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Partition, war, or democracy: Where is Libya heading?

Partition, war, or democracy: Where is Libya heading?
7 min read
07 February, 2022
Analysis: Dashed hopes of long-awaited elections could give way to renewed fighting or parallel administrations, taking Libya back to square one.

While the world’s attention is focused on the Ukraine crisis, another hot spot of the last decade, Libya, could be on the brink of partition following attempts by the eastern-based Tobruk Parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), to select a new PM and install a rival government.

Since the elections of 24 December were postponed following the failure to establish a constitutional basis for the vote, and the candidacies of controversial figures like Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi and Khalifa Haftar, various political fronts have formed both internally and externally. 

Last week, it was announced by the HoR that the UN-backed Government of National Unity’s (GNU) mandate had expired, despite the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap making it crystal clear that the mandate is valid until June 2022. 

In January, the UN’s special advisor in Libya, Stephanie Williams, said it is still “very reasonable and possible” for the country’s 2.8 million voters to cast their ballots by June in line with the UN-brokered 2020 roadmap.

Despite this, the speaker of the HoR, Aguila Saleh, last week announced that the eastern-based parliament will be installing what they call a “new government” to replace the UN-backed and internationally recognised GNU and its head, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, on 8 February.

Another official from the HoR, Abdullah Blehiq, also called on the UN and other international actors not to intervene in Libya’s domestic affairs or try to oppose the HoR’s move.

In response, Libya’s PM Dbeibah said Aguila Saleh was taking the country to the brink of division, while Libya’s High Council of State (HCS) also called the move “unacceptable and inapplicable”. 

Williams, likewise, criticised the announcement, saying she wants the HoR to set out a credible political process as quickly as possible that answers the question that almost three million Libyans are asking: what has become of our elections? 

“The attempts by the House of Representatives (mainly those members controlled by Aguila Saleh and Khalifa Haftar) and more recently (those aligned with Bashagha and other western politicians who pledged support to Haftar) to create a new government is a way to confuse the situation even further and put an end to the aspirations for elections once and for all,” Abulkader Assad, a Libyan journalist, told The New Arab.

Dr Guma El-Gamaty, a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Political Party in Libya, said that there certainly exists a risk of going back to square one with another parallel government in the east.

“However, it will be difficult for the GNU to be replaced as the majority in the west of Libya, [which] will reject a change of government at this time and will insist on the need to hand over to an elected government,” he told TNA

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Both Aguila Saleh and warlord Khalifa Haftar are aware that they cannot legitimise what they have been trying to do in the eyes of the UN, the Libyan public, or many international actors and understand that the current GNU will be allowed to operate by the UN and Security Council as well as the international community until June.

“Saleh is rallying all tribal and political support for making a scene by forming a parallel government to twist the arms of the international community, especially those of UN adviser Stephanie Williams, and the only gain he wants is taking Dbeibah and Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi out of the presidential race,” Assad says. 

According to Dr El-Gamaty, Saleh and Haftar will not succeed in changing the PM as several countries and the UN will not recognise any new government. 

The role of Haftar

“Saleh has control over the HoR and there are few voices inside parliament that are trying to block his agenda. Egypt, France, and Russia back Saleh, and ultimately everything he does is in line with Haftar’s interests that help him to pursue his agenda too,” El-Gamaty told The New Arab

Furthermore, Assad thinks that the PM card is now being used by Saleh and Haftar to appease their new allies in the western region, particularly former interior minister Fathi Bashagha and former vice chairman of the Presidential Council Ahmed Maiteeq. 

“They (Aguila Saleh and Khalifa Haftar) find a way for themselves to infiltrate west Libya and probably a way to get Haftar a tour in Tripoli”.

A resident of Benghazi stands atop a burning heap of books authored by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at a local park of the city on 2 March 2011. [Getty]

During the pre-election process, Russia-backed Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi’s candidacy, along with the massive support for Dbeibah among the Libyan public, were the two biggest dangers Haftar faced. When you consider the fact that Haftar’s candidacy was enabled mainly by the US, France, and Egypt, it seems that Washington, Paris, and Cairo are no longer on the same page as Moscow. 

On the other hand, the notion of ‘infiltrating the west’ could be a possibility, as many believe that either Bashagha or Ahmed Maiteeq will try to establish what they call ‘new PM’. Another possible scenario could be to abandon the rhetoric of ‘unification’ and instead try to establish another distinct administration in the east that would enjoy the support of the UAE, Egypt, and France.

France will most likely not be on the same page with Russia following the threat of the Moscow-backed Wagner mercenary group’s increasing presence in West African countries like Mali. 

Before the agreement between Mali and the Wagner Group, which is owned by Putin’s henchman and chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Macron’s France was working in collaboration with the Wagner Group in Libya in support of warlord Khalifa Haftar.  

Therefore, it could be likely that Aguila Saleh and Khalifa Haftar eventually abandon Tripoli to those who support the UN-backed and internationally recognised GNU while trying to establish a different ‘authority’ in the east which would enjoy the wealth of Libya’s oil crescent, which is mainly controlled by Haftar’s forces.  

Wagner’s aim has been to increase Moscow’s opportunities in becoming a main player in the oil industry and reconstruction projects as, through Haftar, they have managed to position themselves in the oil crescent region and in a very strategic geographical area.

Now, following divisions between France and Russia in light of the Ukraine crisis, Aguila Saleh and Khalifa Haftar’s strategies seem aimed at enabling them to gain future bargaining power.

Those who submitted their candidacy documents to head the HoR’s ‘new government’, like Bashagha, Maiteeq, Aref Al-Nayeed, and many others, are all on the same side. This combination of former western officials and eastern-based figures will try to reflect Saleh and Haftar’s ambitions in the form of a widely held consensus.

In any case, they know that the new cabinet will not be able to remove Dbeibah from power because of the stance taken by the UN, the US, Turkey, the UK, Qatar, and the overwhelming majority of Libyans. So, they could instead cause a crisis of legitimacy while acting together with former western figures like Bashagha and Maiteeq.

“Saleh and Haftar are fully aware that they can't legitimise a new PM without either going to war again against the western region, a seemingly impossible choice now because Russia and the UAE have bigger fish to fry in Ukraine and Yemen, respectively, or using it as a pressure card on the UN to spoil the political process,” Libyan journalist Abulkader Assad told TNA.

Amid all of this, it has also been announced that Haftar has returned to his so-called position as leader of the General Command of his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

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This could demonstrate that Haftar will try to avoid political conflicts in the short term as he has already assigned others to conduct political processes on his behalf. In the meantime, he could focus on preparing his army for potential wars in the future and consolidate his forces. 

At this point, it should not be forgotten that despite the long-lasting crisis between western Libya and Haftar, the GNU under the leadership of Dbeibah has paid most of the wages of LNA members. So, Haftar needs to make sure that there is no crumb of sympathy left for the Libyan PM. 

The militias and leaders of eastern Libya have seen that they have no chance of getting enough votes to legitimise themselves. A third scenario could be forming a new parallel government, with Fathi Bashagha being the east’s PM, a so-called military headed by Haftar, and foreign affairs led by Maiteeq and advised by France, the UAE, and Egypt, as per the rumours.

In each case, what awaits Libya seems to be either war, uncertainty, or parallel administrations that will take the country back to square one in the future. 

A struggle between the west and east is almost certain to continue. Tensions between the US, Russia, France, and European countries could also exacerbate divisions in eastern Libya, with foreign powers engaging with rival eastern leaders.

Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat