On 5 February, after four months of eager anticipation, Libya finally appointed its new Government of National Unity (GNU). There was only one problem: it was not the government everyone was anticipating.
Instead, an unheralded group under the presidency of Mohammed el-Mnefi was voted in by delegates at the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). Diplomats are scrambling to understand how this last-minute plot twist in the UN process affects everything from the prospect of a sustained ceasefire and the general election set for December to the shifting balance of power in the east of the country, where Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s dominance is wavering.
Meanwhile, Libya’s elites are taking the measure of these political upstarts, trying to figure out whether to fight, isolate, or co-opt them. For Europeans who have invested everything in this UN process, the December election should remain their lodestar as they work to protect and reinforce the new administration’s unifying authority over the country. In doing so, they will have to accept that this imperfect government is the only vehicle for advancing the country’s fragile political process.
Since the LPDF began last November, it had seemed inevitable that the process would create a government led by the current interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, as prime minister and the speaker of parliament, Aguileh Saleh, as president. The outcome appeared so certain that governments everywhere from Paris to Moscow were discussing the next steps with the two leaders. Even Libyans had seemingly adapted accordingly. President Fayez al-Sarraj was digging in to resist the change as Tripoli’s militias were preparing for war against a prime minister Bashagha, fearful that he would try to wrest power from them. In the east, meanwhile, Haftar was preparing to try to control the new presidency.
Enter Abdul Hameed Debeiba, Libya’s new prime minister, previously best known for being the cousin of a man so corrupt that he triggered Scotland’s largest ever fraud investigation. Unperturbed by the serious allegations of vote-buying levied against him, Debeiba savvily exploited abundant discontent with the direction of the LPDF by playing rivals off against each other and cutting deals to hoover up the votes around the Bashagha-Saleh axis – allowing him to sneak a victory with 53 per cent of the vote. In many ways, this was a vote against the incumbent elite rather than a vote for Debeiba.
It also helped that the other candidates on his ticket were too unassuming to have any enemies but still ticked the right boxes. Mnefi was best known as the Libyan ambassador who was expelled from Greece after the Government of National Accord allied with Turkey. He has a cachet in eastern Libya as a member of the same tribe as Libya’s national hero, Omar al-Mukhtar – and yet he supports neither Haftar nor Saleh. One of Mnefi’s deputies, Musa al-Koni, has been an ever-present representative of southern Libya in post-Qaddafi governments. Another, Abdullah al-Lafi, is an MP who had previously played an important role in attempts to reconstitute the House of Representatives in western Libya, far from areas dominated by Saleh and Haftar. It is a positive sign that the new government includes representatives from across the country yet outside the current elite, given the effects of the deep divides between Libya’s robber barons and the territorial civil war they have manufactured to ensure the country remains in disarray.
The torrent of phone calls to the new government from world leaders highlights how much of an unknown quantity it is. There are even serious questions about its nature from countries such as Turkey, which – on the surface, at least – has much to be pleased about. From Ankara’s perspective, Bashagha’s ambitions made him an unreliable partner, whereas Dabeiba has strong business ties and other relations with Turkey. Furthermore, Debeiba seemingly promised that Bashagha and the Turkish-aligned defence minister would retain their government positions, thereby securing Ankara’s influence in Libya. Nonetheless, Haftar seems to believe that Debeiba agreed to make him defence minister, reportedly in return for the support of his allies in the LPDF vote – which he provided.
The shock outcome of the LPDF may have reduced the likelihood of conflict for the moment, as no one sees the new government as a threat. But this may not last as its intentions become clear. The overriding fear now is that this seemingly astute unity government – whose election points to Libyans’ desire to clear out the corrupt incumbent elite – could quickly unravel due to both its own weakness and the competing ambitions of powerful domestic and external actors (who may not believe that it will protect their interests).
Debeiba already seems to have made more promises than he can keep. But, undeterred, western Libya’s elites have spent the past week lining up outside his hotel like supplicants to Don Corleone on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Debeiba’s vision is of a government big enough to placate everyone – despite advice from the US and others to prioritise a small, technocratic leadership that focuses on the election of its replacement in ten months. Yet, given his many commitments and expansive work plan, Debeiba looks set to build his own patronage network (Libya’s political base unit) and to try to stay in power by putting off the election. This approach would likely involve a populist policy that produced quick, tangible successes – but it would rapidly fuel opposition to his rule.
The issue of Debeiba’s legitimacy in the east, or lack thereof, will hang heavily over his leadership. Mnefi, as the easterner on the ticket, will have to juggle efforts to please the Egyptians and initiatives to gain local support if he is to dismantle the parallel institutions that Haftar and Saleh have built up in the past five years. The difficulties of this are reflected in statements from the House of Representatives and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi that they will only support the new authorities with Saleh’s approval.
Europe and the United States should support the UN process by working to ensure that the new government secures the national authority it needs to prepare for and hold the election in December. This will require the closure of parallel institutions in eastern and western Libya, the formalisation of constructive roles for Turkey and Egypt, and the deterrence of would-be spoilers.
Establishing the right relationship with the new prime minister will be tricky, but Europe and the US can make use of the GNU’s need for international recognition through either a UN Security Council resolution or bilateral measures that allow it to replace the Government of National Accord. Moreover, the GNU will depend on its foreign backers to help it gain the approval of either the House of Representatives or the LPDF, and to acquire the technical expertise it needs to govern and rebuild. Europeans should use this to persuade Debeiba to form a small cabinet that focuses on facilitating the December election (rather than a big government that facilitates corruption), while pressing key local and regional actors to fall in line.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.