Analysis |

New Regime in Libya Has a Lot of Powder Kegs to Navigate Around

A UN-brokered interim election among senior officials is the latest thing to go wrong in a country that still has two governments, two parliaments and plenty of warring militias

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A staff member showing the empty ballot box after delegates voted for a new interim Libyan government at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum near Geneva last month.
A staff member showing the empty ballot box after delegates voted for a new interim Libyan government at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum near Geneva last month.Credit: UN photo / Reuters

Libya’s newly elected leaders were showered with congratulatory speeches and good wishes. The U.S. ambassador, Richard Norland, phoned the new president of the Presidential Council, Mohammad Younes Menfi, congratulated him on his victory and promised U.S. assistance.Greece said it would reopen its embassy in Libya, and Morocco and Egypt joined the celebration.

Meanwhile, the American and European media announced a new era in Libya’s history that might last longer than the decade of civil wars that started with the Arab Spring.

The festive occasion took place on February 5 when the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, sponsored by a UN official for Libya, Stephanie Williams, convened in a Geneva hotel. The forum elected Menfi head of the Presidential Council, his two deputies Abdullah al-Lafi and Moussa al-Kuni, and designated a prime minister, Abdul Hamid al-Dabaib.

Everything looked wonderful, too wonderful, as some of the forum’s 75 delegates representing all of Libya’s districts and the ruling elites were shaking hands.

Sure enough, pandemonium broke out in the lobby. Rumors that Dabaib’s associates and even rivals received large sums of money to vote for him had been rampant for weeks, but when some delegates discovered they had received less money than others, shouting and even fistfights broke out.

Some delegates had been offered $150,000 to $200,000, others $500,000, it was said. The United Nations, which sponsored the forum’s debates, was deeply embarrassed. If the claims are true, Dabaib’s election isn’t legitimate, he can’t form a government and the entire diplomatic achievement could come crashing down.

The United Nations immediately announced that it was investigating, but a draft of a document due to be released on March 15 found its way to Agence France-Presse. It says that indeed large sums were paid to certain delegates, tipping the scales in Dabaib’s favor.

The elected prime minister quickly denied the accusations and blamed officials bent on sabotaging the election process. But he and his confidants realize that both their fate and the process are now in jeopardy, pending the results of the investigation.

From the outset, the results of the Presidential Council election surprised both Libyans and Western observers. Menfi and his two deputies aren’t politicians, nor are they military figures or heads of large tribes. Dabaib, however, is a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the Gadhafi era.

Interim Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dabaib, left, and Fayez al-Sarraj, his predecessor, in Tripoli last month. Credit: AFP

Convenient cousin

According to Jalel Harchaoui, an activist at an anti-corruption organization, Dabaib’s cousin, Ali Dabaib, was behind the prime minister’s campaign. Ali Dabaib, a geography teacher who became mayor of the city of Misrata in the ‘70s, was then promoted to be a key administrator for Muammar Gadhafi; he was responsible for granting franchises and building permits to Chinese and Turkish companies for billions of dollars.

The family and business connections between the Dabaibs and the family of the prime minister being replaced, Fayez al-Sarraj, proved extremely beneficial to Turkey, whose transactions with these tycoons led to projects in Gadhafi’s time worth some $19 billion. More importantly, in 2019 Turkey and Sarraj signed an agreement on demarcating economic waters and launching military cooperation, after which Turkey sent planes, troops and thousands of mercenaries – Syrian militias under Turkey’s command – to help in the government’s war against separatist general Khalifa Haftar.

Egypt, Russia and Turkey were also surprised by the results of the election in Libya; it’s still unclear what these three countries did to try to secure their preferred candidates’ victory and why they failed. But it seems that whether or not the results fall apart following the discovery of the bribery, Turkey and Russia’s status in Libya is assured.

Russia, which provides Haftar with military support and has funneled thousands of Syrian combatants to Libya, also maintains close ties with the recognized government. About a week before the election in Geneva it invited to Moscow delegates from both governments, Sarraj’s and Haftar’s, to discuss the possible outcome of the election. The assumption is that whether or not the new administration is replaced, Russia’s friends will get senior posts and let it implement its plan to set up a large military base in Libya.

Turkey, which has two bases in Libya, is well connected to Dabaib, and of course to his billionaire cousin, and has already made clear that it has no intention of withdrawing its forces from Libya as long as other foreign forces are there.

Interim Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dabaib, left, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Cairo last month.Credit: AFP

Many militias

The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum was set up on the assumption that Sarraj’s government, despite the international recognition it received, no longer had public legitimacy and couldn’t rehabilitate the state economically and politically. The idea of forming it under UN auspices achieved the declared result, but even if the agreed structure and elected officials survive the UN investigative report, they face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The first is uniting the fighting forces, breaking up the militias and building a national army. Dozens of Libyan militias operate around the country; some are loyal to one of the political forces and some are independent.

Dabaib himself is the unofficial leader of the Misrata militias, one of the strongest forces in the country; it thwarted Haftar’s plan to lay siege to capital Tripoli in a bid to conquer it. The Dabaib family funded the city’s fighters, who expect to be the commanders of the national army if one is formed.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and then-Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj at a press conference in Ankara in June.Credit: Adem Altan / AFP

Haftar’s militias, known as the National Libyan Army, have won support and funding from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France. They rightly fear being pushed into a corner and even broken apart if Dabaib serves as prime minister.

Militias in the south, operating under the auspices of local tribes, rule some of the oil fields and enjoy a steady cash flow, including state allocations. A united army would deny them the money that’s the source of their power.

The militias’ existence could serve the foreign powers, which could block or encourage political decisions to advance their own interests with the militias’ help. Events in Syria show that foreign states’ control of militias is hugely important in establishing the powers' influence.

Soldiers in Libyan capital Tripoli at celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring last month. Credit: Ahmed Hazem / AFP

The new administration’s other task, to hold an election in December, may also turn out impossible in view of the yearlong distrust, hostility and rivalry among the various districts, tribes and politicians.

Libyan affairs have been scattered in every direction by a series of events: the 2014 election that was annulled by the Supreme Court, the UN-brokered agreement signed in Morocco in 2016 that created the new regime’s structure, the administration’s rupture into two governments and parliaments, Haftar’s takeover of the east of the country and some of the oil ports, and foreign powers’ involvement.

Theoretically there’s still a chance to mend the rifts. Such an effort would require international cooperation that doesn’t exist at the moment. The European Union, notably Italy and France, are split on the desired leadership. The United States is watching from afar and Joe Biden has yet to decide whether to overturn Donald Trump’s noninvolvement policy and enter the Libyan swamp as Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggests.

Even before that, the election will force the 75 members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum to decide on the desired form of government – presidential, parliamentarian or a combination. They will have to agree on an election law and mechanisms to supervise and finance elections.

Each of these aspects is a powder keg that could blow up at any stage. The only realistic suggestion for now is not to hold your breath waiting for the forming of a new government, especially before the December election.

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