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Libya's surprise election is bad news for meddling powers

By rejecting candidates backed by Egypt, France and Turkey, Libyan delegates gave a firm repudiation to politics of the past
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar (R) and the Libyan Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh in Cairo in June (AFP)

A strange thing happened on Friday outside Geneva, not a city you would nowadays associate with progress in the Middle East.

The internationally favoured candidates for an interim government in Libya failed to get the votes of delegates at UN-backed talks. 

Instead, a group of relatively less well-known leaders who, according to some, are closer to the ground in Libya, were elected to form a government and prepare for elections at the end of the year.

All lists of candidates up for election in the UN-led forum straddled the divide between east, west and south. But that is not the point. 

Saleh was Egypt’s man, and had been central to the project to install a Sisi clone as president of Libya. When he lost the vote in Switzerland, the initial reaction in Cairo was one of rage

Everyone expected the eastern-based speaker of parliament, Aguila Saleh, to become head of the presidential council. And it did not happen.

Saleh had quite a track record to overcome before he could present himself as the man who would lead Libya to peace and unity.

He supported eastern commander Khalifa Haftar in his failed attempt to storm Tripoli. He wanted the capital of Libya to be moved from Tripoli to Sirte, in the middle of the country, where Haftar’s forces now are, backed by Russian mercenaries. 

And Saleh was the man who assembled Libyan tribal leaders to hear Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi threaten to invade Libya. Saleh urged Egypt to intervene if military forces allied to the Government of National Accord (GNA) attacked Sirte, the city Haftar’s bruised troops pulled back to in June when his Tripoli offensive collapsed.

Saleh was Egypt’s man, and had been central to the project to install a Sisi clone as president of Libya. When he lost the vote in Switzerland, the initial reaction in Cairo was one of rage.

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Mostafa Bakry, an Egyptian TV anchor who usually reflects what Sisi himself thinks, tweeted that the UN-sponsored deal would be overturned by force.

“The results of the illusionary and illegitimate elections to choose the chairman and members of the presidential council in Libya, the least that can be said about them is that this is a conspiracy against the Libyan people,” Bakry wrote.

“They have restored the Muslim Brotherhood to the fore. However, they have forgotten that the Libyan army is the difficult number in the equation and that it would never allow this nonsense, to which they lured Aguila Saleh and then turned to plot against him so as to undermine the army and its leadership.”

In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood hedged its bets. The Brotherhood’s party backed Saleh’s list, while its movement backed the winners. 

After a few moments of reflection, Cairo changed its mind. Sisi congratulated the winning candidates by phoning up another TV anchor and going live on air.

Sisi has been losing faith in Haftar since his forces were turned back from Tripoli by the Turkish military intervention. Egyptian intelligence has even held secret talks with their Turkish counterparts about a way forward without the warlord. 

Saleh was part of the deal, along with a Turkish-backed interior minister from Tripoli, Fathi Bashagha, who also seemed to have the blessing of France. When they failed, the losing candidates in the vote, including Saleh, all made public statements in support of the new presidential council.

Unexpected winners

The unexpected winners of this contest have all taken a back seat in the tumultuous events that brought them to temporary power.

The new prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, portrays himself as a businessman and technocrat. He comes from a wealthy family in Misrata, raised in the construction industry of the Gaddafi era.

His cousin Ali Dbeibah was a confidant of the Libyan dictator and head of the Organisation for Development of Administrative Centres. Once the revolution started, Adbul Hamid was one of the main bankrollers of revolutionary forces. In 2017, he was part of a Misratan delegation that visited Moscow and Grozny.

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As every camp in Libya is divided, his candidacy was a compromise between two other Misratan candidates, Bashagha and Ahmed Amaitiq.

The winning list is headed by Mohamed al-Manfi, who is from Tobruk. He opposed the Battle of Benghazi and the invasion of Tripoli, and has always been a staunch critic of Haftar. 

The GNA appointed him ambassador in Greece before he was expelled by Athens after supporting the maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya.

His two deputies have had little to do with politics. 

One of them, Musa al-Koni, is the brother of internationally acclaimed novelist Ibrahim al-Koni. The Konis are popular in the south.

Why them and not the battle-scarred frontrunners?

Saleh, it appears, could not rewrite his own history. Libyan delegates were attracted to the least controversial of the two lists that made it to the runoff vote, and that was compounded by the enemies Saleh had made in Tobruk.

His former allies in the east were also upset by his plan to move the capital, where it would be in Haftar’s hands.

The election on Friday was hailed with a sigh of relief by the UN, and the outgoing envoy who fixed it up, Stephanie Williams, called it a historic moment.

Bad losers

As soon as the results became clear, there was a scramble for the telephones. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got in first with a call to the interim prime minister and head of the presidential council. But the losers in this deal also quickly attempted to jump ship. 

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Manfi and Dbeibah, and the former was also congratulated by the Greek government who had kicked him out as ambassador. How things change.

But these are almost certainly not the last words in the Libyan struggle for power.

Egypt has been moving away from Haftar, but his other main sponsor the United Arab Emirates has not. Nor has Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose mercenary forces are defending Sirte and al-Jufra airbase.

The losers of this deal - the UAE, Russia and France - have until now shown scant regard for democratically elected rulers with popular legitimacy in North Africa, and show no signs of giving up their plans in Libya.

Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah delivering a speech via video link during a meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (AFP)
Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah delivering a speech via video link during a meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (AFP)

Haftar, who in April declared himself Libya’s ruler with a “popular mandate”, is now outside any political process, let alone an internationally recognised one, such as this.

If the political process becomes bogged down again, Haftar could still bet on military force to impose his will, or at least to prevent nationwide elections.

Dbeibah now has three weeks to present his government for approval to the parliament.

This is not a given, and in his first interview to the Turkish news agency Anadolu, the interim prime minister was in no conciliatory mood about that part of the parliament which is still in Tobruk.

Dbeibah’s response was: "The choice is up to the Libyan people and the people have welcomed this government. I believe [parliament] is part of the people and I don't think they will opt for any other option."

On Saturday, the eastern-based government of Abdullah al-Thani, which is allied to Haftar, conditioned the transfer of power to the new transitional authority on parliamentary approval.

Many MPs who originally went to Tobruk have returned to Tripoli, in part in protest at Saleh using them as a platform for his own agenda. And they did not like the idea of the capital moving to Sirte any more than Tripoli did.

So, there is a chance that parliament, which is broadly representative, will now allow the interim prime minister to form a government.

As far as the attempt to end the civil war in Libya goes, this is good news, even if it has to be heavily qualified

But if it fails to approve the new administration, the decision goes back to the 75 delegates who voted for this list on Friday.

One way or another, there is confidence that this transitional government will get off the ground.

It is, however, temporary. None of those elected on Friday can take part as candidates in national elections due at the end of the year. Saleh and all the others can live to fight another day.

But as far as the attempt to end the civil war in Libya goes, this is good news, even if it has to be heavily qualified.

Force met by force

One final reflection: it would never have happened if Haftar had taken Tripoli by force. His forces got within seven kilometres of the city centre.

Then you would have got a Libyan Sisi, hailed by the international community (especially France and Russia) as the rightful ruler of Libya. The oil proceeds and arms contracts would have flowed into their firms' coffers.

The only thing that stopped him, apart from the resistance of Libya militias, were Turkish drones. Force was met by force.

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This runs counter to the received wisdom of political Islamists and secular liberal revolutionaries, who say that violence can only be countered by peaceful demonstrations and compromise, that you are playing into the hands of autocrats by fighting them physically.

They are right, morally. But being on the moral high ground would not have saved Tripoli from the clutches of Haftar.

The war crimes Middle East Eye documented in Tarhuna and that the International Criminal Court are probing would doubtless have been repeated on a bigger scale in Tripoli had it fallen. 

In the American Revolution, force backed by France was crucial to gain independence from the British colonists. In rational hands, it has proved to be decisive in turning back dictators and their colonial protectors. 

If the political process in Libya does succeed, a stable Libya would have a huge effect on its neighbours Tunisia and Egypt, both of which depend on the country to bolster their economies.

Between Egypt, Libya and Tunisia there is a common interest in settling this fight. Let us hope this prevails.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition. 

David Hearst
David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was The Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.