Is forcing Libya to accept a unity government really the way forward?

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch03 Feb 2016Rojan Bolling

A new 32-member, UN-backed unity government for Libya was announced on 19 January, but rejected in its current form by Libya’s internationally-recognized parliament, the House of Representatives. Negotiators are expected to come up with an alternative proposal within the next few days. Meanwhile, IS continues its assault on Libyan oil installations, strengthening a foothold that has Western powers preparing for another military intervention. It seems like it is only a matter of time before the Libyan political elite succumbs to external pressure to form some kind of united institution. But will such a forced solution lead to significant change on the ground?

Divided into four main zones of territorial control, two alliances, one tribe and one Islamist extremist group battle for control of Libya: the House of Representatives (HoR) in the east, the New General National Congress (NGNC) in the west, IS on the coast around Gadhafi’s former stronghold Sirte, and Touareg tribes in the south-west desert. Martin Kobler, the UN’s main negotiator, has repeatedly stressed that a government uniting the HoR and NGNC is needed to catch up to military developments in the country. He is referring mainly to a recent string of attacks by IS on vital oil infrastructure, which have further destabilized an already fragile Libya. Such a government would be able to form a united front against the group and call in the assistance of international actors. Awaiting the announcement of a unity agreement, the British government has already promised to send up to 1,000 soldiers to Libya to train a new Libyan army, while the EU has pledged €100 million if a deal for a Government of National Accord (GNA) is made.

Representatives from both parliaments have been negotiating the deal for months and a declaration supporting the accord was signed by both parliaments on 17 December in Morocco. Yet the announcement of the new government in January turns out to have been a gamble that did not pay off. According to Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group, this decision to move forward was based on the assumption that parties not on board with the agreement would come around in the following months. However a previous unity government had already been announced in October 2015, and rejected, prompting the current round of negotiations. Frustration with the process is, thus, understandable, but a quick resolution is not guaranteed. The main criticism coming from the HoR is that 32 ministers is too many, that it reflects a type of clientelism in which government posts are assigned based on affiliations (such as region or clan, etc.) rather than necessity or capacity – a reflection that is typical for the Libyan crisis, where the vacuum left since Gadhafi has revealed the nation’s inherent divisions.

So negotiators are back to the drawing board and designated GNA prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, has stated that a new cabinet will be proposed within the 10-day deadline announced by the HoR. Meanwhile the proposed government of national accord is based in a Tunis hotel and threatened with arrest by the NGNC if they enter the country. In the meantime, the NGNC rules from the capital Tripoli with the support of various Islamist militias such as Libya Dawn. These Islamist militias play a major role in a second controversy around the unity deal, over its Article 8, which states that senior military and security posts are to be relinquished and reappointed by the GNA within 20 days of its instalment. The inclusion of this article is likely aimed at the removal of General Khalifa Haftar, who is despised by the militias backing the NGNC for his anti-Islamist campaign in eastern Libya. As a former general of Gadhafi, he controls most of the security forces that back the HoR in Tobruk and eastern Libya. The article is, thus, critical to the NGNC, but the HoR has stated that it will only accept the political agreement if the article is deleted.

Illustrating the amount of international pressure being exerted to make this deal are efforts by the EU to start imposing sanctions on Libyan politicians blocking a unity government. Meanwhile, Western powers are said to be preparing a renewed military intervention to counter IS expansion in Libya. British SAS units are reportedly preparing to secure Libya’s oil fields, while US special forces are revealed to be on the ground searching for ‘worthy partners’ for future counterterrorism efforts. Such developments may continue, with or without a unity government, considering reports that IS controls Libyan Sarin gas depots.

So why do international actors continue to push so hard for this unity government, risking the possibility of it being perceiving by Libyans as externally imposed? Firstly, because Libya is in dire straits financially; its central bank has been using its financial reserves to pay for various security forces on both sides, which operate more or less independently, while also trying to sustain the remnants of the welfare state built up under Gadhafi. Financial experts have been warning of the country’s impending bankruptcy since the beginning of 2015. Secondly, because international actors see Libya as key to stability in the wider region – stability that is needed to combat extremism and stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, who are paying millions to armed groups along the way.

Yet one of the main problems that any future government will face is unlikely to be resolved by a unity government. Nobody is sure how the patchwork of the country’s various armed groups will develop. Ideally, such militias should be disbanded and replaced by a Libyan national army. However due to the legacy of Gadhafi’s decentralized state, no such army currently exists, except for remnants loyal to General Haftar. This means that militias will continue to play an important role for the time being, with only limited accountability to Libyan national institutions. With western countries having little appetite for ‘boots on the ground’, it is increasingly likely that a similar situation to Iraq and Syria will emerge in the immediate future.

But what international actors should realize is that fast tracking a unity government does not unify a country. Faced with an externally-supported ‘government of unity’ that only exists to serve patrimonial interests, an Islamist narrative of unity across former divisions – tribal, regional, conservative, revolutionary – may prove attractive, especially if such groups are visible in providing physical security and social services. What should be done instead is to put pressure on both Libyan and international spoilers for a credible unity government that truly surpasses the nation’s divisions. Rushing this through will only advance Libyan fragmentation.