After over a year of contentious negotiations, UN Special Representative to Libya Bernandino Leon announced this week his plan for a unity government. Speaking at a press conference in Skhirat, Morocco, he said, “After a year of work in this process, after working with more than 150 Libyan personalities from all the regions, finally the moment has come in which we can propose a national unity government.”
Given the security climate on the ground, however, it will be difficult to change this rhetoric into anything more than wishful thinking.
Background: A Troubled Past
Ever since a 2011 revolution overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been destabilized by inter-tribal rivalries, disagreement on the role of Islam in political life, and a growing Islamic State presence.
The north African country currently has two parliaments vying for legitimacy. In the eastern city of Tobruk, the internationally-recognized House of Representatives claims it has the sole mandate to govern. However, in August 2014, this government was kicked out of the capital Tripoli by Libyan Dawn, a coalition of Islamist militias. In its place, Libyan Dawn and the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Justice and Construction Party declared their own parliament.
Support for the respective parliaments has largely been divided along typical regional lines. Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan, countries that support the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam, have helped arm Libyan Dawn and support the Tripoli parliament. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, countries that reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in Middle Eastern politics, have supported Operation Dignity, former Libyan general Khalifa Hiftar’s anti-Islamist offensive in the east, and the Tobruk government.
The recent migrant crisis has intensified international attention to the conflict. Smugglers seeking to traffic migrants to Europe have exploited the lack of central authority in Libya to use the country as a transit point to ferry people across the Mediterranean Sea. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 300,000 migrants have attempted this risky crossing this year alone, claiming 2,500 lives.
The Islamic State also has a growing presence in the country, prompting regional and international concern. In June, it seized the eastern port city of Derna, the first city outside of Iraq and Syria to fall to the jihadist group, and has recently made gains in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
A Diplomatic Solution?
European states see a unified Libyan as the key to quelling refugee flows into their countries and as a necessary bulwark in preventing the Islamic State from gaining a stronghold across from their shores, and have thrown their support behind the recent UN-led negotiations.
Leon has focused his diplomatic push over the past year on fostering reconciliation between the Tripoli and Tobruk parliaments. His goal has been to eventually form a unity government between the two. However, the talks have been halting, and Leon is now trying to drum support for his fifth proposal. After successive deadlines set by the UN for government formation slipped– first before the start of Ramadan, then September 20th – Leon decided to simply announce his plan and hope both sides agree to it.
His proposal for a national unity government pulls personnel from both parliaments as well as from Libya’s distinctive tribal regions. The Prime Minister would be Fayez Sarraj, a member of the Tobruk parliament. Sarraj would be supported by three deputies from the south, east, and west of the country, and a consultative Presidential Council. Crucially, both parliaments have to agree to the text for it to take effect. Leon has set a deadline of October 20th for the proposal to be accepted.
Where does Libya go from here?
The proposal faces a daunting challenge towards adoption. For Libya to form a unity government, international pressure would have to overpower the influence of spoilers on the ground.
The European Union understands this dynamic and has already promised 100 million euros to the new government, should it form. The proposal also has some degree of support amongst militias on the ground. All major armed groups in the city of Misrata, an anti-Islamist bastion, agreed to protect the proposed unity government should it come into existence.
Despite significant EU and modest local support, however, the UN plan already appears to be on life support. Both parliaments have released statements rejecting it. And Leon, after declaring his plan final and unalterable, has already amended his proposal to add a sixth member to a proposed presidential council. The leader of this proposed state council, Abdel Rahman Sewehli, has rejected the nomination and said the government has “no chance of succeeding.” The Tobruk parliament’s Foreign Minister diplomatically called the announcement by Leon a “surprise”, and lawmaker Ali Tekbali said that Leon, “wants to impose a fait accompli on us.”
The greatest long-term threat to a unity government may not be politicians squabbling over the details of cabinet assignments, but spoilers who do not wish to see a unity government formed at all.
Hardline military commanders in Tripoli do not support any sort of reconciliation with the Tobruk government. As recently as October 7, the Tripoli parliament came under attack by one of its own lawmakers, Abdul Raof al-Manaai, who was upset that his parliament was even debating a potential unity government. Last June, powerful Islamist militia leader and former Tripoli congressman Salah Badi launched an attack on Tripoli’s airport when election results suggested strong support for pro-Hiftar politicians.
Anti-Islamist hardliners are also threatening to derail the formation of a unity government. The UN proposal explicitly calls for a “reset” of military leadership. This would be bad news for General Hiftar, as it would probably lead to his ouster as the head of the anti-Islamist forces. As a result, he has recently pressured the Tobruk government’s Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, to put the civilian government under his “protection”. According to Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Hiftar is hoping that diplomatic process falls apart because it would give him de facto influence over the only governing body with international recognition in Libya.
As long as military commanders supporting both parliaments have the final say over decision-making, any serious proposal for a unity government would need to somehow accommodate hardliners on both sides. Since these two views are irreconcilable, a unity government will likely not be formed by October 20th.