الاحتلال الإسرائيلي. Facebook, 27 August 2023, Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/LYabparty/posts/pfbid02MRVPP1zLqbedaMjLs2aYkrMVFzngUZ2AbmhftSP313CQHYJUvduhsPJwJNsd2zRLl?ref=embed_post.
[iv] Hammady, O. (2022). Libya Elections in 2021 Postponed. Foreign Policy. 18 February 2022, Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/18/libya-elections-2021-postponed/.
[v] Interview with Tripoli-based source, 31 August 2023.
[vi] Abdulrahim, R. (2022). ‘Libya’s Feuding Militias Wrestle Over a Shared Vision’, The New York Times, 28 August 2022, Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/28/world/middleeast/libya-militias-hifter-dbeiba-bashagha.html.
[vii] Agenzia Nova. (2023). ‘Libya: Zawiya Protesters Threaten to March on Tripoli to Overthrow Government’, Agenzia Nova, 30 August 2023, Retrieved from https://www.agenzianova.com/en/news/libya-zawiya-protesters-threaten-to-march-on-tripoli-to-overthrow-government/.
[viii] Agenzia Nova. (2023). ‘Libya: Armed Clashes in Zawiya After the Visit of the Chief of Staff of Tripoli, Two Dead’, Agenzia Nova, 12 May 2023, Retrieved from https://www.agenzianova.com/en/news/libya-armed-clashes-in-zawiya-after-the-visit-of-the-chief-of-staff-of-tripoli-two-dead/.
[ix] اجتماع الدبيبة مع ” القيادات العسكرية ” وغرفة الطيران المسير بشأن العمليات في المنطقة الغربية . #ليبيا #المرصد .(2023). Facebook Live, 1 June 2023, Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=1281524215797872.
[x] رد عضو البرلمان” علي ابوزريبة ” على الدبيبة بعد مؤتمر يوم أمس بخصوص الضربات الجوية التي شُنت على مدينة #الزاوية.
(2023). Facebook Video, 2 June 2023, Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2296463570562120.
[xi] بيان عمداء ومخاتير ومشائخ الجبل بمدينة#نالوت بشأن ايقاف التعامل مع حكومة الدبيبةبسبب قرار وزير الداخلية المكلف بضم مديريات امن مدنهم.
(2023). Facebook Video, 8 July 2023, Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1454064958673541.
[xii] The Arab Weekly. (2023). ‘Protests Erupt After Dbeibah Adds Al-Khums Port to Turkish-Controlled Naval Base’, The Arab Weekly, 8 August 2023, Retrieved from https://thearabweekly.com/protests-erupt-after-dbeibah-adds-al-khums-port-turkish-controlled-naval-base.
[xiii] Sayfa, A. (2023). ‘Libya Türkiye’ye Liman Kiralamayı Reddetti. Deniz Ticaret Gazetesi’, 18 August 2023, Retrieved from https://www.denizticaretgazetesi.org/haber/libya-turkiyeye-liman-kiralamayi-reddetti-19033.
[xiv] @alsaaa24. (2023). #عاجل | رجل الأعمال الملقب بملك الاعتمادات محمد الطاهر عيسى يشارك في الإعلان عن حراك “17 فبراير لإصلاح ومقاومة الفساد ودعم سيادة القانون” مع عدد من أعيان مصراتة. #الساعة24 #ليبيا لحراك: نسعى لاستئناف المسار الديمقراطي في انتخابات تشريعية في أقرب الآجال, Twitter, 21 August 2023, Retrieved from https://twitter.com/alsaaa24/status/1693395101395853513.
[xv] Interview with Misrata-based source, 1 August 2023.
[xvi] كلمة العميد صلاح بادي في وسط مدينة #مصراتة. (2023). Facebook Video, 12 August 2023, Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=3530501870554868.
[xvii] المجالس العسكرية والتنسيق لما يمكن القيام به في قادم الأيام.
(2023). Nabd, 2 September 2023 https://nabd.com/s/124505812-f66f8f/%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%A5%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%8A-%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%84%D9%87..-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AC%D9%84%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%8A-%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA%D8%A9-%D9%86%D8%AF%D8%B9%D9%88-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%86-%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AC%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%86%D8%B3%D9%8A%D9%82-%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7-%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%83%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%85.
[xviii] Libyan House of Representatives. (2023). ‘13th Constitutional Amendment’, Official Gazette, State of Libya, 23 February 2023, Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/114681/144248/F-1907954978/-#1575;-#1604;-#1593;-#1583;-#1583;–#1575;-#1604;-#1585;-#1575;-#1576;-#1593;-.pdf.
[xix] The Arab Weekly. (2023). ‘New Uncertainty in Libya as High State Council Replaces Leader in Televised Vote’, The Arab Weekly, 6 August 2023, Retrieved from https://thearabweekly.com/new-uncertainty-libyas-high-state-council-replaces-leader-televised-vote.
[xx] Al-Assasy, A. (2023). ‘Libya’s GNU Accused of Terrorizing Protesters in Tripoli’, Libya Review, 2 September 2023, Retrieved from https://libyareview.com/37368/libyas-gnu-accused-of-terrorising-protesters-in-tripoli/.
[xxi] Interview with security source in Tripoli, 4 September 2023.

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