Can Libya’s new interim government break the impasse?

Libya’s new Government of National Unity (GNU) faces big administrative hurdles and a limited mandate.

Expert comment Updated 7 July 2021 Published 16 February 2021 3 minute READ

Hala Bugaighis

Co-founder, Jusoor Center for Studies and Development, Libya

On 5 February, the UN-assembled Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) appointed a new interim government. Intended to see the country through until elections scheduled for 24 December 2021, the appointment of the Government of National Unity (GNU) ostensibly breaks the political deadlock of the past five years. But what can the GNU achieve? And how should the international community respond?

A limited mandate and low expectations

February 2021 conjures images of the same period in 2016, when the unity government produced by UN-mediated talks, the Government of National Accord (GNA), was unable to overcome the institutional divides that had emerged in 2014.  And now, five years later, it appears that the speaker of the House of Representatives’ eastern faction, Agila Saleh, is setting conditions for the recognition of the GNU that are highly unlikely to be met. 

Like the GNA before it, the GNU has a very limited mandate. Firstly, it was appointed by a total of only 39 votes. Secondly, the candidates selected to head the GNU, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dabaiba and the president of the presidential council, Mohamed Mnefi, appear to have been chosen in order to prevent the selection of the current interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, and Agila Saleh. This reflects the fact that the process itself was geared towards a power sharing formula rather than based on the development of a policy platform or political reconciliation. 

The coalition of forces that pushed Dabaiba and Mnefi over the line at the LPDF includes uneasy bedfellows from across the political spectrum.  For spoilers of the political process, such as Khalifa Haftar, whose forces had sought to topple the GNA through an assault on Tripoli, the existence of another weak government may be a good outcome. 

Big ambitions

At the LPDF, Dabaiba spoke about solving the major problems that have burdened Libya. He pledged to end the electricity supply crisis, to provide significant support to development projects, to enhance public services and create more job opportunities. He also expressed a strong commitment to holding the elections on time and to focus financial resources on national reconciliation.

This was hardly the platform of a government that will be in power for a supposed maximum of nine months.

On the security side, Dabaiba vowed to support the outcomes of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission and announced a plan to establish security zones within the governorates, with the help of financial support from the government. The GNU has also announced a programme to help integrate young people from armed groups into the workforce.

Overall, this was hardly the platform of a government that will be in power for a supposed maximum of nine months.

What should the goals of the GNU be?

If the GNU is ratified, it should narrow its focus to a three-pronged strategy of facilitating the reunification of state institutions, improving service delivery and readying the country for elections.

When it comes to reunifying institutions, the actions of the House of Representatives are key. The current eastern-based interim government has said it will only dissolve itself once the House of Representatives recognizes the GNU. International pressure should be sustained to ensure that such a recognition is forthcoming in order to prevent a repeat of the GNA experience.

Recent progress on institutional reintegration has been achieved through an interim agreement on spending in the east and west of the country and resumed central bank board meetings. However, the elephant in the room remains the money that Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) receives from eastern authorities. If the GNU does not tackle this issue it will simply preserve the status quo, but addressing it will make the agreement of a national budget – a critical priority – difficult. 

The GNU should, however, call Haftar’s bluff in terms of his feigned interest in an agreement over the distribution of resources to pursue a unified budget. There are many policies worthy of consideration, such as the creation of a new chapter of spending for local service delivery and finally implementing subsidy reforms that could provide cash payments to Libyans. The GNU should consider mobilizing the UN-established Libyan Expert Economic Commission to help facilitate such policy development, particularly ways of improving services.

With regards to the scheduled election, a significant obstacle is the planned referendum on a draft constitution. Rejection of the draft will inevitably delay the election timetable.  Nevertheless, to prepare the ground for the polls the GNU must focus on solving the dispute over the national ID number system, facilitate the logistics of transporting materials and preparing polling stations, and prepare a security plan. Finally, the government should order the preparation of the new election law to submit to the House of Representatives.

It is difficult to see how the GNU can meaningfully shape the security track beyond pushing for agreement within ongoing 5+5 talks and developing functional security plans. Dabaiba’s plans to create regional security forces would require a new law to be approved by the House of Representatives. Such a major programme is surely beyond the remit and authority of the interim executive.

What should the international community do?

If the GNU is to succeed where the GNA failed, the international community must prevent a repeat of the dynamics that unfolded in 2016, where Haftar and the opponents of the GNA received significant international support from the UAE and Egypt. The willingness of the new US administration to apply pressure on the UAE and Egypt, as well as Turkey and Russia, will be critical to such an effort, particularly if there is to be any movement on the security track. 

The international community needs to help the GNU address the drivers of institutional bifurcation rather than simply treat the symptoms. 

The international community must remain committed to the roadmaps laid out in Berlin and at the LPDF. While targeted support should be provided to the GNU to help it achieve specific policy objectives, such support should come with tangible conditions and not carte blanche. For example, Dabaiba has said he would like the support of international organizations ahead of the December election and the international community should take him up on this. In terms of the economy, the international community needs to help the GNU address the drivers of institutional bifurcation rather than simply treat the symptoms. 

Failure to address the drivers of the governance split will see the GNU emerge as simply another means of distributing Libya’s wealth, preserve a disastrous status quo and create another ‘unity’ government that is anything but.