By Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – A move by Libya’s parliament to oust Interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, who had promised not to use his stand-in position for political advancement, is testament to his success in doing just that.
A reported assassination attempt on Dbeibah overnight came a day after he vowed not to cede power to any new government without national elections.
The 62-year-old emerged last year as a surprise choice to lead a U.N.-backed political transition, accepting a condition that he would not use the political benefits of that office to run for president when other potential candidates were denied them.
Yet as prime minister, Dbeibah courted almost all sections of Libya’s fragmented political scene, pledging funds to forgotten towns, offering cash for newlyweds and striking deals with foreign powers for economic projects.
His announcement that he would run for president helped to explode an election process due to begin last December, on whose rules – not least governing the eligibility of Dbeibah and other major candidates – no real agreement had been reached.
However, while the moves in parliament seem more likely to produce a parallel administration based outside Tripoli than to replace Dbeibah, they could undermine any claim he has to still head a unity government.
It represents a crunch moment not only for Dbeibah’s own ambitions but also for the U.N.-backed peace process his government was intended to implement.
How far he was ever committed to the transition is a matter of debate.
Dbeibah and his allies say he worked to lay the path for elections and to unify competing institutions as he was mandated to do, but was foiled by rival factions.
Critics accuse him of instead seeking to undermine the election process, of using state funds without proper authorisation to further his own political interests, and of corruption, all of which he denies.
“What angers many of Dbeibah’s rivals is that he’s had so much control over government spending,” said Wolfram Lacher of the German SWP thinktank.
Whatever the truth of the claims made for and against him, Dbeibah has undoubtedly emerged as a significant threat to the ambitions of Libya’s other major factional leaders during his time in office.
Dbeibah was chosen as premier through a political forum of 75 delegates picked by the United Nations from Libya’s political and territorial factions at a vote in Geneva last year.
The scion of a powerful business family from Misrata that emerged before the 2011 revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, he was part of a ticket of candidates that defeated better-known rivals.
Among the defeated tickets was one pairing Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh, who has led the push to oust Dbeibah, with the candidate most likely to be chosen by the chamber as prime minister on Thursday – former interior minister Fathi Bashagha.
If Dbeibah continues to refuse to step down, Libya may once more have two governments – one under him in Tripoli, still recognised by the United Nations and Western countries, and another appointed by the parliament in the east.
Dbeibah for his part has secured the allegiance of powerful military factions in Tripoli, though divisions among the armed groups who wield power on the streets mean a credible rival could potentially turn other forces there against him.
“Dbeibah has shown a willingness to work with anyone through short-lived arrangements. He doesn’t have an ideology and he tells each community or faction what it wants to hear,” said Jalel Harchaoui of the Global Initiative organisation.
As the parliament’s push to replace him runs its course, the coming weeks and months of negotiation will test Dbeibah’s ability to juggle the complex network of alliances and enmities that will ultimately determine who holds power in Libya.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Kevin Liffey)