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Libya: Haftar and Muslim Brotherhood big losers of new government

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Thursday, 18 March 2021 09:29

Libyan Marshal Khalifa Haftar. © REUTERS / Costas Baltas

In Libya's new interim government, voted in on 10 March, Khalifa Haftar and the Muslim Brotherhood are poorly represented, while prime minister Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba has managed to strengthen his position.

This marks a turning point in the Libyan political landscape. Torn apart since 2015 between the western camp, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the eastern camp, under Khalifa Haftar’s control, Libya is finally regaining a semblance of unity in the composition of its new government.

On 10 March in Sirte, Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba managed to win the vote of confidence held in the House of Representatives. This trial by fire was passed successfully before the 19 March deadline, of which only two government ministers voted against and 36 were absent.

Obtaining the approval of the elected representatives from the east was not easy, but the Prime Minister’s plan worked. “The composition of the government illustrates that it is the product of a broad coalition of interests.  In this sense it very much represents a power sharing formula,” says Tim Eaton, a researcher for the think-tank Chatham House. “It also directly advocates a form of what is known as muhassasa, or quotas, i.e. Dabaiba’s government has sought to distribute positions among interest groups and locales.”

Composed of two deputy prime ministers, 35 ministers and six ministers of state, this new government offers a balanced representation of the three Libyan regions: Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south. “This is one of the keys to Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba’s success in convincing government ministers to validate his list,” says Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan affairs specialist and co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting. “But it also seems clear that Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba has managed to rally support from key players, including Aguila Saleh and Khalifa Haftar,” he says.

Aguila Saleh overrules Haftar

Even though pro-Haftar deputies approved the government list, Haftar has nonetheless lost big time. The strong man of the east did not succeed in placing his men in strategic government positions. He fought hard behind the scenes to obtain the role of minister of defence, but this job remained – in the end – in Dabaiba’s hands. This decision allows the prime minister to avoid alienating one of the Libyan camps, as this position was also requested by the various Islamist factions.

However, according to Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, Dabaiba will probably leave the field open to Haftar. “The absence of a Minister of Defence will allow Haftar to maintain his military supremacy in the East, even if it is increasingly challenged by internal actors in Cyrenaica,” he says.

Haftar suffered another setback. His candidate for deputy prime minister, Saqr Bujwari, the mayor of Benghazi, lost at the last minute. Initially included in the government list drawn up by Dabaiba, Bujwari was dropped in favour of Hussein Al Qatrani, who is close to Aguila Saleh. Dabaiba granted this favour to the speaker of the House of Representatives in order to facilitate the validation of his government by Parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood weakened

Pillars of former prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s government, the Muslim Brotherhood is less represented in this new formation. “From 2011 to 2016, Dabaiba was mainly associated with the Misrata revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Harchaoui.

“But this year, in order to come to power, he ignored his usual friends, focusing instead on seducing their enemies: the eastern factions, the Qaddafists, the Zintanis, the Fezzazna of the south, etc.,” he says. According to Harchaoui, “Dabaiba has especially made efforts to reassure, please and seduce the anti-Muslim Brotherhood camp in eastern Libya and in a part of Tripolitania.”

The Muslim Brotherhood also emerged divided after the prime minister’s last election. A large part of them had voted for minister of the interior Fathi Bachagha, rather than for al-Dabaiba. However, the latter still has the support of the Islamist preacher Ali al-Sallabi, close to the Dabaiba family.

The prime minister has thus undoubtedly been strengthened by this first test. Perceived as ingenious and calculating by connoisseurs of Libyan political circles, Dabaiba has formed a weak government composed of ineffective government ministers. As a result, he will have the upper hand when it comes to introducing his policies. His main objective, according to Harchaoui, will be “to focus on reconstruction efforts in general, as this is his primary job. And Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba believes that it is the Lybian population’s top priority.”

However, there is a shadow over the prime minister’s head. He has been accused of bribing several members of the Forum de Dialogue Politique Libyen (LPDF), in order to secure their votes on 5 February. The UN Panel of Experts is due to publish a report on this subject within the next few days, which may call into question al-Dababai’s legitimacy.

Honeymoon with Ankara, Moscow and Cairo

Beyond Libya’s borders, Dabaiba’s political strategy has seduced foreign countries intervening in Libya. “Egypt, Turkey and Russia are satisfied with Dabaiba,” says Eljarh. He cultivated his relationship with Russia, which he had already visited several times. But he was especially quick to spare Egypt, which had supported Haftar. The prime minister made his first trip abroad to Cairo on 18 February, for a very symbolic visit.

This reconciliation does not prevent Dabaiba from guaranteeing Turkey’s interests. An influential businessperson from Misrata, Dabaiba is very close to Ankara, an ally of the former Government of National Accord (GNA). According to Harchaoui, the Prime Minister will moreover “ensure three things that Turkey considers sacrosanct: accepting the permanent nature of its military presence; signing many contracts; preserving the November 2019 maritime memorandum.

The government has just nine months before the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for December.Dabaiba’s priority will be to manage the withdrawal of foreign troops.

In Tripoli, the euphoria felt upon the formation of this reunified government is already being counterbalanced by the fear of a resurgence of militias. The latter had welcomed Dabaiba’s seizure of power against Bachagha, who had instigated a policy to dismantle the katibas.

Eaton sees a risk in the composition of this government, “the power sharing simply serves to underpin greater expenditure by the state to placate warring parties and sustain a status quo.  This makes the negotiation of the budget, and the conditions attached to any new budget over access to resources to actors like Haftar, critical.” For now, the reunification of the Libyan government provides a window of opportunity to unify the country. The next major undertaking will be to unite the two rival central banks.

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