Erdoğan's neutrality in Libyan premiership showdown ominous for Dbeibah

Political analysts drew ominous signals for interim Prime Ministry Abdulhamid Dbeibah's chances of staying in power in Libya from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's expression of neutrality in the ongoing competition for premiership between Dbeibah and former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.

They believe Erdoğan's statement, Wednesday, carries implicit support for the formation of a new government under Bashagha and further increases Dbeibah’s isolation.

The latter's refusal to hand over power has received no regional nor international backing to make up for lost ground at home. This, experts say, indicates that the issue of Dbeibah’s departure from office is just a matter of time.

Erdoğan told reporters on his return flight from Dubai, Wednesday, "Fathi Bashagha announced his candidacy. Our ties with Fathi Bashagha are good. On the other hand, (ties) are also good with Dbeibah".

He added that: "The important thing is who the Libyan people choose and how."

He also said an assassination attempt on Dbeibah last week was "saddening".

Erdoğan’s statements confirm recent speculation that Bashagha has managed in recent months, during an unannounced visit to Ankara, to gain Turkey’s neutrality on the power struggle in Libya.

Abdulhamid Dbeibah and his billionaire son-in-law, Ali Dbeibah, maintain strong relations with Turkey. The prime minister has signed many agreements with Turkish companies since coming to power. Analysts believe, however, that Ankara will seek to exploit the calm that prevails in the wider region to cultivate closer relations with forces in the eastern part of Libya. This could bolster its position against Greece in the context of the battle for gas in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Monday, Russia announced its support for the parliament's decision to form a new government.

Russian backing for the decision reflects a measure of success on Bashagha’s part in overcoming his own reservations about Moscow.

Moscow was preceded by Egypt in expressing similar support, while the United States, the West and Turkey have maintained their neutrality.

Fathi Bashagha has nurtured good relations with the West, especially Washington. More than a year ago, he was able to restore his relationship with Paris.

The position of the United Kingdom is not yet clear. At the end of December, Bashagha accused London of "supporting a corrupt government" after it announced its rejection of any change of government in Tripoli.

Bashagha has focused on the widening corruption scandals besmirching the reputation of the Dbeibah administration, after arrest warrants were issued for three cabinet members: the minister of education, the minister of health and the minister of culture. Dbeibah’s rivals accuse him of falsifying his academic degrees.

Turkey provided military support and training to the earlier Libyan Government of National Accord led by Fayez Sarraj, in which Bashagha served as interior minister. It helped that government to repel a months-long attack on the capital, Tripoli, waged by the Libyan National Army (LNA) troops led by General Khalifa Haftar. Ankara still maintains Syrian soldiers and mercenaries on the ground in Libya and has built itself an airbase at Watiya. Turkey's position could help settle the Dbeibah-Bashagha clash and prevent the formation of two governments in Tripoli.

Last week, the Libyan parliament's spokesman announced that Bashagha was named the new interim prime minister but Dbeibah said he did not recognise attempts to remove him from office and would not step down.

Some analysts say Dbeibah could be manoeuvring to obtain more guarantees that he would not be prosecuted after his exit from power.

The two main political bodies, the House of Representatives and the State Council, support changing the government, but the State Council, which is perceived as a political front for the Muslim Brotherhood, seems to be trying to play a greater role in this transition.

Its head, Khaled al-Meshri, said on Wednesday, that parliament’s decision to assign a new prime minister before there had been an official session of the Supreme Council “is an improper measure that does not help build bridges of confidence between the two chambers.”

Meshri did not however voice any substantial qualms about the choice of Bashagha, despite speculation in the Dbeibah camp that the State Council was backing the interim prime minister's push to stay in power.  Sources in Tripoli said Meshri was invoking procedural reservations about the process while hedging his bets about the ultimate endgame.

Last Saturday he had appeared to transcend the country’s usual east-west divide and distance himself from the current interim prime minister. Last year, after parliament had passed a vote of no confidence in Dbeibah, Meshri had underlined the UN-brokered arrangement whereby the interim premier’s terms ended “at the latest on December 24, 2021”, which was when elections were supposed to have been held.

(A version of this article was published in the Arab Weekly and has been reprinted with permission.)

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