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Mishri out, Takala in: Libya’s perpetual political gridlock

On 6 August, Libya’s High Council of State (HCS), one of the country’s main governing bodies, elected Mohammed Takala as its new head, replacing the incumbent Khaled al-Mishri, who had held the position for five years.

Takala was chosen in a run-off vote by 67 to 62 to the surprise of many Libya scholars and researchers. Mishri’s recent dealings with eastern-based figures like the leader of Libya’s main parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), Aguila Saleh was expected to strengthen his hand in the elections.

Takala’s introduction as the new head of the HCS has sparked many questions about the ongoing political process in Libya and could add to the uncertainty and divisions that have plagued the country since the NATO-backed toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The last year has seen an escalation in political violence by rival forces.

Considering the HCS’s vital role in Libyan politics since 2015, established under the UN-sponsored Skhirat Agreement, the latest development could shift the dynamics in the country at a time when major players are negotiating the terms of nationwide elections under significant UN pressure.

However, both the HSC and HoR were aiming to replace rival Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah with a new transitional government before organising elections.

The fall of Mishri

Speaking to The New Arab (TNA), Sami Hamdi, editor-in-chief of global risk firm International Interest, explained that several factors paved the way for Mishri’s defeat.

According to Hamdi, Mishri’s negotiations with Saleh have often been seen as geared towards restraining Dbeibah and powerful warlord Khalifa Haftar. Mishri has made no secret of his disdain for Dbeibah, while Saleh’s relationship with Haftar is chequered at best.

“Mishri’s defeat is also the result of having alienated other members of the council with his overwhelmingly unilateral approach to the negotiations and the perception that his primary aim was personal and more about ousting Dbeibah to reinforce his own position rather than the publicly stated aims of unifying the state,” he added.

“Mishri alienated enough members for them to be encouraged to oust him.”

Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said the alliance between Mishri and Saleh was never a strong, productive one.

“It has been discredited several times. For instance, in Morocco in early June, the 6+6 Committee delivered its draft of the electoral laws, but those drafts were never ratified by the HoR or the HCS,” Harchaoui explained, referencing the joint committee composed of representatives of both legislative bodies.

“In fact, even the news conference where Mishri and Saleh were supposed to endorse the drafts never took place. Not only because Aguila Saleh was being pressured very aggressively by [Belqacem] Haftar (who was there), but it was also because Mishri was afraid of some blocs within the HSC,” he added.

Harchaoui explained that Takala emerged as a winner by eliciting support from an eclectic set of currents within the HCS.

“Dbeibah is very happy right now because Mishri, a vociferous opponent, has fallen. But Takala is by no means a Dbeibah pawn,” he said, adding that Takala was sympathetic to the previous interim PM Fethi Bashagha.

What will Takala’s term mean for Libyan politics?

According to Hamdi, Mishri’s removal is certainly a win for Dbeibah.

“He has now seen off challenges from Bashagha, Juwaili, and Mishri, and Saleh’s position in Tobruk no longer seems secure anymore,” Hamdi said.

Hamdi also believes that international actors are beginning to adapt to the new de facto dialogue framework emerging between Dbeibah and Haftar that has been facilitated by the UAE and which is being taken more seriously by Turkey, as the debate shifts away from elections and towards a unity government.

On the other hand, Harchaoui says the UN Mission now has to wait for weeks until Takala has settled into his new position of leadership.

“Having this happen in August means obviously that no elections will happen by year-end. The entire electoral project is in trouble,” he said.

“Many Libyan players are entirely focused on using the excuse of elections to try and install a brand-new government in Tripoli. That is the main issue right now and will likely remain so for several more months.”

Harchaoui, while commenting on the end of the Mishri-Saleh alliance and new main actors, told TNA that the situation is much more complex now.

“In the wake of Mishri’s fall, the political scene is still very fragmented and contested. The communication channel between the Dbeibah family and the Haftar family will probably continue,” he said.

“But one very important thing to remember at this stage is the fact that Dbeibah is being challenged quite seriously within northwestern Libya,” he added, emphasising that just because Mishri was forced out does not put an end to challenges to Dbeibah’s authority.

When he was asked about the ongoing dialogue between Haftar and Dbeibah, Harchaoui argued that Haftar is not fully behind that dialogue.

“That dialogue has been useful to the two ruling families, but there’s always been a more aggressive side of Haftar’s position getting ready for a scenario where Dbeibah would be replaced.”

Calling Haftar ambivalent, Harchaoui said the Haftar family is not fully united and cohesive.

“Moreover, regarding Tripoli, the traditional alignment between Dbeibah and the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) Governor Kabir isn’t in pristine shape. So members of the leadership of the CBL in Tripoli are closer to Dbeibah, but these days Kabir is tempted to remain faithful to the United States in order to keep the CBL governorship,” he said.

The interests and allegiances of foreign powers add yet another dynamic to the political uncertainty facing Libya.

“The US has been ambivalent on whether or not Dbeibah should stay in power until the elections. But some recent comments by the US diplomats were taken to mean that Washington would favour a new government in Tripoli,” Harchaoui said.

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