After a decade-long catastrophic fighting, the country’s western and eastern forces take the path of reconciliation. But experts doubt it could end the civil war.

In Tobruk, the seat of Libya’s eastern rival House of Representatives, a new unity government was sworn in this week, with representatives from both the warring factions joining hands to govern the divided Northern African state. 

The new unity government headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah will start operating in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, where the UN-recognised Government of the National Unity (GNU) is also based. 

Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, when the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled, the Government of Nationa Accord forces and warlord Khalifa Haftar, backed by Tobruk-based political powers, have fought each other. The GNA controls western Libya, while eastern Libya has been under Haftar-led militias. 

“Under the circumstances, this can be considered the best available option,” Salah Bakkoush, a Libyan political analyst and former advisor to the High Council of the Libyan state, tells TRT World. 

During the UN-led talks between the GNA and Haftar-aligned powers under the Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), many analysts have expressed their scepticism that the Tobruk-based House of Representatives could be a political scene where a unity government can be approved by a majority vote. 

“The LPDF roadmap relies on one of the two parliaments, the House of Representatives, to endorse the new unity government. But the parliament is divided and has not met with the legally required quorum for years,” wrote Wolfram Lacher, a Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), and Emadeddin Badi, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Program, in a report dated February.   

In January, Imad Atoui, a political analyst on Libyan politics, believed that “the political resolution will never take place” in the war-torn country. “As I had said previously, those who are holding the banner of political resolution are just mistaken,” he said in the January interview with TRT World. 

But last week the parliament convened to process the confidence vote for the new unity government. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved the new government in a landslide 132-2 vote. 

Many analysts, including Lacher and Badi, also thought that Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the House of Representatives, an occasional ally of Haftar, would block the approval of the new government. 

But Saleh appeared to be jubilant after the vote for his own reasons. 

Aguila Saleh, the speaker of House of Representatives, attends a session to discuss approving new unity government, in Sirte, Libya March 8, 2021.
Aguila Saleh, the speaker of House of Representatives, attends a session to discuss approving new unity government, in Sirte, Libya March 8, 2021. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters)

"This is a historic day for the House Representatives. The mandate of the government will last until December 24 when the presidential and legislative elections are held," Saleh said. 

Fayez al Sarraj, the head of the GNA, despite having fierce political differences with Saleh, also praised the approval of the new unity government. Today Sarraj handed over power to the new Prime Minister Dbeibah with an official ceremony in Tripoli. 

"What has happened today is an important step to end infighting and division, and we call on all to cooperate and unite for the sake of Libya and its renaissance," Sarraj said in a statement. 

The prospects of the unity government 

The new government’s head Dbeibah is a businessman and has worked under the former Gaddafi government, being one of the richest people in Libya. Dbeibah appears to have credentials from opposing sides, a rare thing for any politician, in Libya. 

But experts like Bakkoush, the Libyan analyst, doubt that the new unity government, which has a one-year term, could address the country’s devastating civil war. During the conflict, Libya’s competing regional political elites have tried to protect their respective interests by aligning with different foreign powers. 

“No government can address the underlying causes of the conflict in Libya within five years let alone one that theoretically will be around for a year or less,” Bakkoush says.

“While the formation of the government, a generally favourable domestic and international outlook, and a low risk of return to full military conflict in the short term are positive elements, the situation remains fragile politically and militarily,” he adds.  

“Already responsible parties have failed to meet a deadline for a legal framework for the 24 December 2021 elections and the 5+5 joint military committee has failed to meet the 90-day deadline for ejecting foreign mercenaries and is unable to open the major coastal highway which connects over 85 percent of Libyan cities and population,” Bakkous explains. 

There is a definite spoiler for any political solution: Haftar, a 76-year old renegade general and a US citizen with a CIA past, sometimes gives the impression that he is playing a part in a high-budget Hollywood movie. 

Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar is pictured, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017.
Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar is pictured, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017. (Esam Omran Al-Fetor / Reuters Archive)

“Haftar cannot afford to wholeheartedly accept the new executive’s authority; he needs enemies in western Libya to retain his control over the east,” wrote Lacher and Badi. 

“Haftar could maintain an ambivalent attitude towards the new body, occasionally veering towards open hostility, while maximally exploiting the opportunities the new structure offers,” they added. 

“There are still armed groups like Haftar’s militias and Wagner [Russian mercenaries] and some tribes that means there is no trust, and the war is only waiting for a green light to start if the political resolution fails,” Atoui tells TRT World. 

Dynamics of the unity government

Experts point out several important dynamics to explain why warring parties have reached a consensus to form a unity government. 

One of the main reasons is Haftar’s defeat in the vicinity of Tripoli, where the warlord felt that his victory was imminent. But after months of siege of the capital, Turkey came to rescue the UN-backed government in June, helping the GNA defeat the warlord. Dbeibah praised Turkey's Libya policy, promising to keep ties tight. 

Haftar’s loss has appeared to persuade Tobruk-based political forces that they can’t win the civil war, so peace might be a better option to protect their status. 

In addition, the civil war has exhausted both the Libyan public and state, which urgently needs normalisation to address growing economic and social issues. 

“The Libyan parties’ realisation that they have reached a military stalemate and the public’s utter exhaustion are important factors,” says Bakkoush, referring to dynamics of the unity government. 

Bakkoush also thinks the new US administration also had an effect. “Change in the American administration which induced major regional and international players to positively change their position on Libya,” he says. 

Atoui agrees with Bakkoush. “The current resolution is taking place just because the US interfered, and we have seen a big role of the US embassy in Libya,” he says. 

There are also regional factors, ranging from the Gulf normalisation between Qatar and Saudi-UAE-led bloc, to the Turkey-Egypt rapprochement,  which has recently appeared to de-escalate tensions across the region. 

While Turkey and Qatar have backed the GNA, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia have supported Haftar and Tobruk-based political forces. 

“All foreigner actors are presented in this government,” Atoui says. 

Source: TRT World