Libya’s Political Agreement Reaching a Breaking Point

Libya's UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj arrives at a meeting of his Government of National Accord. Tripoli, Libya, July 11, 2016. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is reportedly attempting to gather all of Libya’s rival governments to participate in a “reconciliation meeting” in Saudi Arabia in the near future. The initiative responds to the great uncertainty surrounding the United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement, which aimed to unify rival factions in the country’s ongoing civil conflict. The new effort could boost domestic and international support for the agreement, which is critical to avoiding derailment.

The challenge to the 2015 agreement spiked on October 14 this year, when a rump of members of the Tripoli-based parliament during the war, the General National Congress, led by former prime minister Khalifa al-Ghwell and backed by allied militias, seized the premises of the new State Council set up to advise the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

Al-Ghwell declared his intention to take back executive authority from the GNA and called on Abdullah al-Thinni, former prime minister of the internationally recognized Bayda and Tobruk-based government, to form their own government of national unity. While al-Ghwell’s proposal has thus far been rejected by his former rival al-Thinni, it did demonstrate the GNA’s lack of broad-based domestic support.

The attempted comeback of al-Ghwell and his parliament follows several recent and fairly serious setbacks for the UN process in Libya. In August this year, the House of Representatives, Libya’s sole legitimate parliament under the current political agreement, voted to reject the GNA. This indicated a lack of support among eastern politicians. The rejection means that GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is now tasked with drawing up another cabinet list that could once again be rejected, further beleaguering UN-backed efforts.

A month after the rejection, forces loyal to rogue general Khalifa Haftar captured key oil terminals in Libya’s “oil crescent,” in the northeast coastal region, from rival armed group the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which had pledged allegiance to the GNA. While Haftar has since agreed to allow oil exports from the terminals to take place under the banner of the National Oil Company, which operates under the authority of the GNA, the incident showed that the government is unable to secure vital economic infrastructure, while Haftar retains the ability to deny access to much-needed oil revenue in the future.

Thus far, the majority of the international community has considered the 2015 political agreement the best hope of finding a way out of the civil conflict in Libya and rebuilding the country. In the absence of a viable alternative, efforts need to be redoubled to prevent it from collapsing. US plans and the UN’s relaunched political dialogue must attempt to broaden support for the current arrangements, particularly within the House of Representatives. Endorsement of a new cabinet is critical to increasing domestic legitimacy of the GNA, which is viewed by some as a puppet of the international community.

Progress is likely to greatly depend on consolidation of Libya’s highly fragmented security sector. Opposition to the government was reportedly partly connected to fears that it may fall under the influence of the Misrata brigades—semi-official militias that have pledged alliance to the GNA and played a critical role in the offensive to drive the so-called Islamic State out of Sirte. Haftar enjoys the support of eastern politicians while competing with the Misrata brigades for a place in a reformed and unified security sector.

While a House of Representatives-endorsed GNA will need the continued support of the Misrata brigades, particularly following al-Ghwell’s attempt to displace the GNA, Haftar’s capture of the oil terminals has made it imperative that the GNA also wins his cooperation, if not outright support. The UN should, therefore, not only intensify efforts to build support for the GNA among Libyan politicians, but also revitalize the security track of its political dialogue, including among rival armed groups. Key here will be discussions about interim security arrangements that give both GNA-allied brigades and Haftar’s forces a role.

The international community at large also needs to offer the GNA unified support. At present, a number of countries continue to back Haftar, despite his opposition to the current government. Regional actors that backed the political and military coalition in the east during the past civil conflict, notably Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are suspected of continuing to provide the general with arms and equipment, even though they have expressed support for the 2015 agreement.

Should al-Ghwell and his partisans begin to receive the support of key armed groups, external actors such as Qatar and Turkey may be similarly tempted to bolster his position by violating Libya’s arms embargo. More robust diplomatic efforts are needed to convince regional actors to reconsider such actions. Saudi involvement in mediation efforts could do just that. With Riyadh stepping in to help mediate, the UAE and Qatar may have to pull back from the conflict. The Saudis may also be able to persuade Egypt and Turkey to do the same. Western states equally need to be consistent in their support for the GNA. France, in particular, should cease military assistance to Haftar.

To be sure, the Libyan Political Agreement has had its weaknesses from the start, given that it was pushed through without sufficient grassroots support. It is, however, now at a critical juncture and allowing it to unravel could spell a return to civil war in the worst case scenario. Efforts to help bolster support for the UN political process and prevent “spoilers” from derailing it are imperative.

Lisa Watanabe is Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.