The man from Misrata: Why Libya has two prime ministers (again)

If Libya is to avoid the same political dynamics that sparked its long-running civil war, European states that are invested in Libyan diplomacy will need to focus on establishing a new electoral road map

Libyan interim Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, newly named by the Libyan parliament, delivers a speech at Mitiga International Airport, in Tripoli, Libya February 10, 2022. Picture taken February 10, 2022. REUTERS/Hazem Ahmed
Libyan interim Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, newly named by the Libyan parliament, delivers a speech at Mitiga International Airport, in Tripoli, Libya February 10, 2022
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Hazem Ahmed

On 10 February, almost 50 days after Libya was scheduled to hold a general election, a new ‘prime minister’ held a press conference upon his arrival in Tripoli. There was only one problem: he had not actually been elected, as the vote never happened. The newcomer, Fathi Bashagha, was instead appointed through a dubious parliamentary procedure driven by those most responsible for the breakdown of the electoral process. Bashagha may be piecing together a new government for parliament to approve next week but, in the meantime, the sitting prime minister – Abdul-Hamid Dabaiba – still thinks he is in charge. Now, instead of progressing towards a legitimate government that can finally stabilise the country, Libyans are once again hostages to a showdown between two self-serving centres of power. This situation threatens to generate a new wave of violence in the capital and beyond.

The position of the international community will be key to what happens next. European diplomats should ignore the propaganda swirling around these latest developments and maintain pressure for a new election road map that culminates in an inclusive vote by summer. Ultimately, such a vote is the only means to find a stable political pathway for Libya.

There is nothing new in the ambition of Bashagha, a former minister of interior, and Aguileh Saleh, his key backer and the speaker of parliament. Indeed, they have been trying to take control of Libya since December 2020, when the United Nations began to implement its current road map in the country. This will be their third attempt to do so, after they manipulated both the UN dialogue forum and the electoral process. But they are not working alone. Supporting the pair are familiar international actors such as Egypt – which still hopes to see one of its proxies in power.

Bashagha and Saleh have mobilised an increasingly sophisticated propaganda machine to fabricate a public narrative for their campaign to wrest control of the country. This multi-layered misinformation network is making aggressive efforts across traditional and social media to shape how foreigners and Libyans interpret these political developments. Bashagha and Saleh have focused on replacing Dabaiba since he first bought power. Their misinformation network now portrays Saleh’s authoritarian actions and the decisions of a depleted parliament operating under duress as the only legitimate expression of Libyan sovereignty. The network also tries to delegitimise international policy designed to promote free and fair elections as interference in Libya’s politics – as the UK government can attest, after it was subjected to a ferocious campaign for tweeting out a joint statement of support for progress towards elections and, in the interim, the Government of National Unity (GNU).

Nevertheless, Bashagha’s and Saleh’s plans could still go awry. Their bid for power rests on three pillars: greater legitimacy than the GNU, a solution to the failed election, and the military backing to make their leadership a fait accompli. All three pillars look more than a little wobbly.

What Saleh and Bashagha present as an expression of Libyan democracy looks increasingly like a stitch-up

As the GNU was purpose-built to facilitate an election on 24 December 2021, Dabaiba’s opponents now claim that he no longer has the legal right or popular legitimacy to rule. Saleh advanced a parliamentary appointment process for a new prime minister, along with a constitutional amendment for a new, 14-month road map to an election. But the process was fraught with improprieties. The idea was fundamentally flawed given that, legally, it is the president who appoints the prime minister. And potential candidates for the role were forcibly prevented from travelling to Tobruk (where the parliament is based) to submit their applications. Saleh announced just minutes before the vote that Khaled Bibas, Bashagha’s sole competitor, was withdrawing from the race – a claim Bibas denied. Finally, the vote itself was over in seconds, with Saleh arguing that there had been unanimous support for Bashagha. The votes were never counted. And there was no guarantee of a quorum, as MPs reportedly left the session as the vote was called.

Members of the High Council of State, Libya’s upper house, are now lining up to reject Saleh’s claims that they supported Bashagha’s appointment or the accompanying constitutional amendment. What Saleh and Bashagha present as an expression of Libyan democracy looks increasingly like a stitch-up. Libya’s Presidency Council is now under intense pressure to choose a side.

On his triumphal visit to Tripoli, Bashagha was protected by the same cartel of militias he once tried to fight when he was minister of interior. Saleh clearly selected Bashagha for this role partly because he hoped that the latter – as a politician from Misrata who has good relationships with the city’s military groups, including Islamist militias and those that fought against the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar – could neutralise armed opposition to this attempted takeover, leaving Dabaiba powerless. But the opposite seems to be occurring. Key Misratan military councils and anti-Haftar units have warned that they would not sanction an illegal power grab. Meanwhile, other groups, including those aligned with the UN-sanctioned Salah Badi, forcefully prevented a special session of the High Council of State on 12 February from building support for Bashagha’s appointment and confirming the constitutional amendment. Bashagha’s alliance with Haftar and Saleh, who are responsible yet unrepentant for the recent war on Tripoli, has caused his stock to crash.

Dabaiba, unsurprisingly, is unwilling to step down. He announced that he would release his own electoral plan on 17 February – the anniversary of Libya’s revolution. If Dabaiba is determined to remain in power, he can draw on the support of key militias and his control over the Central Bank of Libya – both of which would be invaluable in any long-term struggle.

In the last two years, Libya’s political story has been shaped by power grabs in which Bashagha, Haftar, and Saleh have tried to take control of UN-backed initiatives such as the dialogue forum and the electoral process. They have only been confounded by Dabaiba, who exploits the loopholes these schemes create for personal gain. This could well happen again.

The only certainty is that the new confrontation will be bad for Libyans. Dabaiba, Saleh, and Libya’s other elites have far more in common with one another than they do with the people they rule. They are tussling over which of them is the least illegitimate while announcing convoluted constitutional processes as a prerequisite for an election – all of which are essentially ploys to maintain their hold on power. Stephanie Williams, the UN special adviser on Libya, claims that the only way to sustain the UN road map will be to hold an election by summer. Yet Libya’s conflict actors are stalling for time, in the knowledge that whoever is in charge after the process collapses could gain control of the country.

Today, states that are invested in Libyan diplomacy seem to feel an overwhelming impulse to mediate between the two sides, in the hope of reducing the likelihood of further conflict. But, if Libya is to avoid the same political dynamics that sparked its long-running civil war, such diplomacy will need to focus on establishing a new electoral road map and pushing both sides to accept it. As one could see in the aftermath of the UN dialogue forum, Libya’s elites can make progress if they are pushed into a position where publicly refusing to engage gives them clear responsibility for spoiling the electoral process, and where there are guarantees of broad political participation and future opportunities to challenge for power. Such an approach will require Paris and Cairo, Saleh’s and Bashagha’s closest international allies, to recognise that this is the only way to stabilise Libya in the long term.

Concerned diplomats will need to weather an onslaught of propaganda that characterises any constructive international process or attempt to circumvent Saleh’s machinations as a violation of Libya’s sovereignty. But they can channel the political energies unleashed by Saleh’s and Bashagha’s recent power grab into an effort to hold an election by summer. The only alternative is further instability and conflict.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.