Libya’s new Government of National Unity (GNU) headed by Abdel Hamid Dbeibah was able to win the vote of confidence of the Libyan parliament in an unprecedented unified session in the second week of last March. However, appointing the newly elected leadership through the dialogue forum does not represent enough guarantee to complete the implementation of the declared roadmap. There are other obstacles that prevent proceeding according to the timeline which calls for holding presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 24, 2021.
This paper seeks to deal with the likely failure of upholding the implementation of the roadmap in case presidential and parliamentary elections were not held on the set date at the end of this year. Such scenario is open to several trajectories if the ceasefire holds on or the armed conflict erupts once again.
Factors and implications of failure
There are multiple indications and implications related to the likely failure of completing the roadmap in Libya, which can be summarized in the following points:
1. Expansion of tasks and representation: Dbeibah’s government adopts a discourse that reflects its resolve to shoulder broad tasks that surpass the limited objectives related to the preparation of the political environment to hold elections at the end of this year. The new Libyan government focuses on services to increase its popularity such as the electricity problem, management of the Coronavirus crisis, fighting corruption, and partial restructuring in the work of some public institutions (away from the issue of uniting the divided ones). This shows the government’s desire to build a legitimacy that enables it to survive and remain in power for a longer time. In addition, the large size of the government and its keenness to ensure representation of all influential political and social segments, as well as, the desire by all parties and tribes to ensure their participation in the government, reflect the point of view of these parties that Dbeibah’s government is not an interim one that will depart by the end of the year. This is true because keenness by all of these parties to be represented is not in line with a condition that forbids members of the new government from running in the upcoming elections next December. It seems that most parties do not take this condition seriously or at least realize how difficult to abide by it.
Consequently, Dbeibah’s government was inflated; it included 35 ministers in addition to deputy ministers which was an area for competition and quotas among parties to the conflict. It is worth mentioning that the new government did not abide by the interim designation. Although the term “interim government” was included in the statement issued by the UN Security Council on March 12, 2021 after wining the vote of confidence, Dbeibah’s government upholds the term “national unity” government in an attempt to enhance and display a source of legitimacy that surpasses the interim transitional circumstances.
2. The Limited span of time: Unlike the wishes of parties benefiting from the continuation of the new government beyond Dec. 24, 2021, there are constitutional, technical and logistical obstacles that prevent holding elections on the scheduled date. Dr. Emad Alsayah, Chairman of Libya's High National Elections Commission (HNEC), said that holding a referendum on the constitution before elections will make it impossible to uphold the timeline for the roadmap. In this case, elections can not be held before the end of 2022; i.e., after one year of the set date at best.
As an admission of these difficulties, the Libyan Constitutional Committee representing the House of Representatives and the Council of the State has agreed in its meeting on the constitutional track in Hurghada, Egypt on Feb. 12, 2021, to hold the referendum on the constitution after national elections.
Although the Constitutional Committee was able to convene in Tunisia on 7-6 April 2021 and come up with a preliminary proposal for the constitutional base, controversial issues remained unsolved such as election of the president. There was a logic in the past calls for the upcoming elections to be legislative only and postponing presidential elections. This idea was met with opposition by several parties. Another controversial issue was a suggestion raised in the meeting calling for electing the president by parliament, not through popular vote.
The second obstacle in the coming period is likely to come form the House of Representatives. On the one hand, the parliament was responsible for the difficulty of holding the referendum because the referendum law was not referred to HNEC, according to Alsayah. On the other hand, the proposal to elect the president indirectly is in conflict with what the House of Representatives has endorsed in the past; the need to elect the president through direct secret popular vote. Finally, the proceedings in the House of Representatives are currently characterized by procrastination. The House of Representatives has not referred the referendum law to HNEC and has not ratified the new budget. Most likely, this procrastination will continue on the issue of ratifying the constitutional base for elections and embed it in the constitutional declaration.
3. Weakness of actual impact: One of the main points of strength that was one of the reasons behind the victory of the Menfi-Dbeibah list in elections was the list inclusion of relatively new faces in the political landscape. This has made these names free of the brunt of animosities which were consolidated in the country over the past years, especially those related to multiple military confrontations. This has made these leaders enjoy some preliminary acceptance by rival parties.
This point of strength is, however, the main point of weakness. The new leaders lack military and popular support, which limits their ability to impose their will on the ground by force. It also makes them hostage to foreign will, on the one hand, and to local influential actors because they have arms and control over critical facilities, on the other.
One can argue that Menfi-Dbeibah authority reflects a multi-lateral highly fragile state of balance. There is also no guarantee to translate this authority into actual capabilities on the ground that obeys the will of the new leaders, especially in light of the continuous conflicting interests and aspirations among the military, social and military components supporting the new authority.
In turn, this point of weakness, turns into an added element for the benefit of prolonging the term of this authority because there is no enough time to fulfill the requirements to hold elections. In other words, the repeated obstruction by the most influential actors will prolong the time required to prepare the political and military environment to hold elections.
Internal and international positions
In contrast to considerations and dimensions related to the likely failure of the roadmap, there are declared stands at the local level that aim to ensure abiding by the election date. And here we can point out that a new popular movement has risen under the name “presidential election movement.” The first statement by this movement called for the inclusion of the outcomes of the political dialogue (Tunisia-Geneva) in the constitutional declaration to ensure abiding by the scheduled date of Dec. 24, 2021 to hold presidential and parliamentary elections without delay or procrastination. The same position was adopted by the National Federal Bloc. It is expected that more political and popular factions will push in this direction in the coming period.
At the international level, official stands range from “expected” statements such as big Western countries and the UN Mission in Libya calling for the need to abide by completing the roadmap by the end of the year, to pragmatic positions aiming to explore tendencies of the new leaders and attempting to benefit from the stable environment heralded by the new phase, such as the Tunisian position. Tunisian President Kais Saied was the first president to visit the Libyan capital Tripoli. Egypt has also signed an agreement with Libya to facilitate the return of Egyptian workers to Libya. It is worth mentioning also that several countries have announced the reopening of their embassies in Tripoli such as Egypt, France, Greece and Malta.
In contrast, the Russian stand reflects a state of wait and see without rushing to support the new situation in Libya. Maria Zakharova, Spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry said in March 2021 that Moscow calls for an all-inclusive dialogue involving representatives of all regions and influential political forces. This statement was echoed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov early April 2021 in which he reiterated that any settlement in Libya must include the supporters of the former regime and Khalifa Haftar forces.
We can argue that these statements are an extension of the reserved Russian position in the past 3 months towards the dialogue supported by Washington. Moscow thinks that this dialogue is trying to sideline its traditional allies from the supporters of the former regime, as well as, an American bias against the Russian-backed Haftar. Zakharova, however, announced the possibility of reopening the Russian Embassy in Tripoli soon.
In general, this international momentum in support of the new government in Libya shows a desire by all countries to support the new state of “political” stability in the short term. It also shows that no party wants to shoulder the responsibility of stirring chaos and toppling what has been achieved. This, however, does not necessarily mean that there is a final agreement on the rest of arrangements of the roadmap. In other words, the final status arrangements in Libya will be left for developments and compromises in the coming months. This means the absence of a genuine international agreement yet in terms of the completion of the roadmap.
Future scenarios related to the chances of the completion of the roadmap in Libya depend on the impact of a number of the following factors:
In light of these factors, we can point to a number of likely scenarios that might happen on the scheduled date of elections by the end of this year:
First scenario: Holding elections: In this scenario, elections are held on the scheduled date after agreeing on a constitutional base. The constitution itself, however, will be postponed until after the election of a new president and parliament. This scenario might have a good chance if the incumbent government fails to provide a proof of its ability to deal with the most intricate issues, such as dismantling militias, unifying the military establishment, expelling foreign fighters and the war on terrorism. Regarding the latter, it is worth mentioning that Dbeibah enjoys the support of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in addition to what is known as the Mufti Movement; two of the most extremist groups among the Libyan political factions. This means that Dbeibah is not the ideal partner in the war on terrorism.
Additionally, the U.S insistence to proceed with implementing the roadmap basically reflects a wish by the Biden administration to “clean up” the Libyan political landscape from the political elite that has dominated the scene for years. The persistence of the crisis has served their personal interests as those same political forces were too flexible in building their external alliances which clearly contributed to the rise of Moscow’s influence in Libya and generated more chaos in the political and military scene in the country. Achieving “personal gains” has always been seen by the U.N mission and other international officials as the main motive for various domestic actors engaged in the conflict over the past years. To protect the political process from those figures, there is a need to adhere to the inception of parliamentary and Presidential elections that will surely keep them out the process, particularly given the decline in their popularity due to difficult living conditions, rampant corruption, and deteriorating security situation in the country over the past years.
There will be probably a basic precondition that can ensure the implementation of this scenario. In other words, the U.S should firmly punish those actors that disrupt the political process and provide an intelligence support with the aim of pitting tribes in Eastern Libya against Marshal Haftar. There will be a need to take advantage of the growing public anger in some areas at some controversial security activities carried out by pro-Haftar forces that have gained increasing attention politically and in the media for a while.
Second scenario: The government remains in office. In this scenario, Dbeibeh’s government will be able to stay in office for more than the remaining nine months until the end of the year. This scenario seems to replicate the experience of Al-Sarraj’s government as both governments tend to capitalize on the political crises to prolong the transitional period and make the inception of elections even harder.
The realization of this scenario is contingent on the ability of the House of Representatives and the High Council of State to hinder these attempts to come up with a constitutional rule for holding elections. This will also depend on the persistence of the U.S-Russian conflict in the country but at a low-intensity level where there is a common interest to keep the current government in office, and when it is not possible to put things in order to reach new and stable constitutional provisions that ensure a final sharing of interests of both sides in Libya. Moreover, another key precondition for this scenario to happen is the lack of any substantial progress in the work of 5+5 committee on the military domain, particularly regarding the unification of the military establishment in the country or the withdrawal of all mercenaries from Libya. This issue receives special attention from the U.S. In case these military deliberations fail, it will be difficult to reach final arrangements that can ensure political stability and security with the lack of a unified military establishment that operates under the command of an elected president.
The chances of this scenario to happen rise by the increasing number of the beneficiary actors of this situation, particularly the House of Representatives and the High Council of State, which are the two parties primarily concerned with agreeing on a constitutional norm for elections and can raise more obstacles in this regard. Moreover, there are the parties that are currently engaged in the government who are banned from participating in coming elections, not to mention the military entities that are targeted by the U.S, including Marshal Haftar and pro-Russia mercenaries.
Third scenario: Return to division: this scenario envisages that elections are not held in their scheduled date on December 24, 2021 for constitutional, political or security considerations. According to this scenario, the end of the government’s term in office is used as a pretext to return to division in the country through declaring the establishment of a parallel government in Eastern Libya once again, particularly with the existence of accumulative institutional experience in the Eastern part of the country. It is worth noting that the General Headquarters adopted a similar decision in December 2017 when it announced the end of Al-Skhairat agreement, and that the accord government’s one-year term in office was renewable once. We have to note as well that counselor Aguila Saleh pointed out during the parliament session dedicated for a vote of confidence on the government that Dbeibah’s government will be dealt with after 24 December as a “caretaker” government, and that the vote on confidence the government gained is only limited to the period ahead of that date.
The realization of this scenario depends on the ability of Moscow to reconsolidate its regional alliances in Libya’s landscape, and the decline of the U. S.’s ability to contain the conflicts between its regional partners in the country, particularly Egypt and Turkey. What can enhance the chances of this scenario to happen, is a U.S decision to impose sanctions on forces in Eastern Libya camp particularly, Marshal Haftar and counselor Aguila Saleh, a step that can make them join forces to spoil the American moves in the country.
What can also enhance the likelihood of this scenario is the slow pace of efforts meant to unify the institutions in Eastern and Western Libya which will keep them divided until the end of this year. From this perspective, it can be said that granting a vote of confidence for the government by the House of Representatives aimed to not allow the by passing of the House and resort to the dialogue forum to obtain the vote of confidence. Therefore, the purpose of that move was to enhance and maintain the legitimacy of the House of Representatives in the first place.
Moreover, there remain some issues that are hard to agree on while filling some other positions is still controversial. Here, a reference can be made to the return of the position of the higher commander of the Armed forces to the High Council of State, the differences over the position of the defense minister, and the crisis related to the removal of the Governor of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) Al-Siddiq Al-Kabir, from his post. It is worth to note here that counselor Aguila Saleh issued a decision on March 21, 2021 to establish a committee in charge of choosing nominees for senior posts and positions of authority. That decision is likely to increase the potential for conflicting powers between the House of Representatives and the new cabinet. This will make it even harder to end divisions in the few remaining months. Some news largely circulated on the social media platforms by some Libyan politicians and activists indicate that Aguila Saleh will keep the approval of the budget submitted by the government contingent on resolving the issue of filling the positions of authority, particularly that of the governor of the central bank.
Fourth scenario: The situations collapse in the country. This scenario envisages the deterioration of security situations, end of ceasefire, and renewal of military confrontations once again. The chances of this scenario to take place depends on how fast the U.S-Russian conflict will grow and the U.S desire to clamp down on Moscow in all conflict zones between the two powers around the world. This scenario is considered as a reshuffling of the cards for the affected Libyan actors, notably Marshal Haftar in light of his diminishing influence under the new arrangements, growing public resentment against him, and the U.S pressure that may increase to target him in the coming period of time. As such, Haftar’s interests converge with those of Russia as the latter is seeking to consolidate its military influence in Libya through maintaining its current military presence in central and south Libya at first then trying to expand militarily westward at an advanced stage of military confrontations.
It is worth mentioning that casting a vote of confidence on the new united government was not accompanied by any military or security flexibility by forces in East Libya camp. Soon after the end of the parliament session on the vote of confidence on government, Wagner group redeployed its forces in Sirte while East Libya camp has not showed any flexibility on opening the coastal highway connecting Eastern and Western Libya. In contrast, Sirte-Al-Jafra Operations Room that follows Western Libya announced in the first week of March 2021 the opening of the Highway from one side. Finally, a reference should be made to the attack that targeted the parliament in Benghazi before convening the session dedicated for the swearing-in of the new government, which made state officials move the session to Tobruk.
Perhaps the most probable scenario is that Dbeibah’s government will stay in office until after December 24, with increasing possibility that this can happen in conjunction with the collapse of the security situation and eruption of military confrontations. These divisions and volatile situation can prelude the re-shutting down of oil facilities by Haftar forces because no agreement was reached on the management of oil revenues, not to mention the crisis raised by Al-Siddiq Al-Kabir still holding the position of the governor of Libya’s Central Bank. It can be said that it is hard to envisage that the current political and military stalemate can lead once again to a division in the country and the re-establishment of a parallel government in Barca region given logistical and financial constraints that can hinder the function of that government. Moreover, it will be in the interest of actors controlling the Eastern part of the country to be nominally under the umbrella of the unified government, even though the latter has no real influence or control in Eastern Libya.
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