On February 5, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), a 75-member body, supervised by the United Nations, approved Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh’s list of officials to temporarily run national affairs. Their mandate will last until presidential and parliamentary elections take place on December 24. The list includes Mohammed al-Manfi as chairman and Musa al-Koni and Abdullah Hussein al-Lafi as members of the Presidential Council. Dbeibeh became the prime minister of Libya.
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On March 10, Dbeibeh presented his cabinet to members of parliament and won the confidence of 132 deputies out of the 133 who attended the session in Sirte. The internationally recognized national unity government based in Tobruk was subsequently sworn in, but it faces many challenges. These include political, military, economic, and social and human rights issues.
Dbeibeh is a businessman-turned-politician from Misrata, a port city that is around 200 kilometers to the east of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. During his time in business, he was involved in political circles as a trusted person of the ruling Arab Socialist Union. In 2007, Muammar Gaddafi, the ruler of Libya at the time, charged Dbeibeh with the task of running the state-owned Libyan Investment and Development Company (LIDCO). The firm was responsible for some of the country’s biggest public works projects. After the Libyan revolution of 2011, which led to the overthrow and subsequent death of Gaddafi, the Libya al-Mustakbal (Libya Future) movement was founded by Dbeibeh.
The prime minister has succeeded in forming a broad-based coalition government that has brought together representatives of most stakeholders from the political, regional and tribal scenes in Libya. Dbeibeh crystallized a state of relative consensus between the different parties that have lived during a state of dissonance and a raging power struggle. This culminated in Major General Khalifa Haftar’s declaration of war on Tripoli in April 2019. Haftar’s heavy losses, his failed coup against civilian rule, the suffering of Libyans from war and their forced displacement pushed the bickering parties to negotiate and reach a political agreement. This deal was endorsed by the United Nations mission, under the pressure of countries such as the United States, Germany, Britain and Italy. The formation of the new Libyan government is based on a fragile consensus dictated by necessity. The sustainability of this is a challenge in itself, requiring a high degree of governmental harmony and solidarity.
Dbeibeh’s team now faces the challenge of bridging the gap between the various actors on Libya’s political scene and bringing them together under a single banner. This national project entails the extension of state sovereignty over the whole of Libyan territory and the consolidation of civil peace, taking into account public interest. The new government is also required to implement the roadmap drawn up by the LPDF. Most importantly, this includes the unification of sovereign institutions to elect new leaders to manage the transitional phase. It also involves creating conditions for organizing legislative and presidential elections at the end of the year.
The formation of the national unity government represented a historic moment that was the result of talks between the most prominent political actors in Libya. It served as a political solution to the Libyan crisis and a transition from a situation of war to one of peace.
Despite the peaceful transition of power from Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister under the Government of National Accord (GNA), to Dbeibeh, some political figures have not fully grasped the scope of change taking place in Libya. Instead, they have resisted the shifts in government to preserve their influence and personal and factional interests.
An example of this is the case of Aguila Saleh Issa, the speaker of parliament and president of the House of Representatives (HOR). Issa was expected to vacate his role, as decided by the forum, to allow a new figure from the south to be head of the legislative body. The aim is to create a balance between the different regions of Libya. Yet the speaker has clung on to his position.
Issa has a long history of obstructing the path for a peaceful settlement to the Libyan crisis. In 2016, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) adopted sanctions against him. He was accused of being “complicit in, actions or policies that obstruct, undermine, delay, or impede, or pose a significant risk of obstructing, undermining, delaying, or impeding, the adoption of or political transition to the GNA.” In addition to this, parliament remained divided and suspended during his term and only met on rare occasions.
On the military front, the UN Security Council has called on all parties to abide by the ceasefire agreed in Geneva under the UN in October 2020. Yet in March this year, a UN report stated that the arms embargo in Libya is “totally ineffective.” The Geneva agreement issued a 90-day deadline for foreign mercenaries to leave the country. The stated period has since passed, but Libya is still teeming with local and international armed groups.
This complex situation poses a major challenge to the national unity government. Officials are primarily concerned with forcing all parties to respect the ceasefire and stop the imports of weapons by land, sea and air. In addition to this, millions of weapons — smuggled or stolen — are handled illegally in Libya.
The state needs to regain its authority and have a monopoly on the use of weapons. This requires forcing the armed brigades in the east and west to hand over their equipment to the Ministries of Defense and Interior. This approach calls for dissolving Libyan militias, draining their sources of funding, rehabilitating their members and reintegrating them into official security and defense structures. This includes institutions such as the police, army, civil protection or border control, which have specific laws and codes of conduct and a clear hierarchy subject to civilian leadership.
The government will likely face resistance from armed groups. The brigades loyal to General Haftar, who considers himself above the state and does not accept the command of civilian leadership, will present a particular challenge.
Mercenaries also pose a risk. There are an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters in Libya, according to former UN Envoy Stephanie Williams. Most of them are stationed in the east of Libya and in the oil crescent, a coastal area that hosts most of the country’s oil export terminals. The fighters include Sudanese, Chadian, Syrian and Russian nationals earning high salaries.
Their deportation presents a further challenge because the groups are part of a network of power relations involving other countries. Russia, Turkey, Egypt and France have used fighters and technical experts as bargaining chips to ensure their share of reconstruction projects and natural resources in Libya. The Libyan government needs to create a situation where locals reject the presence of mercenaries and put pressure on them to leave.
The support of the European Union, the United States and Britain is also important. Such global powers must intensify diplomatic and field efforts on these armed groups to surrender their positions and weapons to the Libyan government. If this can be achieved in a manner that guarantees the sustainability of peace and stability, foreign investors might view Libya as a safe country for commercial and economic activity.
Economic, Social and Human Rights Challenges
The Dbeibeh government has inherited an economy that has been weakened by war and financial and administrative corruption. The economy has been severely affected by the deliberate halting of oil production and export by tribes and militias loyal to Haftar. It has also been impacted by depleted parallel institutions and informal trade as well as the smuggling of fuel and other basic materials. “Due to the closure of oil wells and restrictions put by pro-Haftar armed groups, the Libyan economy suffered a loss of $5 billion in January 2020,” Mucahit Aydemir reports. “From 2016-2019, the country has already lost more than $100 billion, as Ibrahim Cadran, an Haftar ally interrupted the oil excavation in the east of the country.”
It is assumed that the national unity government will set an audited public budget and liberate oil fields from foreign, tribal or militia domination. The interim leaders should also seek to restore the export of oil, the country’s primary source of income. Undertaking these urgent, necessary reforms will allow the provision of cash liquidity, secure salaries and help the Libyan dinar (LD) recover, if only relatively. According to the World Bank, the dinar “continues to suffer in the parallel market because of political uncertainties and macroeconomic instability. In the first two quarters of 2020, the LD in the parallel market lost 54 percent of its value.”
On the social and human rights front, it is imperative for the new government to provide citizens with essential services, such as clean water, electricity, gas, medicine and basic foodstuffs, and to fight the wastage of public money and increasing prices. In March, UN Special Envoy Jan Kubis said the “country is facing an acute electricity crisis this summer and there are risks to its water security as well.” He added that “UN agencies estimate that over 4 million people, including 1.5 million children, may face being denied access to clean water and sanitation if immediate solutions are not found and implemented.”
In addition, the coronavirus was confirmed to have spread to Libya on March 24, 2020, when the first case was reported in Tripoli. Libya is vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic due to the impact of the last civil war, which led to a dire humanitarian situation and the destruction of the country’s health infrastructure. In April, Libya launched its vaccination program against COVID-19, but, as with most countries in Africa, the supplies of doses remain low. At the time of publishing, the country had recorded more than 195,000 infections and over 3,200 deaths.
In light of risks to the country’s health care, an effective strategy must be implemented to combat COVID-19. This must take into account sufficient steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, import the necessary number of vaccine doses and guarantee access to health services for those suffering from the COVID-19 disease.
It is also important for authorities to release political prisoners, deal with cases of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and end impunity for those committing crimes. Those forcibly displaced during the civil war must also be allowed to return to their homes and resume their professional lives in a safe environment. The building blocks for a project of transitional justice as a prelude to a practical, inclusive and fair system of reconciliation must also be pursued.
The time available to the Dbeibeh government is limited and the challenges it faces are plenty. But this should not prevent the interim administration from being able to introduce changes and pave the way for political, economic and human rights reform. However, this will be possible only if officials are united and cooperate to serve the public and if international support continues for the national unity government. Most importantly, to succeed, the government will need the support of Libyans themselves.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.