Two prime ministers further destabilize Libya

The Libyan government is deeply split. The torn country now has two cabinets and acting prime ministers, but democratic elections remain a chimera.

Patrol of a Tripoli military militia
Tripoli, May 17, 2022: Members of a Libyan militia loyal to the Tripoli-based prime minister repelled forces supporting the Tobruk-appointed rival chief executive, who tried to take control of the government. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Two rivals, based in Tripoli and Sirte, contend to rule Libya
  • Unchecked armed militias are gaining political control 
  • Foreign actors continue to operate undisturbed in support of their clients
  • The country may be on the verge of widespread popular unrest

Since our March 8 description of Libya’s internal strife, little has changed on the ground, although much has changed on paper. The country continues to have two competing governments and acting prime ministers. In the winter of 2022, a coalition of parliamentarians in the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) – one of the country’s two rival centers of power – sought to exploit the stalemate created by the failed December 2021 national elections. In a session rife with irregularities, HoR nominated Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister in the former government in Tripoli, as prime minister-designate of a new Government of National Stability. The primary goal of the maneuver was to challenge Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, appointed interim prime minister of Libya in February 2021, and prevent his internationally recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) from ruling the country. 

Mr. Dbeibeh has shown no intention of stepping down, and no path forward is evident in the country’s divided polity with two parallel governments. 

The contender

Challenging Mr. Dbeibeh was a big decision for Mr. Bashagha. It required him to change sides in the country’s internal conflict after years of fighting his present ally, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The turnaround means forfeiting the political capital Mr. Bashagha had accrued opposing the marshal and his military force, the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA).  

It is not Mr. Bashagha’s first attempt to reach power in Tripoli. He tried to seize it a few times in the past, only to be forced to back down due to the hostility from some of the capital’s most prominent militia cartels.

This time around, he secured the support of one of them. The notorious Nawasi brigade clashed on his behalf on the capital’s streets with Mr. Dbeibeh’s armed loyalists, but that proved not enough. In May, Mr. Bashagha had to flee Tripoli after the headquarters of the brigade that received him came under attack. 

The armed cartels

These events show that Libyan militias are now influential enough to decide who receives the green light to rule the country. The strongest cartel selects the prime minister and his cabinet. All this happens in broad daylight and in plain view of the nearly three million disenfranchised citizens registered to vote. 

The leaders of armed groups are tantalizingly close to overt political power. Increasingly, it is not the usual well-known figures on the Libyan political scene who seem to dictate the rules of the game but rather their armed backers. In recent months, the power of militias has risen still more. They are no longer merely armed groups; their role is more complex and increasingly political. 

In recent years, the international community focused almost entirely on the political process in Libya, trying to achieve a peaceful and consensual transition to any form of democracy. There was no serious discussion about the disarmament of militias and their possible reintegration into civil society was left aside, primarily because the attempts to resolve the problem in the early years of the conflict all failed. 

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (or UNSMIL, a political mission created in the aftermath of the 2011 Libyan Civil War) supported the initiative of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum to establish a shared military commission and try to unify the different military realities in Libya. More recently, on June 20, 2022, a meeting in Cairo of the 5+5 Joint Military Commission produced no breakthrough. No clear strategy exists for disarming a population that holds more than 20 million weapons and shows no intention of handing them over to institutions.

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The Libyan people 

However, another variable in Libyan political dynamics can come into play: the population. On July 1, 2022, several Libyan cities became the scene of violent protests. In Tobruk, usually quiet under the tight control of Marshal Haftar’s militias, protesters attacked the parliament building, using bulldozers to break through the gates, and set it on fire. They demanded the dissolution of all political bodies, first and foremost the HoR itself, and the removal of its leader, the 83-year-old Aguila Saleh Issa. The HoR is the last duly elected political institution in Libya. However, even its mandate is now questionable, partly because the representatives appointed in 2014 were chosen by only 18 percent of voters. 

Another recent development concerned the leadership of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), run since May 2014 by a technocrat named Mustafa Sanalla. His relationship with Prime Minister Dbeibeh, and especially with Petroleum Minister Mohamed Oun, was never good and deteriorated considerably in recent months. On July 13, 2022, Mr. Dbeibeh appointed the former governor of the Central Bank of Libya, Farhat Bengdara, as the new head of the oil company. Mr. Sanalla protested that NOC was an independent entity protected by UN resolutions and international political agreements and refused to give up his mandate. However, the new appointee is already hard at work trying to end the oil fields blockade and resume crude production. 

The case of Mr. Sanalla will soon be reviewed by a Libyan court, but his position appears to be difficult. Mr. Bengdara, who ran the Libyan Central Bank during the times of strongman Muammar Qaddafi (1969-2011), has support from the United Arab Emirates, one of the backers of Mr. Haftar.

Chimera of elections

The Libyan government has become even more fractured. As of June 1, Mr. Bashagha has established his executive in the city of Sirte, which straddles Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and sits on one of the most oil-rich areas in the entire country. Mr. Dbeibeh, for his part, repeats the mantra that he will be the one to take Libya to new elections and only then, in the face of the results of the polls, will he hand political leadership over to the winner. 

Elections, however, remain a chimera since there is still no mutual decision on constitutional or electoral reform. The current Libyan political class seems to have every interest in maintaining the chaotic status quo where it can function without exertion and enrich itself on the backs of its citizens. HoR leader Saleh and Marshal Haftar are prime examples of this behavior. However, the same criticism applies to Mr. Dbeibeh. He has failed to deliver on any of his solemn promises as prime minister in more than a year – from improving the management of the constantly failing electricity grid to constructing badly needed new infrastructure. 

The foreign actors

Meanwhile, foreign powers, long present and influential on the Libyan stage, continue to operate undisturbed, delivering favors for their Libyan clients. For example, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates allowed Messrs. Haftar and Saleh to restructure their “army” after the war unleashed against the Tripoli-based government (of which Mr. Bashagha was interior minister at the time). That allowed both to remain in the political game and even secure lines of succession through their sons. 


Facts & figures

Foreign influence on selected military militias 

Militias and foreign influences in Libya
The map shows some of the armed groups that controlled major Libyan cities as of 2019 and identifies foreign countries that had an influence on these groups. No official militias operated in Tobruk, which was - and remains - under complete control of the LNA. Russia’s military and political support goes exclusively to Marshal Haftar and his armed forces. © GIS by macpixxel

Similarly, the Turkish militarily supported two successive governments in Tripoli, from Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (2015-2021) to Mr. Dbeibeh’s GNU (formed in March 2021). However, Ankara’s forces did not wipe out Marshal Haftar after his failed attempt to take Tripoli, even though Turkey was in a position to do so, as notes distinguished Libyan-Italian scholar Karim Mezran. The decision to let the marshal off the hook could be attributed to an assumed secret Turkish-Russian plan for partitioning Libya sometime down the line, as they did in Syria.

The specter of hunger 

Like many African states, Libya depends on wheat imports from Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Romania because its local production is by far insufficient for national needs – primarily due to the lack of investment in agricultural facilities and programs. In 2020, the country imported $246 million worth of wheat

Successive Libyan governments have done almost nothing to address the problem of drought and continuous power outages. That has undoubtedly weighed on the decision not to invest in this crop. However, a major crisis is approaching with the blockade of Black Sea ports; unless the ports open, the outlook is gloomy regarding food supplies and prices.



Regarding the coming months, forecasts for Libya are not optimistic. Mr. Bashagha plans on staging his return to the capital, further undermining the credibility of Tripoli’s unity government. The underlying causes of the July protests also remain: the lack of fuel, the food and electricity shortages, the stagnation in the labor market and lastly, the absence of any positive outlook regarding the elections. Without exception, the Libyan political actors have demonstrated their utter inability to act for the public good. Popular discontent, when added to possible reactions from militias loyal to the GNU in the face of Mr. Bashagha’s entry into Tripoli, could unleash hell in the capital. And an uprising could spread throughout the country.

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