Libya’s Long-Awaited Unity Government: an Uphill Struggle
Federica Zoja 15 March 2021

Libya has a Government of National Accord. The new cabinet, having for the moment bypassed allegations of corruption, obtained a vote of confidence in parliament (the House of representatives in Tobruk moved for this occasion to the coastal city of Sirte) at its third plenary session after the two previous ones were suspended amid controversy. This had been a set-back that led to fears of yet another political stalemate. Then came the approval of almost all the 132 MPs present (out of 200). After ten years of division and conflict, the will to stabilise the national framework is gaining the upper hand over internal rivalries. That, at least, is what United Nations sources believe.

The team presented by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, however, contains a significant number of criticalities; firstly its size, larger than previously announced. Dbeibah himself (a businessman from Misrata), speaking in the House, admitted that he had been obliged to give in to criteria involving geographical representation and that he had never met some of his 26 ministers.

The objective to have women constituting at least one third of the government was also disregarded. Only two women were appointed ministers. The prime minister tried to make up for this failure by emphasising the importance of these two ministries assigned to them, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Justice. Images of Najla el-Mangoush, a lawyer and human rights activist appointed Foreign Minister, were immediately broadcast all over the world. This did not only happen because she was the first woman to hold such a position in the whole of North Africa (many European countries themselves have never had a woman as Foreign Minister), but also for at least two other reasons: el-Mangoush comes from Bengasi, the city loyal to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the perfect incarnation of historical hegemonic ambitions over the entire country. Furthermore, the newly-appointed minister’s detractors have emphasised her long absence from Libya. Since 2013 and until now, Najla has lived in the United States where she completed her academic education and established important diplomatic relations. Does her appointment perhaps predict Washington’s renewed interest in that match being played in Libya?

Whatever the answer may be, the Foreign Minister will be sailing in stormy waters, navigating between Russian, Egyptian, Arab Emirates and Turkish desires to mention just a few of those who are the most exposed. These are nations that still have 20,000 men on the ground including mercenaries, special agents and special units, but will have to be persuaded to demobilise as quickly as possible to ensure that the stabilisation and political autonomy processes are credible. As far as Minister of Justice Halima Abdulrahman is concerned, she will be entrusted with an equally difficult task of managing national reconciliation after a decade of civil war, as well as reharmonising the national justice system that is currently divided into sections.

Finally, the most thorny issue; a few hours after the parliamentary vote was held on the cabinet, indiscretions in the press made known in advance the contents of a United Nations report on the process that led to Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s election in Geneva. UN investigators allegedly found some irregularities; in fact these involved the buying and selling of votes among the 75 delegates. For the moment, while awaiting the report’s publication, the Chamber of Deputies has decided to approve Dbeibah, but sooner or later this issue will inevitably have to be addressed.

 

Domestic political unknowns 

The new transitional government will therefore have the task of ferrying the country towards general and presidential elections planned for December 24th following a path filled with obstacles.

The first concerns the transfer of power to the new prime minister from the two outgoing ones, Fayez al-Serraj, installed in Tripoli with a United Nations mandate over the entire country following the signing of the Skhrit Accord in 2015, and Abdullah al-Thinni, in exile in Tobruk with the Chamber of Representatives that had legitimised his appointment in 2014 following a regular general election. According to several observers, even the powerful Speaker of the House, Aqilah Saleh, could decide to boycott the coming elections and his support for the project is not a given.

There is also concern regarding the defection of a large group of MPs when voting took place in Sirte; it is legitimate to wonder how many of them, in addition to expressing their political dissent will also really obstruct work done by Dbeibah?

The role played by the 75 members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which in Geneva agreed on the creation of the new unified executive authority in February, is at this point still not clear. The autonomy of the new single premier regards to this Forum has yet to be tested.

 

The role played by the press

The Dbeibah government will not have time for additional old fashioned Sicilian-styled preliminary meetings; over just a few weeks it will have to table a budget law worthy of its name, capable of providing a pragmatic signal both at a national level and abroad. All Libyans are demanding services, employment, currency stabilisation and the availability of goods. All in all they demand glimpses of normality. At this moment expectations are extremely high and every move made by the new government is under the media spotlight.

On this subject, it is worth lingering a moment on recent events. One of the first steps taken by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s office appears to be the implementation of stricter procedures for the accreditation of journalists planning to follow the birth of this new government. According to the Organisation of the Independent Libyan media, requests presented by Dbeibah’s secretary’s office to media operators are allegedly “aimed at complicating the work of reporters”, and do not bode well for the future.

The Association of journalists and media operators in Sabha is claiming the same, and its reporters have been denied the right to cover a visit by Mohamed Menfi, the head of the Presidential Council, in the city in central Libya. The independent press is on edge, suspecting an attempt to gag information at a particularly sensitive time for the country.
The fourth power, with its function to stand guard, will play a strategic role in monitoring and documenting this, provided that the political forces that have reached an agreement are really willing to play fair.

The press linked to the system offers the new management a safe harbour, underlining emphatically signs of a return to stability such as, for example, the reinstatement of direct flights between Misrata and Bengasi, respectively in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Flights between these two cities, the fulcrum of opposing militias and tribes, had been stopped for six years. Pro-government media have also dedicated the same attention to the return to Libya of diplomats who had been away for some time such as the Maltese. The Maltese Consulate is soon expected to resume procedures to give Libyan citizens visas for La Valletta.

 

New equilibria in the Eastern Mediterranean 

In the meantime a new round has just started at the international table addressing Libya. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has announced that diplomatic relations with Egypt have been resumed “both through intelligence services and the ministry.” This is a historical turning point following the fallout after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military coup against the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, so dear to Ankara.

For some time now Turkey has adopted a softer attitude with other regional players involved in Libya. Interviewed by Bloomberg, Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and advisor to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said: “Turkey is ready to turn over a new page with Egypt and countries in the Gulf in the name of peace and stability in the region.” Turkey’s aperture concerns all problematic issues: “We want to cooperate with Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean, with Libya as well as addressing the Palestinian issue which appears to have been forgotten by the world. Should we manage to achieve constructive bilateral steps forward, this could contribute to stabilising the region from North Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean,” added Kalin. Before this, Turkish Foreign and Defence Ministers had already emphasised a possible aperture as far as Cairo was concerned, envisaging an agreement concerning the demarcation of maritime borders. In order to clarify Turkey’s change of attitude in foreign policy, Erdogan’s spokesman added that ”we have no outstanding problems with any Arab country.”

All this with all due respect for the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assassinated and dismembered by Saudi 007s in the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

 

Cover Photo: Libya’s new prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah addresses lawmakers during the first reunited parliamentarian session – Sirte, March 9th 2021 (Mahmud Turkia / AFP).


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