How Libyans shaped a unity government

Remote public participation and a case of competing generals finding consensus led to the election of an interim prime minister mandated to promote reconciliation.

Libyan Prime Minister-designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah addresses parliament in Sirte March 9.

After a decade of violent fragmentation, the North African nation of Libya may have passed a threshold from despair to hope. A new transitional government of national unity was sworn in Monday. Its main purpose is to promote reconciliation and prepare for elections in December.

It is a fragile milestone to be sure. Opposing armies must be demobilized and disarmed. Rival foreign powers still continue to maintain a military presence two months after a United Nations-backed deadline to withdraw. The new prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, stands accused of bribing his way into office.

But there are reasons for cautious optimism. The leaders of the two main factions, outgoing Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and rebel commander Khalifa Hifter of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Benghazi, have pledged to back the new government. Last week the national legislature voted overwhelmingly to approve Mr. Dbeibah’s proposed cabinet. A national opinion poll taken last month by Diwan found he has the support of 71% of Libyans.

That consensus underscores a broad desire for a return to peace and democratization 10 years after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. It also reflects a persistent effort by U.N. mediators to bring Libya’s diverse factions and civil society together to carve their own way forward. A year ago the country was locked in a violent siege between the GNA and LNA. One critical breakthrough came when five generals from each side, all of whom had been colleagues under the Qaddafi regime, united in calling for the departure of all foreign armies.

Parallel political and economic tracks involving a wide cross section of Libyan interest groups set the stage for a process to draft the country’s first unified budget since 2014 and select a new government. At a U.N.-sponsored congress in Switzerland last month, 75 chosen delegates gathered to elect a prime minister and three-person presidency. A public forum via television and Facebook enabled ordinary Libyans to question the 45 candidates directly. More than 1.7 million Libyans – nearly a third of the population – participated in what has since been called the “National Barbecue Session.” Candidates were forced to sign and commit orally to the agreed framework for the interim government. That framework calls for women to hold at least 30% of senior executive positions.

So far the new prime minister is following through. Women hold five portfolios in Mr. Dbeibah’s Cabinet, including the powerful Foreign Ministry. Among his first priorities is a national strategy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

For a war-weary populace, however, what may matter more is the unprecedented opportunity to engage in the political process. “There was a transparent process. There was an election,” Guma El-Gamaty, a politician aligned with the GNA, told Al Jazeera TV. “We have seen a ballot box, which is very symbolic for Libyans who have only seen guns and missiles in the last few years.”

It is too soon to know if the process will stay on track. But Libyans are showing that the popular aspirations of the Arab Spring endure. They may in time forge a model out of prolonged periods of collapse for other troubled states to follow.

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