Libya’s Leadership Chaos: About Failed Elections and Shifting Alliances

Abstract: While the established conflict lines in Libya between the Western-based forces in Tripoli and the Eastern-based forces in Benghazi and Tobruk persist, recent developments have put their relevance for Libya’s future into question. Analysts are still trying to understand the implications not just nationally, but also with regard to the plethora of external actors with interests in the country. This brief aims to provide general insights on the Libyan developments, offering an overview of the key Libyan actors based on their bids for presidency, and weaving in the implications for foreign countries as well as international bodies, such as the United Nations (UN). It argues that the long-term consequences of the recent shifts in alliances are unclear at this moment in time, however the immediate political impact is clear: the Libyan population is once again caught up in a power play of an increasingly self-focused political elite.

One year ago, Libya seemed to be potentially headed towards a procedural democracy as a United Nations-led negotiation process (LPDF) had produced a government nominally representing all parts of the country. This Government of National Unity (GNU) headed by Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah was designed to be a transition government that would be replaced after elections to grant electoral legitimacy for new representatives and institutions.

Following these tentative steps towards unity, the country is once again experiencing internal power plays, with two rival prime ministers claiming power.[i] However, the alliances are reconfiguring themselves and the previously simplistic division of Western Libya against Eastern Libya is losing relevance. This is because Libya’s de-facto power broker of the East, General Khalifa Haftar, is now backing Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister of the former government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), and a prominent politician from Misrata, one of Libya’s most powerful cities in the West.[ii] With this move, Haftar might be hoping to break the western front against him, which is crucial for his ambitions. Furthermore, Misrata’s militias played a key role in eventually fending off Haftar’s latest offensive on Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in 2020. Still, this alignment is far from stable as it relies on the commitment of militias in both Misrata and Tripoli who often follow local incentives. 

The first signs of serious trouble for Libya emerged late last year, when the presidential elections scheduled for 24 December 2021, the 60th anniversary of its independence from Italy, were postponed indefinitely. Underlying the delay was a disagreement over eligible candidates and the ground rules for holding the vote. National and international observers were disappointed by the lack of willingness to provide the High Commission for National Elections (HNEC) with a legal framework to prepare the process. Another missed deadline left most of the presidential candidates in limbo and the possibility for a return of violence seemed to be slowly rising. 

Stephanie Williams, the current United Nations Special Adviser on Libya and previously the Deputy Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has emphasised in the past that the Libyan “political class should stop conducting musical chairs to stay in power and focus instead on preparing for nationwide elections to be held.”[iii] She even warned that the confusion caused by two governments in Libya, including potential security vacuums, might lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State in Libya (ISIL). The latter statement seems to be directed more towards international policy makers to take the Libyan developments seriously than based on a comprehensive, long-term assessment of ISIL activity in the country since ISIL has been regularly attacking, taking hostages, and killing LNA fighters in Libya’s south regularly. They have even managed some high-profile attacks, such as on the HNEC in 2018 as part of their strategy to always portray themselves as “remaining and expanding.”[iv] The former is a poignant reminder of Libya’s legacy of elite mistakes. Williams was adamant in her conviction that the eastern-based parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), needed to set out a credible political process to put elections back on track to happen, ideally soon. The current developments are a major setback in this regard. In addition, her own future as special adviser has been in question as Russia has been interfering (again) with mandate renewals.[v]

Confirming Williams’ fears, on 10 February, the eastern-based parliament (HoR) appointed Fathi Bashagha to form a new government and proposed that elections should be held within 14 months. The reason for Bashagha’s appointment and Dbeibah’s simultaneous deposing was that the latter had exhausted his time in office as prime minister, which was supposed to only last until the elections in December 2021. However, national as well as international politicians are divided over the legality as well as practicality of this development. On the one hand, Dbeiba’s government isn’t set to step down until June 2022, as per the rules stated by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) and he is now arguing that his mandate should last until a newly elected government is formed.[vi]

This situation confronts foreign actors with a new reality. While some speculate that the Bashagha-Haftar alliance can count on Haftar’s established backers (United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France),[vii] others argue for a potential reshuffle that sees Qatar joining this camp, but the UAE switching support to Dbeibah, thereby siding with countries such as the US, Italy, and the United Kingdom.[viii] Turkey’s president Erdogan is treading a fine line as he has  worked with Bashagha in the past and is supposedly fond of the politician. Bashagha has cultivated close links with Turkey especially during his tenure as interior minister during which Turkey intervened on the side of Tripoli and turned the tide of the conflict against Khalifa Haftar in 2021. However, in 2022, Ankara officially supports Dbeibah as he is considered to be currently the main guardian of Turkey’s interests, such as access to lucrative construction contracts.[ix] Analysts are divided in their assessments of what these developments mean for the potential eruption of violence in Libya. While some argue that this return to parallel structures increases the possibility of more fighting;[x] others judge the outbreak of violence in the short term to be unlikely due to the alliance building that cut across the previous lines of conflict.[xi] In addition, the external support of the Libyan forces is something to watch closely and is currently unclear. The potential impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on shifting geopolitical alliances remains to be seen.[xii]

The United Nations was the strongest force in pushing for elections in Libya and is now presented with an unpalatable standoff between two prime ministers. On 24 February, media reports said the UN still saw Dbeibah as Libya’s leader, which led to immediate criticism that the UN was unduly interfering in Libya’s politics by favouring one man over the other. Following this, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General (UNSG) issued a statement that did not name Dbeibah or Bashagha explicitly but resorted to calling on “all parties to continue to preserve stability in Libya as a top priority” and said it took “note of the vote” by Libya’s parliament to appoint Bashagha prime minister.[xiii]

This expert brief attempts to answer the question of how these developments are reshaping existing coalitions and alliances. Therefore, it also gives an overview of who are the current power brokers who first attempted to run in the presidential elections but are now partially resorting to deal-making in order to claim power and access state resources.