Libya’s parliament has met in the front-line city of Sirte for a crucial vote on whether to endorse a new interim unity government meant to oversee long-delayed elections this year under an international peace plan.
More than 130 legislators on Monday began debating approving the cabinet formed by Abdelhamid Dbeibah, selected as interim prime minister at a forum held by the United Nations in Geneva last month.
His government has the difficult task of leading the country to presidential and parliamentary elections in December, replacing both the UN-recognised, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and a rival eastern administration backed by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.
The parliament, divided between eastern and western factions since soon after its 2014 election, is expected to vote on the government on Tuesday, at the earliest.
“We will strive to overcome many hurdles and obstacles,” said Speaker Aguila Saleh, one of the losing candidates in the Geneva talks for a leadership role in the interim administration.
Libya descended into chaos after longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that has seen rival forces vying for power in the oil-rich North African country.
A UN-supervised process aims to unite the country after a ceasefire reached last October between forces loyal to the two rival administrations, which are each backed by foreign powers.
The interim government faces the daunting challenge of addressing the grievances of Libyans, from a dire economic crisis and soaring unemployment to crippling inflation and wretched public services.
Dbeibah, a billionaire businessman, submitted his 33-member cabinet lineup to parliament for approval last week, without publicly revealing any names.
An interim three-member presidency council, selected alongside Dbeibah last month, is to head the new unity administration.
If deputies fail to endorse the government, a new vote must take place. Dbeibah has until March 19 to win approval for his cabinet.
In a televised speech before the vote, Dbeibah urged legislators to seize the moment and confirm the government.
“I call on the deputies not to miss the chance to unify parliament with this meeting today … so as to allow the government to immediately accomplish the difficult tasks” ahead, he said.
Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina, reporting from Misrata, said the looming deadline added further urgency to the proceedings in Sirte.
If the parliament does not ratify Dbeibeh’s government, the UN’s political forum said it could instead approve the cabinet itself.
‘No petrol, no cash’
Libyans are hoping for a restoration of basic state services wrecked by years of war and political chaos.
“There’s no petrol, there’s no cooking gas, there’s no cash,” Mohammed Saleh, 40, a Sirte resident in a city cafe, told Reuters news agency.
However, since fighting between the GNA and Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army stopped last year just west of Sirte, bombs have stopped falling, he said. “We hope they will approve the government,” he added.
But hurdles have emerged in the run-up to the vote, including allegations of vote-buying during the process to elect Dbeibah. They centre on claims in a confidential report by UN experts that at least three participants were offered bribes of hundreds of thousands of dollars in November.
“Obstacles and difficulties have already emerged even before the vote of confidence,” said Khaled el-Montasser, a professor of international relations. There are “suspicions” surrounding the interim prime minister, he added.
Libyan political analyst Mahmud Khalfallah said Dbeibah’s “political rivals have launched ferocious campaigns to defame him”.
“They have succeeded in creating a climate of tension.”
Libyans have also taken to social networks to decry the size of the proposed government, with many criticising Dbeibah’s decision to set up a cabinet with 33 ministers and two deputy prime ministers, saying a government due to rule until just December does not need to be so big.
Dbeibah has defended the move, saying he wanted to form a government that was “balanced” and “really representative of all the Libyan people” and main regions.
To reflect that, he said, seven key portfolios would be handed to figures from Libya’s three main provinces in the east, west and south. The foreign ministry would be allocated to the east, the ministries of economy, trade and justice to the west, and the defence, interior and finance portfolios to the south.
Dbeibah has also defended the “integrity” of the process leading to his election and demanded the publication of the report claiming corruption.
The report prepared by the UN experts is to be submitted formally to the UN Security Council in mid-March.
Some legislators have asked for the vote of confidence to be delayed until the report is published.
And Sirte, where parliament is meeting, is under the control of pro-Haftar forces that include foreign combatants and mercenaries.
According to the UN, some 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters were still in Libya in early December, two months after the ceasefire was struck, and a January 23 deadline for their withdrawal passed without any sign of them pulling them out.