Cracks emerging in Libya’s veneer of national unity

Dbeibeh has tried to rebalance Tripoli’s alliances by improving relations with Egypt and others but recent developments have demonstrated that old alliances, especially that with Turkey, still carry weight.
Wednesday 12/05/2021
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah speaks at a rally east of Libya's capital close to the port city of Misrata. (AFP)
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah speaks at a rally east of Libya's capital close to the port city of Misrata. (AFP)

TRIPOLI--A new unity government in Libya had raised hopes the war-ravaged North African nation had turned a corner towards peace — but analysts warn that major stumbling blocks remain.

Thousands of foreign mercenaries are still on the ground, political factions remain deeply divided and the promise of elections in December seems to be slipping away.

“The honeymoon period of Libya’s GNU (Government of National Unity) is now long gone,” analyst Emadeddin Badi.

The toppling and killing of longtime ruler Muammar Gadhafi in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising plunged Libya into a bloody, decade-long struggle for power.

After a year-long battle for the western capital of Tripoli, in which the-then Government of National Accord (GNA) was decisively backed by Turkey, a truce last summer finally led to a formal UN-mediated ceasefire in October.

That was followed in March by the establishment of a new unity government to replace rival administrations in east and west.

Interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s administration is charged with unifying Libya’s institutions and preparing for elections on December 24.

But despite the rare wave of optimism, Libya’s deep rivalries are beginning to resurface.

“After an unprecedented breakthrough over the past two months, we have entered a new phase of doubt and a resurgence of divisions between east and west,” noted analyst Imad Jalloul.

 Foreign forces 

Last week, dozens of gunmen staged a show of force at an hotel used as a headquarters by Libya’s presidency council in Tripoli.

That came after interim Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush, from eastern Libya, angered many of the Ankara-backed militants and militias in the west by demanding that Turkey withdraw troops it had deployed during the civil war.

Ankara’s support, including the delivery of drones and dispatching of thousands of mercenaries, is widely credited with western Libyan forces’ victory last June over the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who had waged a year-long offensive on Tripoli with the backing of Russia, Egypt and the UAE.

The UN Security Council has since called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and mercenaries, estimated to number as many as 20,000.

The foreign fighters are a mixed bunch: Russians from the private Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, Chadians and Sudanese, but mostly Ankara-backed Syrian mercenaries. These mercenaries are unlike the Turkish soldiers who were deployed under a bilateral agreement with the previous government in Tripoli.

But Ankara has been unwilling to accept the withdrawal of its loyal mercenaries or Turkish soldiers.

Mangoush’s demand that Turkey “cooperate to put an end to the presence of all foreign forces” sparked an avalanche of criticism among Islamists and pro-Turkey constituencies in the west.

“We must never forget what the Turks have done for us,” said Sadek al-Ghariani, a  radical religious leader who presents himself as “the Mufti of Libya”.

“Anyone who denies their benevolence does not deserve our respect,” he claimed.

And while UN-led mediation efforts have made progress, “the security track clearly hasn’t caught up with the political one,” Badi, the analyst, tweeted after the storming of the presidential council headquarters.

A key factor is Dbeibeh’s reliance on “muhasasa”, a system of quota-based power-sharing.

“Underlying (recent) tensions… is the perception of several armed factions in Western Libya that their opponents are being enabled to achieve, under the guise of muhasasa to preserve peace, what they failed to with war,” Badi wrote.

 Cracks in the wall 

Last week’s presidency council episode was not the only crack in the veneer of progress toward peace.

Late in April, the government postponed Dbeibeh’s first visit to eastern Libya and a cabinet meeting in Benghazi, after an advance security team was turned back from the city’s airport.

While in theory Dbeibeh’s government has authority across the whole of Libya, Haftar’s forces still control the east and part of the south.

In addition, there is growing uncertainty around the December 24 vote.

“The government’s chances of organising elections after less than seven months are very slim,” said Imad Jalloul.

Analyst Mohamed Eljarh echoed his concerns.

“Significant challenges remain that could prevent the holding of elections and derail the country’s political and institutional reunification,” he wrote in a Monday editorial for the Al-Monitor website.

That risks “long-term entrenchment of foreign forces and mercenaries, further fragmentation and a return to conflict,” he said.

Dbeibeh has tried to rebalance Tripoli’s alliances by improving relations with Egypt and others but recent developments have demonstrated that old alliances, especially that with Turkey, still carry weight.

With important economic interests at stake, Ankara is unlikely to abandon its clientelist networks in Libya too soon.