If Libyan stability were a game of chance, wise players would always bet against it. Unpredictability and foreign interference both contributed to the country’s failing electoral process. After missing the December 2021 election deadline, Libya finds itself presented with the prospect of even more political fragmentation as two rival prime ministers vie for power in Tripoli.
As happened between the years 2014 and 2016, the Parliament seated in Tobruk appointed a new prime minister. This time they designated the former interior minister, Fathi Bachagha, to replace Abdul Hamid Dbeibah as head of the interim government on Thursday, February 10. Dbeibah, who, in early February, was almost assassinated in an ambush, had been appointed interim PM back in March 2021. Now, he refuses to leave his post.
At the end of 2020, shortly after warlord and ex-General Khalifa Haftar’s failed attempt to take over Tripolitania, Cyrenaica’s strongman signed a ceasefire agreement, leading to a United Nations-backed peace process. As part of this process, Dbeibah was appointed to lead a new transitional Government of National Unity (GNU) with the mission of unifying the institutions and leading the country to presidential and legislative elections. Both were initially scheduled for December 24, 2021.
Due to the lack of consensus among the many Libyan factions, the elections were postponed indefinitely.
Due to the lack of consensus among the many Libyan factions, the elections were postponed indefinitely, weakening the position of the GNU. The alliance between Haftar and Bachagha allowed for the latter’s nomination by the Tobruk parliament (dominated by supporters of Haftar) as prime minister on February 10. Currently, it remains to be seen how the balance of power between Dbeibah and Bachagha – both born in Misrata – will evolve. Both have the support of very influential armed groups in western Libya. However, their alliances remain inconsistent and reversible.
Dbeibah’s Weak Support Base
Before traveling to Misrata, Bachagha arrived at Tripoli-Mitiga airport on a plane chartered by Haftar’s son on February 10. There, he held a press conference under the protection of the Zawiya militias and other Misrata groups. With the airport being just a few miles from downtown Tripoli, a recalcitrant Dbeibah could count on the muscle of the “444” militia and Misrata Brigades. Yet Dbeibah’s support is precarious. Should the Misrata militias deployed in Tripoli switch sides in favor of Bachagha, it’s over for the GNU prime minister.
Of course, the power struggle is less about personalities and more about control over territory, access to Central Bank funds, oil, and international recognition. Generally, armed groups and traffickers support Bachagha with an eye towards challenging the system implemented in Tripoli by Turkey since June 2020, which disturbs their interests. In other words, Bachagha benefits from instability.
Meanwhile, even as the UN continues to support Dbeibah, the Bachagha maneuver appears to have implicit political support from Egypt, France, and Russia – all unsurprising given the Bachagha’s generally favorable relations with Haftar.
The Bachagha maneuver appears to have political support from Egypt, France, and Russia.
Libyans, along with the rest of the world, had hoped that the elections would have established a new era, one free of bloody internal conflicts and aimed at working towards “democratization.” In reality, the Libya that was about to hold elections on December 24 lacked the conditions for stability – let alone democracy.
Conflicting foreign interests, intersected by local power struggles, create an insurmountable obstacle for a free and credible electoral process. Since Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s demise in 2011, the only certainty in Libyan politics is that militias will challenge each other – often with weapons – and occasionally find precarious agreements which inevitably break down. Ending this “rinse and repeat” cycle remains the elusive goal since no political arrangement has ever worked, regardless of whether it is backed by the UN, the EU, Russia, or the United States.
One of Libya’s main problems has been its lack of institutions. Qadhafi purposely avoided giving civil organizations any real power – except for the management of the oil economy. Without stability and institutions, and in the context of a historically divided country (artificially united by Mussolini in the 1930s to facilitate colonial administration), the focus on democracy is more of a hurdle than an ideal.
Libyan writer and political analyst Fayez al-Araibi has accused the militias in Tripoli “of obstructing the unification of security institutions as they refused to transform the management of institutions into professional elements that lead them.” Al-Araibi observed that security is an essential factor in achieving stability in the country, stressing that the former head of the Libyan intelligence service, Imad al-Trabelsi, has been accused of several infringements.
“Consequently, it is in the interest of the [obstructing] militias . . . to hand over power to the head of the new agency appointed by the presidency.” Clearly, the resulting political unpredictability and insecurity have hindered the efforts of successive leaders who have attempted to rebuild Libya. The post-Qadhafi system – or lack thereof – has failed to meet the Libyan people’s basic needs. This failure explains the rising popularity of Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi. Al-Araibi explains that tribal and community leaders see the former leader’s son as the best chance for national reconciliation.
The pursuit of an elusive democracy is preventing Libya from leaving the chaos behind.
The pursuit of an elusive democracy, rather than of stability, and the West’s encouragement of said pursuit, is the main obstacle preventing Libya from leaving the chaos behind. Upon first glance, the emergence of Bachagha may appear as another source of turmoil, and yet it could help Libya achieve some much-needed stability.
[Will the Search for Consensus Prevent Hostilities in Libya?]
[Ongoing Dysfunction of Libyan Politics Threatens Elections]
Bachagha’s Appointment Has the Potential for Stability
Days before the scheduled – and already compromised elections – on December 24, Bachagha went to Benghazi where he met Haftar, head of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) on December 21, 2021. This meeting – at Haftar’s invitation no less – was remarkable. Its remarkability can only be explained by noting that in April 2019, Haftar launched the “Flood of Dignity” campaign to liberate Tripoli from the militias and Brotherhood-dominated Government of National Accord (GNA) — the original internationally supported transitional Libyan government — arresting all members of the Muslim Brotherhood and dissolving the political movement.
That same December, Turkey’s ambassador to Tripoli met Aqila Saleh of the House of Representatives, the Haftar-affiliated Libyan parliament in Tobruk. Around the same time, a delegation of GNA members from Tripoli flew to Turkey and met President Erdogan himself. This series of unlikely meetings suggests that Turkey and Haftar have reached a tactical agreement to soften their differences in order to stabilize Libya.
Turkey has decided to change its game: it is no longer interested in staying in and controlling Libya.
Evidently, Turkey has decided to change its game: it is no longer interested in staying in – and outright controlling – Libya. Erdogan calculated that Turkey’s continued presence in Libya created a problem for fellow NATO allies (Italy, France, and the US) which are eager to increase stability in North Africa, halt the flow of migrants, and secure important energy sources.
This situation parallels that of Tunisia, where Erdogan maintained ties to Rachid Ghannouchi and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda, and where the political cards have also been shuffled with the dismissal of parliament by President Kais Saied. Therefore, a shift in relations between Ankara and the Muslim Brotherhood has occurred in the Mediterranean. And without Turkey’s backing, the movement and its political representatives have been weakened.
Was it a Coup?
Technically, Bachagha’s appointment does not represent a coup. Indeed, as in all democracies, the executive governs with the trust of the parliament. And the “institution” in Tobruk that appointed Bachagha is Libya’s official parliament, elected by the people in 2014. That said, the militias in 2014 were affiliated with Bachagha, implying that any objectives the new prime minister sets toward stability should be easier to achieve.
Meanwhile, following the indefinite postponement of the elections, Turkey and Russia – until then rivals over Libyan matters — moved closer, building a common front and incubating the alliance of former enemies Haftar and Bachagha. This is especially impressive given that Bachagha fought against Haftar two years ago. Despite this ideal situation – for what could be more conducive to peace than a mutually beneficial alliance between two former enemies – there is an unlikely obstacle: the United Nations. Indeed, the UN has made it known that it does not recognize Bachagha and will continue to recognize Dbeibah.
The UN’s position represents a real and counterproductive interference in Libya’s internal affairs.
In the current circumstances, which could lead Libya out of its darkness, the UN’s position represents a real and counterproductive interference in Libya’s internal affairs. Until recently, the government in Tripoli had the support of the UN, but not of the parliament. Today, the situation is that of one UN-backed prime minister and another prime minister who enjoys the support of the Libyan parliament. If the Misrata militia close to Bachagha has allied itself with Haftar’s LNA – the two single most powerful armed organizations in the country – the intensity and amount of fighting may also decrease drastically.
As for elections? They may or may not happen this year – or even the next. But there’s no denying the fact that perhaps for the first time since 2011, Libyans have more or less come together. Bachagha is in an unprecedented position to build a unified Libya, and the current scenario is one of renewed diplomacy. If the UN and the West care about elections and democracy, they should welcome these new arrangements as they will lead to more stability and only then, encourage a vote.
Bachagha has the potential to unite the country, even if some suspect him to be Haftar’s Trojan horse. The UN could be more productive and save face by encouraging a scenario that supports the Libyan parliament’s decision to back Bachagha while keeping Haftar at bay.