Postponement of Dbeibeh’s visit to Benghazi shows persisting divide

It is not entirely clear why an advance party for Libya’s premier was sent packing from Benghazi’s Benina airport but it scuppered his trip, for now at least.
Tuesday 27/04/2021
A file picture shows Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh in April 15, 2021. (AFP)
A file picture shows Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh in April 15, 2021. (AFP)

BENGHAZI (Libya) – The decision of Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh to postpone a visit to the east of the country, which was scheduled for Monday, shows  that his drive to highlight the progress of the Government of National Unity (GNU) towards ending years of division between east and west is still far from being matched by reality on the ground.

Dbeibeh’s spokesman Mohamed Hamuda said in a post on social media that the visit was postponed, without elaborating.

A Libyan source told the Turkish Anadolu Agency that “the visit was suspended after forces loyal to the army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar prevented the landing of a plane carrying security detail and government protocol officers.”

However, a normally reliable source in Tripoli said that an aircraft carrying protocol and security officials did in fact touch down at Benina but the passengers were told to re-embark and return to Tripoli since they did not have permission to land. Dbeibeh and his team were due to arrive in another plane.

Whatever the exact version of the truth, it appears that the authorities in the east took exception to a demand from Dbeibeh’s security team that they take over control of the airport and the premier’s security. Such a request had not been made for previous visits by members of the Government of National Unity including that of the head of the Presidency Council Mohammad Younes Menfi in February.

The block on Dbeibeh’s visit may also have had something to do with a speech he made last week in Tripoli to refugees displaced from Benghazi which were deemed provocative and sparked anger in the eastern region.

During a gathering the prime minister said “We will bring back Benghazi to the fold of the homeland”.

This was taken by some in the east  to be a reflection of Dbeibeh’s intention to target the Libyan National Army (LNA) and put the city under Islamist control.

In 2014, after over a year during which military and police personnel, along with civil activists and journalists were murdered by terrorists in Benghazi on an almost daily basis, Haftar formed the LNA and led a fight back. In the three years to 2017 the LNA battled against ISIS and its Libyan offshoot Ansar al-Sharia . The terrorists were finally crushed when their last redoubt in city’s port area of  Sabri was overrun.

The postponement of the prime minister’s visit illustrates the continuing divisions between the two rival camps, one of which is based in the capital, Tripoli, in the west of the country, while the other is in Benghazi, in the east, the LNA’s stronghold.

Libya appeared to have overcome these divisions after the  parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR) passed a March vote of confidence in the new Government of National Unity (GNU).

Following a 2014 Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Tripoli, the HoR and the government of Abdullah Thinni it had appointed decamped to the east. Thereafter Libya had two competing governments adding to the fissures in a country already plagued by chaos and violence following the 2011 NATO-backed ouster of long-time ruler Muammar Gadhafi.

The divide widened after the UN-brokered Government of National Accord assumed power and started carrying out its duties without the approval of parliament, as specified in the Libyan Political Agreement.  The situation worsened in 2019 when the LNA decided to launch an offensive to seize the capital, Tripoli.

Dbeibeh was appointed in March to lead a national unity government as part of a second UN-brokered initiative to bring peace and stability to Libya by reunifying state institutions and holding elections this December 24.

In March, the HoR, meeting symbolically in Sirte, midway between Tripoli and Benghazi approved the new government. Both the rival administration in Tripoli and Benghazi handed over their powers to GNU

Government ministers in Tripoli and other officials were able to travel freely to Benghazi. This raised hopes of an end to  the enduring division. Such visits to LNA-controlled areas were impossible for GNA ministers.

The first signs of discord between Haftar and Dbeibeh surfaced when the prime minister failed to attend the ceremony of handover of power from the interim government in Benghazi.  His absence was interpreted as reflecting Dbeibeh’s desire to avoid visiting Al-Rajma, Haftar’s headquarters. Another irritant was Dbeibeh’s posting of a tweet where he pledged to uphold the rule of law  following reports about the discovery of more than 12 bodies in Benghazi.

The main coastal road separating the front lines also remains closed. Misrata leader and spokesperson for the Joint Operations Room Sirte-Al-Jufra  Brigadier General Al-Hadi Drah denied reports the coastal road had been secured by the Hattin Brigade or that  mine clearance had begun on both sides of the Misrata-Buqrin road and Al-Washaka Sirte, in preparation for the route’s reopening.

Drah confirmed that Chief of Staff Mohamed Al-Haddad, who was appointed by Dbeibeh, “has not issued any decision” regarding this matter.

Disputes also continue over the distribution of oil revenues, as the HoR threw out the budget plans presented by Dbeibeh and called for its reexamination.

The parliament justified the budget’s rejection because of its size, which exceeded 100 billion Libyan dinars ($21 billion ). This it sees as disproportionately high for an interim government that will be place for less than a year. However, observers link the dispute to the struggle over sovereign positions, especially for the job of the governor of the Central Bank of Libya, which has now been led by Saddek Elkaber for over a decade.