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Libya: The Question of Legitimacy

After a year of optimistically talking about social development, political consensus, and military unification, Libya is back to drowning in the muddy waters of uncertainty. The political elite on both sides of the conflict are cooperating for the first time, not with the purpose to end the misery of the Libyan people, but to break down the current interim Government of National Unity (GNU) and thus halt the entire political solution process, so they can remain powerful for as long as they can.

On the morning of February 10th, a few hours after GNU Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, survived an assassination attempt, the Libyan parliament announced the installation of a new interim government, to be headed by Fathi Bashagha, who had served as a Minister of Interior in the former interim Government of National Accord (GNA). However, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh insisted on holding on to his position until the political solution process was accomplished by holding the presidential and parliamentary elections in June.

Dbeibeh, also, attacked the parliament for solely deciding to dissolve the GNU, without a public referendum or even consulting with the United Nations mission and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). The parliament’s uninvited and unwelcome decision dropped as a surprise to almost all concerned parties, on the local, regional, and international levels. The GNU’s term of eighteen months has not ended, yet, and the country is already preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections in June, in compliance with the political solution process, which was endorsed by the 75 members of the LPDF under the UN supervision, in late 2020.

The parliament speaker, Aguila Saleh, justified the decision by holding Dbeibeh, exclusively, guilty for the country’s failure to hold public elections in December. That is despite the fact that all the active players inside Libya, including the parliament itself, participated in deciding to postpone the elections under the claim of “force majeure.” Even more, Aguila Saleh claimed that Dbeibeh lost his legitimacy by running for president, in the postponed elections. However, Dbeibeh was not the only state official, on duty, to run in these elections. Fathi Bashagah, and Aguila Saleh himself, are competing over the presidential seat, too.

In addition, the biases of Aguila Saleh and a large number of the members of parliament, which is based in Tobruk, should make us question the true intentions behind such a decision. Aguila Saleh is a strong supporter of warlord Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces in the eastern territories of Libya. He has always been using his power, as the parliament speaker, to push the parliament to make decisions that enhance Haftar’s escalation against the legitimate governments in Tripoli. He even endorsed Haftar’s attempts to raid Tripoli by force, in 2019, until the Turkish military intervened on the side of GNA to deter him away.

When the GNU took power, via the LPDF, in March 2021, Haftar and Saleh congratulated the move; especially Haftar who had high hopes to be appointed as Minister of Defense in the GNU, and then as president of state later. Wisely, the GNU Prime Minister, Dbeibeh, decided to keep the seat of the defense minister empty until the Military Committee (5+5) comes to an agreement about unifying the armed forces in Tripoli and Benghazi under one national flag.

To avenge, Haftar and his ally Saleh started to level economic and security pressures on Dbeibeh and the GNU to make them appear as a failure government in the eyes of the Libyan people and the international community. For example, the parliament has been declining to approve the government budget, since last June, and Haftar launched more than one military action in the south, including closing Libyan borders with Algeria, against the will of the legitimate government and the Presidential Council in Tripoli. Despite that, Dbeibeh was able to navigate through all the hardships thrown on his way by the eastern rivals and bring the country to a state of relative stability, that allowed organizing for holding elections in December. However, only three days before the voting is due, the High National Elections Commission (HNEC), announced its inability to proceed with holding the elections due to a persistent state of “force majeure.”

On the morning of the same day when the decision was made to postpone the elections, Fathi Bashagha and Ahmed Maiteeq, two officials from the former GNA, visited Benghazi and held reconciliation meetings with Haftar and Saleh. It was surprising to see them together, on that particular day because, for years, the animosity between the GNA officials and eastern politicians had been very intense; it was not only limited to political rivalry but also reached the verge of a violent civil war. Apparently, in this particular meeting, some deal was made between Bashagha and Haftar to ouster Dbeibeh and seize Tripoli through a game of political manipulation by the parliament.

That is exactly what manifested one month later in the form of a flawed decision by Aguila Saleh’s parliament to dissolve the GNU and put Bashagha in the Prime Minister’s seat. Both Bashagha and Haftar have an interest in pushing Dbeibeh out of the political scene, as his popularity among the public has been increasing to a level that threatens their power. His potential to win the postponed presidential elections was very high, compared to Haftar, Bashagha, Saleh, or any other members of the political elite, either from the East or the West. In a local television interview, two days after the parliamentary decision, Dbeibeh said that Aguila Saleh sent him an indirect message that “if he wants to remain in power for another year or so, he should withdraw from running in the presidential elections,” but he refused.

All these facts should put the legitimacy of the decisions of the parliament in question. The legitimacy of the parliament itself as a representative of the will of the Libyan people is also in question. This is an expired parliament, that should have been re-elected, eight years ago. In other words, Aguila Saleh’s parliament in Tobruk does not represent the Libyan people, and thus is not a legitimate body, and should be regarded as such by the United Nations and the interested members of the international community, when dealing with the Libyan crisis.

Unfortunately, the shrinking interest of the international community, which is currently hyper-focused on the Russia-Ukraine tensions, as well as the shuffling of regional order and power alliances in the Middle East, are further complicating Libya’s political crisis. However, on the bright side, Turkey and Egypt, the most important regional actors with direct involvement in and influence on Libya, are for the first time adopting a similar position regarding the current political crisis. In two separate statements, the Egyptian and the Turkish presidents reiterated their support for the continuity of the political solution process and holding the election, rather than encouraging a third interim government to take over. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has quit supporting Haftar, as part of its efforts to fix strained ties with Turkey.

In the end, it is hard to predict what could happen with Libya, next. The two sides of conflict are miraculously joining forces against the UN-backed political solution process, at a time when the regional and international backers of the contending parties are busy with other urgent issues. Yet, let’s be hopeful that the current political clash may give a finite answer to the question of political legitimacy, that has been dragging Libya since the fall of Gaddafi.

Also, read on The Levant


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