The Libyan Interim Government: Hopes and Challenges

By Arab Centre DC April 26, 2021

Libya has suffered years of violence and volatility. Recently, Libyan delegates to a conference in Geneva approved the re-formation of two entities: the Presidential Council (PC) and the Government of National Unity (GNU).

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This became possible after several rounds of months-long talks within the framework of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), facilitated by the United Nations. Analysts view this development as a major breakthrough and a sign of hope for peace and political stability in a country that has been ravaged by conflicts and political upheavals exacerbated by the role of international players.

Three people, each representing one of the three main provinces in Libya, constitute the PC: Mohammed al-Menfi as its president along with two deputies, Musa al-Koni and Abdullah al-Lafi. The council’s role, in addition to leading the armed forces, is to ensure that general elections take place in the country on time. The GNU comprises 35 ministers with Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah as the prime minister. The government has an executive mandate and is tasked with improving public services and paving the way for the presidential and legislative elections by December 2021.

Dbeibah pledged to unify state institutions and to hold elections on time. Nevertheless, the interim government does not mention several crucial issues, including the presence of foreign forces and weapons on Libyan soil, the thorny issue of local militias, the worsening economic situation, and the reconciliation process between warring factions.

Foreign Meddling in Post-conflict Libya

Some 20,000 foreign troops and mercenaries are present on Libyan soil, posing one of the greatest threats to the country’s security. All outsider combatants were bound to leave Libya before January 2021, as per the Geneva Ceasefire Agreement. Yet, unfortunately, this agreement was not honored and the presence of foreign forces in Libya has not ended. Several countries have their fighters and military bases in a number of locations in Libya and thus they have a stake in the restoration of peace and negotiations.

There is an international consensus on the necessity of ending all foreign presence in the country and avoiding any repetition of the armed conflict.

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Apparently, there is an international consensus on the necessity of ending all foreign presence in the country and avoiding any repetition of the armed conflict. However, there are no real indicators or moves by countries that have been condemned for funding the fighting in Libya (such as Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates) that prove their real commitment to withdrawal anytime soon. Pressure on Libyan officials exerted by the United States and other regional players, including Russia, Turkey, and France, could help in supporting peace and stability in the country. But foreign meddlers will support this only if their interests are guaranteed.

A few countries, such as some European Union nations, are principally concerned about securing their interests in the form of shares in Libya’s hydrocarbon and oil resources. Controlling migration through the central Mediterranean route is another crucial matter for these countries.

Other players, such as Russia and the UAE, are seeking a strategic presence in the Mediterranean through their military influence in Libya. The US Africa Command has already raised the alarm over the consequences of Russia’s presence in strategic locations in Libya. Having a share in the reconstruction process by securing contracts is another concern for some countries.

Armed Groups and Militias

Armed groups have been part of Libya’s instability since the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in 2011. No sustainable solutions were formulated in the last decade and the nature of the militias has evolved and changed. The Joint Military Commission (JMC), also known as the 5+5 Commission, is composed of five representatives each from the two major warring parties in the last Libyan conflict: the former Government of National Accord (GNA) and renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). The JMC was created after the Berlin meeting in 2020 and tasked with unifying the military and determining which militias and groups would become part of the army and which groups would be excluded. But with the obvious lack of political support from both sides, the expectations from these meetings are not high. Unifying the armed forces is a difficult task, so it was decided to complete it at a later date.

Another challenge the interim government faces is how the different groups in the new setup could be represented in a way that is satisfactory for them.

Another challenge the interim government faces is how the different groups in the new setup could be represented in a way that is satisfactory for them. Prime Minister Dbeibah has decided not to appoint a defense minister and has assumed this role himself, the main reason being to avoid any potential rivalry over this key post. On the other hand, balance in the GNU is achieved through tribes or cities to which big, influential armed groups belong. For example, Abdullah al-Lafi, the deputy PC president, hails from the city of al-Zawiya, Dbeibah is from Misrata, and so forth. That is how the cabinet in the interim government was increased to 35 ministers (although it will serve only until December).

It is not yet certain if such an arrangement would be enough to satisfy the armed groups, and if the interests of politicians would match what the combatants fought for. So far, there are no signs that the government has gained any control over the armed groups. In Tripoli, for instance, the former head of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj—before leaving his position—offered some armed groups (such as the Special Deterrence Forces) mandates and budgets to be part of the national security Stability Support Apparatus, despite evidence suggesting their involvement in illegal and criminal activities.

In Benghazi, a few weeks after the new government came to power, Mahmoud al-Warfalli, a senior pro-Haftar leader of al-Saiqa, was assassinated. In addition, several clashes and abductions took place in the same city, which is under the control of the LNA. Soon after al-Warfalli’s assassination, in a show of force, Khaled Haftar conducted a tactical exercise for the 106th Brigade, the armed group he commands within the LNA. These events of muscle flexing were attended by the controversial General Haftar, who is Khaled’s father. It is known that there was a state of tension between al-Warfalli and Khaled Haftar; in fact, there is speculation regarding a possible competition between the two factions over control of the second largest Libyan city.

Khalifa Haftar’s fate in the future setup is still undecided. After becoming head of the Presidential Council, President al-Menfi met with Haftar, which led to uncertainty as such a meeting could, in a way, give legitimacy to a leader whose role has been controversial. The PC president also visited three countries with conflicting interests in the region. He went to Egypt, France, and Turkey in a bid to strengthen relations, in what may be seen as a new era of balanced relations with all external actors.

Hurdles in the Way of Elections

In order to conduct free and fair elections, it is essential to have a stable and secure atmosphere where voters cast their ballots without fear and where all stakeholders trust the electoral process and thereby commit to accepting the results. Given the precarious situation in Libya, holding free and fair elections will be challenging. Furthermore, the time frame agreed to in the UN-led dialogue is relatively narrow because of the many challenges faced by the new government. Holding elections according to this time frame means all preparations must be concluded within less than a year. Three months have already elapsed and the parliament has yet to approve the budget. Members of the interim government are barred from running in the upcoming elections, as per the National Dialogue Forum criteria. This may cause some in the Dbeibah’s government to delay the elections in order to stay in power longer. Indeed, overstaying one’s tenure is nothing new in Libya.

In order to conduct free and fair elections, it is essential to have a stable and secure atmosphere where voters cast their ballots without fear and where all stakeholders trust the electoral process and thereby commit to accepting the results.

Economic Challenges

The people of Libya have pinned their hopes on the new interim government; however, there are many economic challenges ahead. More than 100,000 internally displaced persons and 61,000 returnees, according to the United Nations, are in desperate need of public services and humanitarian assistance. The county’s health care system is on the verge of collapse and health facilities are practically dysfunctional, especially in rural areas. The current pandemic could aggravate this further. Electricity generation has been negatively affected and long power outages have become common, especially during the summer when power is needed most. The new budget is supposed to devote ample funds to rehabilitate the oil sector that has historically been the mainstay of Libya’s economy for decades. The sector is expected to export over a million barrels of oil a day; at current prices, that will provide almost $20 billion to the Libyan economy.

The Libyan Treasury is short on cash due in part to the financial crises and the division of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL). At present, people have a very difficult time drawing their salaries. The current government considered the CBL to be already unified, despite the lack of signs pointing to full unification. In December 2020, the CBL board of directors held its first meeting with the full membership since 2016, when the institution was split between the east and west of the country. The meeting led to changing the exchange rate of the dinar, the local currency, and this was a crucial step—one that has not yielded any results yet in terms of cost of living, prices of services, or the inflation rate. For the unification to be fully effective, it is important that more frequent meetings among the board of directors are held at the bank’s headquarters in Tripoli. That will have potential to effect some tangible results.

What May the Future Hold?

The interim government is a kind of balanced alliance and thus has potential for steering the country out of the present political turmoil. Yet, there are several obstacles that would need to be overcome. Foreign powers will obviously have a role in conflict resolution as well as the post-conflict process. As long as Libyan leaders are able to meet the minimum interests of all stakeholders, local and international, a peace process will have a chance to start so that conflicts might be avoided in the future. A very important commonality among the current members of the interim government is that most of them have had no direct involvement in the Libyan conflict for at least the last six years. This is clearly a positive point as such faces will be seen as neutral by the different groups. Unification of the army is a Herculean task and may not be smooth sailing. To that end, the outcome of the Joint Military Commission meetings will determine the future of the Libyan political landscape.

Source: Arab Centre DC

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