Libyans wave national flags as they gather to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2011 revolution, in the eastern city of Benghazi, on February 17, 2021. The uprising toppled longtime ruler Moamer Kadhafi, ending a long-lived dictatorship but throwing the country into a decade of violent lawlessness. Photo: AFP/Abdullah Doma

When Interior Minister Fatih Bashagha’s bodyguards traded fatal fire with Prime Minister Fayez Al-Serraj’s security forces in Tripoli last Sunday, the fragility of Libya’s current peace process was set in stark relief.

The gunbattle – characterized as an assassination attempt by Bashagha’s supporters, but as a communications failure by Al-Serraj’s – left at least one dead and several wounded.

It also showed how the streets of Tripoli – the capital of Al-Serraj’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) – continue to be dangerous places, where armed militias clash.

The incident also came only two weeks after the war-torn country had made its most significant move towards peace in years.

Back then, on February 5, under UN auspices, rival leaders came together and elected a new, interim leadership.

“It was a major breakthrough,” Sami Hamdi, Libya expert and Managing Director of global risk consultancy The International Interest, told Asia Times. “It offers a route no one had considered before.”

That route remains a highly uncertain one, however, with local and international rivalries still threatening to derail efforts to hold national elections later this year – and establish a permanent end to the conflict.

This picture taken on December 12, 2020, shows a damaged building in the city of Tawergha, some 200 kilometers east of Libya’s capital close to the port city of Misrata. Photo: AFP/Mahmud Turkia

Rival powers

Since the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the country has been split by a succession of civil wars. 

These eventually resulted in a division between the Tripoli-based GNA and the Benghazi-based administration of Aguila Saleh Issa, backed by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of General Khalifa Haftar.

The GNA is supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy, while the Benghazi administration and the LNA are largely unofficially backed by Russia, Egypt, France and the UAE.

In April 2019, Haftar’s LNA launched an offensive against Tripoli, fighting right into the suburbs of the city itself. 

Turkish forces and allied Syrian mercenaries then came to the rescue of the GNA, pushing the LNA back to the coastal town of Sirte. 

There, their counter-offensive halted, however, as Russian mercenaries, part of the Wagner Group, dug in alongside the LNA to block any further advance.

This military stalemate also combined with continuing economic woes across Libya. 

The country’s main source of income is oil and gas, with the oil fields mainly in territory controlled by the LNA, while the export facilities and refineries are in areas controlled by the GNA.

A failure to work together meant “oil production was down to around 100,000 barrels per day,” Federica Saini Fasanotti, Libya expert and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institute, told Asia Times. “For Libya, this is nothing.”

At the same time, there were significant changes in the international sphere – particularly with the defeat of President Donald Trump and the victory of now-President Joe Biden in November 2020. 

“This changed expectations, with the Biden administration more determined to reach a solution in Libya than the Trump one,” says Fasanotti. 

A major reason for this is that “the US is concerned about Turkey and Russia becoming permanently entrenched in Libya,” says Hamdi.

With no military solution possible, economic collapse and a fresh US impetus on the political and diplomatic front, the conference table became the most appealing route forwards.

Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Political Affairs in Libya Stephanie Williams speaks during a press conference in Geneva on February 5, 2021. Photo: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini

Jaw-jaw not war-war

That table was provided by the UN-convened Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). 

Headed by US diplomat Stephanie Williams, wearing a UN hat, the forum managed to bring together representatives from 75 different political and civil society groups. 

These then elected an interim government to lay the ground for national elections, to be held in December 2021.

The winner in the final round of that ballot, held on February 5, was a joint slate comprising Mohammed Al-Menfi, elected president of the interim Presidency Council, and Abdulhamid Dbeibah, elected prime minister-designate.

Al-Menfi, who is from the same tribe as Libyan national liberation hero Omar Al Mukhtar, comes from the east, while Dbeibah, a powerful Gaddafi-era businessman, is a westerner. 

Other members of the Presidency Council elected on the same slate were Mossa Al-Koni, a southerner, and Abdullah Hussein Al-Lafi, a westerner with eastern connections. 

While the winning ticket clearly balanced different groups, its victory was a major surprise, however – particularly as the favorites were the defeated duo of Aguila Saleh Issa and GNA Interior Minister Bashagha.

“They had been backed by Turkey, Russia and Egypt,” says Hamdi. Yet, after years of war, it seems the elections showed “the extent to which other Libyan factions did not trust Saleh nor Bashagha and so voted against them, in the form of a vote for Menfi and Dbeibah,” Hamdi added.

Major challenges

While off to a good start – the results of the election were welcomed by both international players and local factions – the new interim government will have much work to do before the December elections.

The gunbattle in Tripoli last Sunday illustrates one of these challenges clearly – the continued presence of multiple armed factions and militias on the streets of the GNA’s capital.

“There are four big militia cartels operating,” says Fasanotti, “which made money through the civil wars and fought each other until Haftar threatened to take Tripoli, which forced them to unite against a common enemy.”

With Haftar’s threat to Tripoli removed, these militias now lack that unifying foe. 

A further challenge is the presence of foreign forces, particularly those from Turkey and – de facto – from Russia, via the mercenary Wagner Group.

The US has called for all foreign forces to withdraw, a call echoed by Williams back in December, when she called the presence of some 20,000 foreign troops and 10 military bases occupied by foreign forces “a shocking violation of Libyan sovereignty.”

Yet, “there is no way Turkey is going to leave,” Hamdi says, “while Russia still denies it is even there, even though everyone knows it is, via the Wagner Group.”

This gives the two countries major influence over events on the ground, including acting as potential spoilers. 

Libya’s interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah (2nd R) meets with outgoing Government of National Accord (GNA) prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj (R), both wearing face masks due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, on February 17, 2021, in Tripoli. Photo: AFP

The challenges ahead

At the same time, some local forces aligned with these foreign powers may not want them to go. 

“Turkey has been keeping the peace between some Libyan factions,” Hamdi says.

A third challenge is that the US initiative has not come without a cost to neighboring countries that are also generally US allies. 

These include France, the UAE and Egypt, who have backed the eastern administration and General Haftar – to a greater or lesser extent – during the conflict.

Finally, too, with Menfi and Dbeibah’s victory more a case of a vote against the other candidates, keeping the country on course for December’s elections will not be easy. 

The interim government’s first task will be to win a vote of confidence in Libya’s House of Representatives – which is split into pro-GNA and pro-Benghazi factions – in the next few weeks.

“If they aren’t accepted,” says Fasanotti, “we really have a problem.”

Many will be holding their breath, then, in the days ahead, as Libya tries once again to move out of the shadows of its terrible civil wars.