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Internationally, the step has been hailed as a success. Officials in Washington and across Europe have expressed optimism and are promising to help the new government wherever they can: to train security forces; assist with airstrikes against Daesh; or maybe even send in a small number of troops to help stabilise the country.
But if one scratches the surface it quickly becomes clear that the new government, and with it the hope of a more peaceful and stable Libya, rests on shaky foundations. While members of the international community tirelessly endorse the new government, its support from within Libya, and therefore its popular legitimacy, is highly questionable.
The UN-brokered peace deal agreed in December in Skhirat, Morocco, was only signed by a minority of members from the two rival parliaments – the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), controlling the east of the country, and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli in the west. Since then, neither parliament has even held a vote on the proposal to form the government of national unity. Tuesday’s list of nominees was only signed by seven out of the Presidential Council’s nine members.
As a result, the new government of national unity faces various obstacles that it must overcome before it can even begin to think about addressing Libya’s many political, security, economic and humanitarian challenges. For the coming weeks, three obstacles stand out.
First, the nominated cabinet needs to be confirmed by the HoR, which is supposed to become the country’s official legislature under the Skhirat agreement. This procedure, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of next week, is far from a formality. It is unclear how many members of the HoR support even the idea of establishing a unity government. Yet more doubtful is what the HoR’s leadership is going to do. Over the past few months, they have repeatedly prevented the house from voting on motions that could have undermined their power, rejecting all previous unity proposals.
Second, even if the HoR endorses the new cabinet, it is unclear from where the new government will rule. It is supposed to move into the capital, Tripoli. However, this requires that the GNC, which is based in the city, as well as the multitude of militias operating there, accept the new government’s authority. While several members of the GNC have signed the Skhirat agreement and one of its members, Fayez Sarraj, is due to become the country’s new prime minister, some of the parliament’s leaders are amongst the most vocal opponents of the unity plan. Moreover, the militias are supposed to be coaxed into supporting the new government with promises of integration into Libya’s future national security forces. But the same plans failed after the Qadhafi regime was overthrown in 2011.
There are few alternatives to Tripoli as the seat of the new government. Benghazi has been ravaged by war, with whole districts under the control of jihadi groups. Tobruk, small and close to the Egyptian border, has never made sense as a city from where to govern the country. Misrata, about 190 km east of Tripoli, could be a possibility, but it too has a host of militias that are unlikely to simply submit to a new authority.
So a scenario in which Libya’s new government is rejected by its own designated legislature or starts off homeless – or both – is not unlikely.
For the government’s international backers, including the UK, the establishment of a single political authority in Libya is a prerequisite for fighting the local Daesh affiliate. Over the past year, Daesh in Libya has become the strongest and most successful part of the group outside Iraq and Syria. Profiting from the country’s political chaos, Daesh has established itself in the central coastal city of Sirte and now controls more than 150 km of the coastline. In recent week, its fighters have launched several attacks on Libya’s oil infrastructure south of Benghazi, sparking fears that a further expansion of its territory and – more significantly – the resources Daesh controls, could be imminent.
Daesh’s presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean is not just a problem for Libya, it also poses a threat to the country’s North African neighbours and, potentially, Europe. In Tunisia, a string of terrorist attacks, all with links to Daesh in Libya, threaten to derail the fragile democratic process. Algeria, Mali, Chad, Sudan and Egypt are all struggling to control their borders and prevent both their own citizens from joining Daesh in Libya, as well as potential attackers from infiltrating their countries.
Hopes persist that the growing threat from Daesh can concentrate minds and provide a common cause to coalesce around for Libya’s many armed factions. However, considering that Daesh’s previous advances have only provoked wide-spread handwringing and mutual accusations of tacit support, this too seems optimistic.
The UK government is already mulling over plans to contribute troops to an Italian-led mission to support Libyan forces against Daesh. It is certainly right and necessary to take seriously the threat from a growing Daesh presence along the Mediterranean. However, the UK and its partners may have to draw up plans to fight the group without a reliable partner in the country. Even if Libya’s new administration can overcome its many obstacles and actually take the reins of government in the country, it will need time before it can take on the jihadis.
There are signs of progress, and Libya’s new government needs all the international support it can get. But remaining realistic about the challenges ahead and preparing alternative plans in case things go wrong is both prudent and strategically vital.