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Jalel Harchaoui

Who are Libya's new leaders?

Libya's interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah attends a Libyan Revolution celebration in Tripoli [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 2 March, 2021

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The long read: Jalel Harchaoui dissects the fluid alliances and histories behind the new characters on Libya's political scene, as the country tries to chart its new course.
On February 5th in Geneva, 74 delegates previously picked by the UN as part of its Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), elected four figures to lead a new interim government.

The prime ministership went to Abd al-Hamid Dbeibah, a candidate whom commentators deemed controversial but never thought would win. The 62-year-old mogul from the western port city of Misrata has now formed a cabinet, which, if confirmed, is expected to sweep into power next month and remain in place until general elections take place on December 24 or, more realistically, later.

The mechanism used to designate the prime minister and a triumvirate - called the presidential council, featuring a figure from each of Libya's three provinces - was proposed by the UN as a means of easing Libya out of internationalised civil war. The goal is also to demonstrate that one unified government could hold despite the division that persists on the ground.

For months, until last spring, the eastern-Libyan-based commander Khalifa Haftar's military offensive - with the combat assistance of Russian and other foreign mercenaries as well as Emirati air strikes - raged against armed groups aligned with the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. And in June, the Turkish state and its Syrian mercenaries helped the Tripoli government expel Haftar's main brigades and allies from north-western Libya, a province called Tripolitania.

Now, Turkey's military mission in the northwest and the Russian force in the centre, are not controlled by Libyans, but they help achieve a balance of power. The relative calm resulting from this approximate equilibrium enabled the UN to promote ceasefire declarations and kickstart the LPDF last autumn.

The man widely expected to become prime minister was the current Tripoli government's interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, aged 58, also from Misrata. Last year, when Turkey's military intervention began looking like a game changer, a self-confident Bashagha embraced the Muslim Brotherhood's idea of reaching out to a preeminent member of the opposite camp, whose main turf is Cyrenaica, the eastern half of Libya.

Bashagha partnered with Aguilah Saleh Issa, the chairman of the country's eastern-based Parliament. Although the Egyptian-backed Saleh has never diverged in a fundamental manner from Haftar, he has often been a convenient civilian alternative to the stubborn Emirati-backed commander for actors outside Cyrenaica.

The Serraj-Dbeibah connection illustrates the resilience of some of Libya's pre-2011 elites through years of turmoil

The pursuit of an entente with Saleh traces back to the spring of 2018, when the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political party's Khaled al-Meshri, upon acceding to the helm of the High Council of State in Tripoli, began conversing with his counterpart in the eastern parliament.

The bet, revived amid Haftar's defeat last year, was that a conciliatory stance by Bashagha, Meshri's tactical ally, would give the interior minister an opportunity to rise to a higher office thanks to a UN peace process.

Things didn't pan out, however. The list featuring Bashagha as prime minister and Saleh as president lost to the roster featuring Dbeibah and his running mates. In lieu of a list dominated by familiar faces, including Bashagha, known for his anti-corruption rhetoric, a combination of relatively obscure names prevailed. A brief look at their past itineraries helps avoid oversimplifications.

Prosperous times

Among the 74 delegates who voted in Geneva on behalf of Libya's public at large was Ali Ibrahim Dbeibah, aged 75. He is one of Libya's richest citizens, and a strategic backer of his first cousin and brother-in-law the new prime minister Abd al-Hamid, making him an important figure.  

Libyans who knew Ali back then say that he acquired his immense wealth in the last decade of Muammar Gaddafi's era thanks to his privileges as a pre-2011 regime official. A geography teacher by trade, he was mayor of Misrata in the 1970s. Over the years, his efficacy as a shrewd administrator earned him a special proximity to the then-Libyan autocrat.

Read more: 
Libya PM hands proposed government to parliament for approval

In 1989, Gaddafi made him the head of the Organisation for Development of Administrative Centres (ODAC), a state-owned entity overseeing infrastructure development across the North African country. Normalisation of Libya's relations with the United States and Britain in 2003 allowed for a gradual removal of international sanctions, which coincided with a boom in oil prices. The result was exceptional prosperity.

Gaddafi's confidant

Gaddafi's dictatorship spent tens of billions in construction projects, the overwhelming majority of which were awarded to Chinese and Turkish companies. The Libyan leader let Ali Dbeibah play a central role in the distribution and supervision of these contracts through ODAC. His responsibilities may have included overseeing the kickbacks and other under-the-radar schemes associated with them, although no hard proof exists.

By 2006, Ali's status as Gaddafi's confidant enabled his cousin and close associate Abd al-Hamid - a civil engineer who studied in Canada - to accede to the head of the Libyan Investment and Development Holding Company (LIDC), yet another real-estate conduit through which flowed billions of public dollars.

In those times of plenty that preceded the popular revolt against Gaddafi, the Dbeibahs also built a business connection with an architect by the name of Nadia Rifaat, married to another architect from Tripoli: Fayez al-Serraj, the current UN-recognised president and prime minister of Libya.

Nadia Rifaat, being a close relative of Gaddafi's first wife, held senior responsibilities at the Tripoli governorate's Projects Office in the 2000s. In that capacity, she commissioned much construction work from the Dbeibahs. The Serraj-Dbeibah connection illustrates the resilience of some of Libya's pre-2011 elites through years of turmoil.

Switching sides

During the same busy decade, Muammar Gaddafi, in a bid to present his son Saif al-Islam as a potential successor, let him project the image of a modern and tolerant reformer.

In 2004, the regime enabled Saif to launch the sprawling endeavour called "Libya al-Ghad" ("Tomorrow's Libya"). The programme's declared goal was to liberalise the country on three fronts: economic, social, and political. The economic side of al-Ghad - particularly when it came to development and public investment - leaned on ODAC and LIDC.

The political facet of "al-Ghad" involved a thaw with the Muslim Brotherhood, a process in which a Doha-based political Islamist from Benghazi by the name of Ali al-Sallabi played a central role. Qatar has harboured and propped up Sallabi since 1999; he now spends part of his time in Istanbul. Saif al-Islam's Libya al-Ghad is how the Dbeibahs became acquainted with Sallabi and other Muslim brothers.

When the February 2011 uprisings erupted, Ali Dbeibah was abroad and hesitated for a few weeks as to which side to join. Owing to its substantial economic interests in Libya, Ankara's first instinct was to oppose the intervention that Washington, Doha, Paris, and London were advocating. Abd al-Hamid Dbeibah, who was in Libya, offered to act as a mediator between Tripoli and Ankara.

A sense of disenchantment and alienation is almost certain to stoke secessionist rhetoric in eastern Libya

The proclaimed thinking was to incentivise the Turks into sticking with Gaddafi by accelerating payments on existing contracts. But American insistence helped convince Ankara to join the NATO operation - and the Dbeibahs turned on their boss.

They abruptly dropped the promises they made to Gaddafi as part of the negotiations with Turkey and, instead, injected large sums in Misrata's armed insurgency. During a long, harrowing siege at the hands of loyalist forces, the city received aid from Qatar in the form of weapons and humanitarian supplies shipped via the eastern city of Benghazi and coordinated by Sallabi. The Dbeibah family has preserved this friendship with both Sallabi and the Qatari state until today.

The connections above often elicit accusations that the Dbeibahs will go to great lengths to defend the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology. In reality, they are too rich and powerful to be at the service of some Islamist project whether transnational or domestic.

The rapport with Turkey is key and undeniable but it doesn't rule out arrangements with other centres of power. For instance, Abd al-Hamid, as a private businessman, has had close links with Russian counterparts, including through Ali's dealings in Cyprus.

In February 2013, the Attorney General's Office in Tripoli initiated an indictment process against Ali, but the effort petered out. In 2016, the Tripoli authorities accused Ali of using public money to purchase real estate in Scotland during the Gaddafi years. Separately, a Toronto-based newspaper alleged that some of Ali's wealth sat in Canada.

Read more: UAE to withdraw Sudanese, Chadian mercenaries from Libya: sources

Since 2014, the Dbeibah family, including Abd al-Hamid, has funded Misrati brigades in moments of crisis, such as the port city's 2016 war against the extremist organisation Islamic State in Sirte.

Ali's status as one of Misrata's most influential men has often enabled him to shape aspects of Tripoli's political and security landscape without occupying the front of the stage. But in 2017, when rival Libyan factions said they would hold UN-backed elections, the younger cousin Abd al-Hamid began traveling and marketing himself explicitly as a full-blown politician. But because of his image as a shadowy tycoon, his new aspiration was seldom taken seriously - until this month.

The man of Cyrenaica

Apart from the prime minister-designate, another noteworthy aspect of February 5th's outcome is the personality of the president-designate, Mohammed Yunus al-Menfi, aged 44, who will now represent Cyrenaica at the very top of the state.

The former member of parliament and diplomat, who carried out a symbolically meaningful visit in Benghazi by meeting Haftar there on February 11th, is known for little other than his failure to cheer the field marshal's various offensives since 2014. That means that the sole official in the presidential council dedicated to representing Cyrenaica turns out to be a relatively neutral bureaucrat with no political or social anchoring among Cyrenaica's most powerful factions.

Thus, a sense of disenchantment and alienation is almost certain to stoke secessionist rhetoric in eastern Libya. Menfi is not an Islamist. The absence of a polarising past lets the newcomer engage in politics almost independently of the antagonisms and fealties that have torn the country apart in recent years, and he could see his influence grow in Cyrenaica.

Reinvigorated by Saleh's weakening, Haftar counts on placing his men in high positions in the new government, but Menfi may be able to slowly erode this claim to monopoly as far as the east is concerned. Not by interfering in Haftar's armed coalition, but simply by embodying a political alternative in Cyrenaica while being able to spend time in Tripoli.

An Islamist takeover?

Mere moments after the outcome of the UN process on February 5th became known, an Egyptian member of parliament by the name of Mustafa Bakry portrayed the Dbeibah victory as a successful conspiracy by the Muslim Brotherhood. The interpretation peddled by Bakry and others is predicated on the fallacy that the Bashagha-Saleh list would have been a tougher bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood.

To be sure, subsets of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood manoeuvred behind the scenes to undercut the Dbeibah list's main rival: the roster that featured Saleh. But several other forces, including enemies of political Islam, lobbied and engaged in horse trading, too.

One such character is a wealthy businessman by the name of Abd al-Majeed Mleqta, residing in Jordan. Born in Tripoli, Mleqta has roots in Zintan, a small but militarised town up in the Nafusa mountains, to the southwest of Tripoli.

In the aftermath of the revolution, Mleqta supported the late Mahmud Jibril, a charismatic anti-Gaddafi leader firmly opposed to political Islam. Within that circle was a former banker by the name of Abdullah al-Lafi from the coastal city of Zawiyah, to the west of Tripoli. The self-effacing Lafi, who belongs to the tribe of Awlad al-Saqr, is known to have no sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Dbeibah, Menfi and Lafi all share an ability to depart from Libya's old fault lines

Thanks to weapons and equipment provided by Abu Dhabi, Mleqta's brother Uthman led one of the most consequential militias in the Tripoli area until a Misrata-led coalition expelled it in 2014. The debacle caused the Mleqta brothers to distance themselves from the Libya scene but their close links with the UAE were never severed.

When the UN's peace efforts began last summer, Abd al-Majeed Mleqta took it upon himself to promote Saleh's candidacy for the presidency, tacitly endorsing the Bashagha-Saleh play. In late October, Uthman Mleqta attended a series of meetings in Istanbul, according to a Libyan insider who helped organize them. Those sit-downs involved Sallabi and Bashagha, among others.

From there, many felt the Bashagha-Saleh combo was now secure and poised to win. Bashagha even went to Cairo in November. But at the eleventh hour before the final Geneva round, the Mleqtas switched sides - jettisoning Saleh in the process. As for Bashagha, not being part of the interim government allows him to run in the general elections.

Even before the UN-organized vote, Zintan's pro-Haftar military council and Gaddafist-leaning communities nearby, such as Meshashiya and al-Seaan, notified Zawiyah's elders of their support for Lafi as Tripolitania's representative. These clues, added to reports that other Haftar-aligned delegates, too, went for the Dbeibah list, demolish the notion that the forum's outcome was a winner-takes-all master stroke by any specific faction, let alone a triumph for the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology.

These officials' interactions with foreign states will be a more relevant bellwether for Libya's ability to find a sustainable mode of governance

Some Islamist leaders in the Zawiyah area could have been emboldened by a new government perceived as biased in their favour. But, by going with Lafi, the new government signalled an inclination to avoid partisanship.

Dbeibah, Menfi and Lafi all share an ability to depart from Libya's old fault lines somewhat. The same can be said of their running mate, Musa al-Koni, a Tuareg and former Gaddafist diplomat who will represent Libya's southwestern province in the new presidential council, a function he fulfilled in 2016 under Serraj before resigning in protest.

In sum, although Dbeibah is close to some militias, each of the laureates is better described as a civilian prone to striking quid-pro-quo arrangements, than to a warlord. What seems to be surfacing in Libya this year is a new direction, a different way of navigating the North African nation's fractured politics. This will come with its own pitfalls and potential upside.

Towards a different political economy

Abd al-Hamid Dbeibah "will try to get as much as he can," an unnamed UN official told The Economist. Alleged corruption in the upcoming government, a long-standing problem among successive administrations both in Tripoli and in the east over the years, should be rightly scrutinised. But in the coming months, these officials' interactions with foreign states will be a more relevant bellwether for Libya's ability to find a sustainable mode of governance.

A few days before the February 5th vote, the US ambassador to the UN called on Russia, Turkey, and the UAE, to cease all military interference in Libya. However, none of these three top meddlers is about to stop and walk away. Russia and Turkey - unlike the UAE, whose main motivation is ideological - are preparing to leverage their military presence in Libya to reap economic benefits in the form of big-ticket contracts in energy and construction. Such pressure from external parties could make it difficult for the new government to avoid a dramatic and dangerous spike in Libya's public spending.

Jalel Harchaoui is a senior fellow researcher specialising in Libya within the Geneva-based Global network Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

Follow him on Twitter: @JMJalel_H

This article is republished here with permission from our partners at Orient XXI.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.

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