A critical turn has been reached in the procedure carried out by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) since 7 November. In an election that was held on February 5th, the President, two vice-presidents of the Presidential Council and the Prime Minister were selected. They will lead Libya into elections on that will be held on Dec. 24, 2021.
The 75-member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) was formed by the UN and elected Mohammed Yunus al-Menfi as chairman of the Presidential Council, Musa al-Koni and Abdullah al-Lafi as vice presidents, and Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh as Prime Minister. This slate received 39 votes in the second round.
Another list that included the Head of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh and the Interior Minister of the Government of National Accord, Fathi Bashagha was widely seen as the most likely to succeed but lost in a run-off by 39 votes to 34. Of the four slates competing in the first round, none was able to reach the 60 percent vote limit.
Dbeibeh will submit the list of his cabinet members, which he aims to select from technocrats, for approval by the House of Representatives within 21 days. If the parliament divided between Tobruk and Tripoli cannot carry out the process, the LPDF will exercise its authority for approval.
It was highly difficult to select a transition administration in a complex equation involving foreign powers. What made this possible was the formation of a balance between red lines as well as the local eastern and western powers. Besides, it was recognized that manipulating this balance would have made Turkey and Egypt at odds. Maintaining the status quo was driving both sides to an economic collapse, and ultimately the alternative to dialogue was a war that would divide Libya. In the face of this, all sides had agreed to negotiations.
The loss of the Saleh-Bashagha duo created a plot twist for everyone. However, we are now witnessing a bizarre circus in which even the losers “look pleased.” The conclusions Libyan experts are drawing are remarkable, they all contradict each other.
In this black comedy, Turkey is pictured as a “winner” and Egypt, the UAE, Russia and Greece as “losers.” But when we get down to the details and the variable factors, it is best not to draw any conclusions.
Egypt, Turkey and Russia had an implicit alliance over Saleh-Bashagha. If this data is accurate, all three countries are victims of a plot twist. Egypt and Russia began to conduct the political process with Aguila Saleh, somewhat placing the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar in a second-rank position.
Bashagha, who closely worked with Ankara during the siege of Tripoli, also came to the forefront as a strong figure in Tripoli and someone who would look out for Turkey's interests. We’ve frequently seen him in Ankara, but he also visited Cairo and Paris during this painful process, somehow casting a shadow on his profile known as “Turkey's man.”
But this did not debunk the assumption that an implicit agreement prevailed between those countries. With his pragmatic maneuvers, Bashagha was able to curb objections against himself among the eastern powers, while Saleh could be considered by western powers as “lesser of two evils” who was able to manage Haftar. Here the question as to why Bashagha did not go to Moscow does not fit in the plot. There was a general acceptance that the Saleh-Bashagha duo was the expectation of the interfering forces in Libya. At the end of the day, this joint plot was rejected.
However, the winning list is not causing alarm in Turkey for now. In fact, according to Arab commentators, the result is entirely in Turkey's favor. In other words, during the UN process, Turkey fell on all fours even though it was not visible on the stage. This is because the Tobruk-born Mohammed Yunus al-Menfi was geographically elected representing the Al-Berka region, but he did not represent the eastern powers. He is also in a position opposing Haftar. Menfi, who belongs to the al-Manfa tribe, was appointed ambassador to Athens after being elected to the General National Congress in 2012. In 2019, he was sent from Athens because of the maritime jurisdiction agreement between the Government of National Accord and Turkey.
Dbeibeh has been the head of the Libyan Development and Investment Company since Gaddafi’s time, conducting relations with Turkish construction companies. They have business in Turkey. In addition, it is a positive note for Turkey that he resides in Misurata where many of the elites of the town are descendants of Ottoman Turks. He took the lead in the rebellion against Gaddafi and is also a pioneer in the hostility towards Haftar. In his first statement, he greeted Ankara by saying, “Turkey is our real partner.” He pledged “great solidarity with the Turkish people and state.”
But this warm salute does not guarantee the future of two critical agreements, on maritime jurisdictions and military cooperation.Those who believe that Turkey has won, naturally regard Haftar as the losing side. Such conclusions can be misleading. If Saleh had become President, it would have been a relative victory for Haftar.
There are other negotiations ongoing of which we don’t know much. The Arab Weekly claimed that Dbeibeh had gone to Rajma, where Haftar's headquarters are located, and reached an agreement. The weekly also claimed that Haftar’s representatives eventually voted for him. Haftar’s spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said, “Congratulations to Menfi and Dbeibeh.” This announcement was expected.
One of the supporters of Haftar, French President Emmanuel Macron has called Menfi and invited him to Paris. Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also announced that they would cooperate with the new administration after receiving approval from the House of Representatives. Greece has also moved to normalize relations with Tripoli. So, nobody is acting like they have lost.
It may be necessary to go deeper locally to understand the new sensitivities. These results above give an idea about the course of political trends, as one moves from those civil war-produced leaders, warlords and military-political blocs to the grassroots. The rejection of the Saleh-Bashagha duo, who represent the dynamics of conflict, is indicative of such sensitivity. Those figures who have inflated their luggage during the war might be buried in the first election.
Second point: Those blocks that have united in the opposition to Haftar are not able to become partners under the new administration. So much so that a portion of the groups controlling Tripoli were setting off fireworks because Saleh was not elected, while some others were celebrating Bashagha’s defeat.
According to Libyan commentator Emadeddin Badi, the Menfi-Dbeibeh list took the lead in the second round with the votes of the opponents of Saleh in the east and the opponents of Bashagha in the west. Opponents of Saleh in the east voted for Mohammed al-Bergasi in the first round, and opponents of Bashagha in the west voted for Khaed Guveyli or Mohammed al-Muhtasır. "The irony is that the LSDF has brought in a slightly more believable but disconnected new group, rather than forming a power-sharing agreement among the dysfunctional group of elites spread across the field," said Badi, more or less.
One quick assumption is that the elected list has an Islamist tendency. The focus is on Menfi and Dbeibeh’s connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is whispered that Dbeibeh’s cousin billionaire Ali al-Dbeibeh has been pouring money into the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, the reactions in the voting process give mixed signals. Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui described the alleged Dbeibeh-Menfi connection to Muslim Brotherhood as “imaginary.” Instead, he noted the relationship between Abdul Majid Mliqth (steering committee chair in the former Alliance of National Forces linked to the Emirates) and Dbeibeh. Another Libyan commentator Ibrahim Belkasim defined Abdul Majid Mliqth as the architect of the Dbeibeh government and the “voting engineer of the Dbeibeh-Menfi list.”
According to Belkasim, both Dbeibeh and Menfi are ideologically weak personalities. This gives them both a chance to have dialogue with different groups. It is also said that the Muslim Brotherhood have given assurances to Cairo, has supported more than one list and acted pragmatically.
The list, which has less confrontational relations with parties, took the lead in the second round, reflecting the Libyan desire not to leave the country in the middle of current hostilities. This elected list also means a “neutral” page for outside actors. It is somewhat an empty container that can be filled.
The newly elected have raised no serious concerns among any of the rival parties.
Although Dbeibeh has no heavy political baggage, he may have to be more accommodating because of some past developments. He could always be cornered, both because of the corruption cases dating back to the Gaddafi era and because of accusations that his cousin Ali al-Dbeibeh tried to bribe delegates in the LSDF.
What is more, the authority of the government to be formed is limited to the transition period.
Certain actors can undoutebdly disrupt the process. First of all, the House of Representatives will be functional as the approving body. It will initially approve the Dbeibeh government. Saleh still serves as speaker of parliament. The relevant process can be hindered through disapprovals, the new constitution, referendum, electoral law and other regulations. However, the acts of these actors also depend on the attitude of external supporters.
Egypt may choose to be on the safe side during the transition period and invest for the period after Dec. 24, taking steps toward gaining Tripoli-based forces. Russia may also have a more sophisticated policy, given that the United States places priority on its goal of minimizing Russian influence. In this respect, Russia can lower Wagner’s profile and focus on channels of political influence. The UAE may have to consider the preferences of the new U.S. administration headed by Biden.
Being constructive until the date December 24, 2021 is equivalent to investing in Libya's future. Therefore, even if they know better, this can be a period when actors hide their swords. Dbeibeh and Menfi’s success depends on many factors.
In this critical process, Turkey has been called to withdraw its military forces, but the new U.S. administration may avoid any position in favor or against this. They may prefer to leave such critical issues to the popularly elected parliament and government. In parallel with the political process, a difficult effort is under way to unify divided institutions such as the military, the police and the Central Bank. This is a minefield. Though it is a part of the ceasefire agreement, even the Sirte-Misrata road has not been opened yet. It takes so much more than just forming the transitional government to pull Libya out of the overwhelming conflict.