The visit of the head of the presidential council to Benghazi strengthened Libyans’ optimism about an end to the divisions that have plagued the country since 2014.
The visit by the head of the Libyan Presidential Council Mohammad al-Menfi to Benghazi and his meeting with the commander-in-chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar confirmed the military establishment’s clear support for the new executive authority elected about a week ago in Geneva.
The developments reflected a new situation in Libya in which Haftar and Menfi, in addition to Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, are set to play a key role in restoring Libya’s stability and ending the divisions that have plagued the country since 2014.
A statement by the army’s general command said that, “During the meeting, views were exchanged between the two parties. The commander-in-chief reaffirmed the armed forces’ support for the peace process, and the army’s endeavours to safeguard democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.”
The statement added, “Field Marshal Haftar expressed support for the new presidential council and the national unity government born out of the political dialogue to unify institutions and take the country to the elections that are expected to be held next December.”
There have been recent indications of understandings between Dbeibah and Haftar, most notably LNA representatives’ vote at the Libyan Dialogue Forum for the Dbeibah-Menfi list rather than the list that included Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and Government of National Accord (GNA) Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. Reports published by social media activists also revealed that Dbeibah visited Benghazi a few days before the final vote.
This agreement brought to the fore Haftar’s role on the Libyan stage after months in which he kept a low profile, cutting down on foreign trips and meetings within the country. For a while, Haftar gave the impression that an international push to see an end to his role was succeeding as Saleh, who seemed to enjoy growing support of influential countries in the conflict, such as Egypt, France and Russia, was becoming more prominent.
It is not unlikely that Dbeibah will make a public visit to Haftar’s headquarters in Ar-Rajma in the coming days, as was reflected by his warm welcome of the members of the Dialogue Forum representing the region of Cyrenaica upon his return from Geneva. He even insisted on taking a group picture with the delegation and promised to visit Benghazi soon.
Menfi’s visit to Benghazi and his meeting with Haftar sent positive signals to parliament members who intend to participate in the meeting set to discuss the approval of the new executive authority. The main signal conveyed by Menfi’s visit is that this new authority enjoys the support of the army, which is one of the most important actors on the ground in the eastern region.
Over the past few days, differences have emerged between members of the House of Representatives on the venue of the voting session that should grant confidence to the new presidential council and the government. Deputies from the western region have called for the session to take place in the city of Sabratha, while deputies from the east, including Saleh, have insisted that the session be held in Tobruk, before the seat of parliament moves to its new location in Sirte.
This has prompted MPs Fawzi al-Nuwairi and Hamid Houmeh to issue a statement calling on the deputies to attend the voting session and called on the 5+5 military committee to choose its location to end controversy over the issue.
Menfi’s visit to Benghazi fueled optimism and dispelled speculation that the new authorities could meet the same fate as the current presidential council, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, which was rejected in 2016 in Tobruk by the army and parliament.
Menfi belongs geographically to Cyrenaica, but has been known in recent years to oppose the LNA, including its campaign against extremists in Benghazi and Derna. In addition, he was Libya’s ambassador to Greece, which expelled him after the signing of the border demarcation agreement between Libya and Turkey. Against this background, it seemed doubtful that he would receive the backing of the army.
Analysts attribute his success in overcoming these hurdles to a Russian-Turkish deal that boosted his fortunes and shattered a near international consensus in favour of the Saleh-Bashagha list. Even UN envoy Stephanie Williams seemed on a few occasions in the past to favour the Saleh-Bashagha list, as she accused unnamed parties of bribing members of the Dialogue Forum (implicitly to favour Dbeibah). Accusations prompted Misratan businessman Ali al-Dbeibah, the new prime minister’s cousin, to demand that an investigation be opened into the matter so as to prove or refute the allegations.
Menfi is known to have been among the active leaders of the Libyan students’ union while studying in France under the aegis of the Jamahiriya Students Union. He was known to be one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the regime of the late Colonel Muammar Gadhafi. He is hence expected to have a good relationship with supporters of the former ruler and his son Saif al-Islam. According to many reports, Russia wants Gadhafi’s supporters to play a political role in Libya.
The victory of the Dbeibah and Menfi list has stunned many countries that bet on the Saleh-Bashagha list, especially Egypt and France.
Nevertheless, the new authorities seem intent on accommodating all countries. Menfi has in fact pledged that Cairo will be the first foreign capital he visits after his trip to Benghazi.