The Rome MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed comments on the MENA region's most significant issues and trends. Today we turn the spotlight on Libya, where the new National Unity Government led by Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah will be sworn in Tobruk and will have the difficult task of healing the country’s multiple wounds and leading it to the crucial elections of December 2021.
After ten years of instability and seven since the last unified government, Libya is now experiencing a truce moment with a new united cabinet that should lead the country towards the elections scheduled for next December. On March 10, the Tobruk’s House of Representatives (HoR), gathered in Sirte, gave its endorsement to Prime Minister-designate Abdelhamid Dbeibah and his list of ministers (which includes, among others, the first female Foreign Minister Najla el-Mangoush) paving the way for their swearing-in ceremony today in Tobruk. However, such remarkable progress lies on shaky ground as the country remains dangerously exposed to renewed violence and political fragmentation. Notwithstanding widespread jubilant reactions from the International community, formidable issues both in the political and military tracks remain unaddressed. First, the HoR’s decision to ignore specific conclusions reached by the UN-sponsored LPDF in February, chiefly the role of the reshaped Presidential Council and the need to frame a new electoral law, thus denoting deep political divisions among the country’s institutions that are likely to resurface in the coming months. Second, the Joint Military Committee 5+5, which brings together military officials from Tripoli and Tobruk’s administrations, is having difficulty creating the conditions for a sustainable peace due to its inability to reach an agreement about the departure of thousands of foreign mercenaries. Against this backdrop, Libya still struggles with prohibitive economic and humanitarian situations that the pandemic has exacerbated.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the new hopes and challenges facing Libya today.
Libya wants to move forward. At all costs
“The newly elected Libyan Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah has been accused by some of having bought his victory through bribes offered to some members of the LPDF. These accusations were supposed to undermine the post-election period and the legitimacy of the new government. However, this has not and will not happen. Libyans want to move forward and reach the elections set for December 2021 in the best condition possible and are keen to see this new government pave the way forward. This public opinion sentiment is further confirmed by the lack of attention paid to the Parliament’s (HoR) incompetence to fulfil its duties. In particular, the HoR has failed to ratify in its entirety the roadmap designed by the LPDF, including, among others, those parts outlining the role of the new Presidential Council, as well as the law establishing the constitutional referendum. According to many, the HoR President Aghila Salah, and his manipulative stance, is behind this non-ratification as he aims to retain authority as the Parliament's chief and to maintain control over a potential institutional vacuum. However, neither the people nor the new Prime Minister seem too seriously worried about these issues. The will to move forward is the dominating sentiment in Libya today.”
Karim Mezran, Head, North Africa Initiative; and Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council; Senior Associate Research Fellow, ISPI
International spoilers are still the main challenge for Libya’s unity
"Mercenaries and foreign military bases have become Libya's new normal. The exhilaration that accompanied the Government of National Unity's endorsement in Sirte has obfuscated the fact that the process has undermined the prospects of tangible progress on the military track. The irony lies in the fact that the political expediency that underpinned the process characterized as a necessary step to restore Libyan unity, misdirected from the fact that the main foreign interveners want to leverage their respective military influence over this one-legged new government for concessions. With unfounded optimism replacing strategy, insulating Libya from foreign interference has become an afterthought that we will only see mentioned in statements, to the detriment of all involved."
Emadeddin Badi, Senior Analyst, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Middle East Program, Atlantic Council
The new government must deliver on its core task: leading the country to fair elections
“The coming period may represent a rare window of opportunity to get Libya’s transition back on track. The Government of National Unity should remember it has a limited mandate. Its main task is to steer Libyans towards national elections in December, a ballot that could reset the legitimacy crisis that has hobbled the country since the last parliamentary elections were held in 2014. Libya’s other pressing challenges - creating viable national security forces and implementing much needed economic reforms - will not be solved within the GNU’s short lifespan but progress can be made if the new executive secures enough support from key actors and the wider population while keeping spoilers at bay.”
Mary Fitzgerald, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI and Associate Fellow, ICSR, King's College London
The GNU’s economic priorities
“Resolving interlocking financial feuds that have piled up over the years is one of the main challenges the Dabaiba-led government will have to tackle. This has many components. One is budgetary: Dabaiba must oversee the process of unifying the public expenditures of the two pre-existing governments, including their outlying debts. The second is re-unifying the Central Bank of Libya, divided since 2014 in a main branch in Tripoli (internationally recognized) and a rival one in Benghazi (not recognized internationally). Thirdly, Dabaiba must bring to an end an ad hoc US-backed mechanism that led to the temporary withholding of Libya’s oil revenues. Progress on all points is key to return proper economic governance to Libya.”
Claudia Gazzini, Consulting Analyst for Libya, International Crisis Group (ICG)
A unified European response to counter centrifugal forces in Libya
“Some foreign powers which have "boots on the ground" in Libya are planning to maintain their long-term presence. It is unlikely that they will simply withdraw, even in the event of such requests from the UN or the new government of national unity (GNU). To truly help the Libyans in this challenging and extended transitional phase, the EU should develop a coordinated and unified response with the US on this. Moreover, Europe could take a more hands-on approach to block and isolate domestic and international spoilers, refocusing the political track onto common interests and objectives, including support for a genuine security sector reform strategy. Italy should act on this track, helping, for example, to launch an EU technical mission to support the GNU in planning the next elections.”
Arturo Varvelli, Head, Rome Office and Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR
The Biden Administration is still looking for its strategy in Libya
“The approval of a new national unity government is a positive step forward for Libya. But many shadows still remain on the horizon, first of all regarding the different path taken by foreign powers on the ground, such as Turkey and Russia. The required withdrawal of the troops by January 23, in fact, did not take place, and each of the two irregular deployments reinforced their outposts. The Pentagon is very attentive about that, but it is still premature to draw a line on what will be the American strategy in Libya, a secondary chessboard for the Biden administration. A good answer could be given by the appointment of a new US special envoy, a position vacant since 2016.”
Federica Saini Fasanotti, Non-resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; and Senior Associate Fellow, ISPI