A Status Quo Change in Libya?

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Libya is going through a substantial transformation and that’s not without pain. There have intense negotiations over the past months, perhaps as intense as the fighting within Libya, which is struggling with so many competing militias, and competing interests of foreign governments.  We asked top Analyst Hakim Aftab from MEA Risk LLC to provide us with the latest assessment. Mr. Aftab was kind to write the summary below but also warned that the situation is so fluid and volatile that it can change any time.

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After several months of diplomatic endeavors, the UN-brokered Presidential Council (PC) and Government of National Accord (GNA) moved to Tripoli, where they operate from a naval base, despite the animosity of dozens of militias based in the capital and a few other cities.

The arrival of Fayez Serraj, chairman of the PC and PM-designate of the GNA, in Tripoli was greeted and endorsed by the international community, which sees this as a step toward bringing stability and the political process back on track in Libya. Furthermore, a few European countries have vowed to launch an anti-Islamic State military intervention in Libya, if the GNA enters Libya and allows it. Locally, however, the unity government divides Libya. The Islamist government of Tripoli has even resigned a few days after the GNA arrived. One thing is for certain; this development is going to change the status-quo.

In Libya proper:

There has been a very mixed reaction to the PC’s and GNA’s move to Tripoli. The Tripoli-based, Islamist-leaning Salvation Government (SG) had announced that it was stepping down in a statement, that it is no more an executive authority, but went back on its word a few days later, claiming the resignation was fake, and warning the Presidency Council of any attempt to seize government buildings.

In addition to this, the Tripoli-based parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), seems to be on the brink of dissolution, in light of sanctions imposed by the European Union against its leader, Nuri Abu Sahmain, including travel ban and asset freeze, for obstructing the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement.

While this paves the way for the unity government to take over, many political, religious and military forces in the capital continue to oppose the unity government.  The most virulent reaction came from the Tripoli-based Grand Mufti, Sadek Ghiriani, who warned that “the door to a 10-year Jihad” had been opened, due to the fact that the “controversial” nature of the political agreement signed on December 17th in Skhirat (Morocco). “The scholars pointed out that this article is illegal because in Islam a non-Muslim cannot judge a legal dispute for Muslims,” said Ghariani. Nuri Abu Sahmain, President of the Tripoli-based parliament, the General National Congress, has also deplored the arrival of the Government of National Accord. Sahmain called the move an “illegitimate coup”, as there remains “disputed issues” in the political agreement which should have been resolved before the move.

On the militia front, two of the most powerful ones in western Libya, the Special Deterrence Force, otherwise known as Rada, and the Misratan forces have decided to support the government of national accord. However, 20% of the militias are against it, including the Islamist Libya Dawn coalition, which supported the now dissolved salvation government of Tripoli. The unity government is at risk of being attacked or besieged in its base by rival militias which have expressed their willingness to move against it. “This government was not selected by Libyans and it was not approved by any legitimate authority in the country,” Libya Dawn said in a statement. The coalition of Islamist militias set a number of preconditions, which they said, if were met, any government can work freely in the capital. Said conditions include a clear commitment to the Islamic Sharia, and that the laws that were amended by the GNC to comply with the Sharia must remain effective.

The eastern parliament, based in Tobruk, has yet to vote on legitimacy of the unity government. The “House of Representatives”, which has been trying to obtain amendments to the political agreement of Skhirat, recently announced that it would take the necessary measures to separate from Libya if its demands were not fulfilled by the unity government. Speaker Ageelah Saleh said that the government of national accord has not been endorsed yet in order to assume power, pointing that it remains illegitimate until it is approved from inside the parliament in Tobruk.

The most crucial demand of the House of Representatives is for the unity government to support the Libyan National Army, led by the controversial figure Khalifa Haftar; a request that no one sees as satisfiable, despite Egypt’s support for General Haftar, as his troops have been accused of human rights abuses by the United Nations. The Bayda-based government, led by Abdullah al-Thinni, has announced repeatedly that it would disregard any government that had not been legitimized by the House of Representatives. Members of the parliament have told the press that a majority of MPs are in favor of the new government, but the lack of quorum keeps them from materializing their support.

Nevertheless, allegiances have also shifted in favour of Fayez Serraj. Several Libyan cities and tribes have thrown support to the PM-designate, including Sabratha, Misrata, Zuwara and Zawiyah in western Libya. The Petroleum Facilities Guardforce, the militia in charge of securing oil fields, announced its willingness to work immediately under Fayez Serraj’s authority, vowing to open all oil ports and “to protect Libyans potentials from terrorisms and power usurpers”. In a surprise move, the Tubu and Tuareg tribes have also shown support to the UN-backed government. Formerly allied with the HoR and GNA respectively, said tribes seem to have defected mostly for political reasons.

In the international scene and outside of Libya:

Many countries have applauded the PC’s and GNA’s move to Tripoli; Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, France, Italy, Germany, the UK, the USA to name just a few. All of the above intend to work closely with the Government of National Accord as the only legitimate government in Libya. This came calls by United Nations’ Security Council to all its member states to refrain from dealing with “parallel institutions” in Libya. It is also believed that said countries have touched base with the unity government to start mapping out an international military intervention against the Islamic State in Sirte.

In point of fact, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said that the European Union will not intervene militarily in Libya unless the government of national accord (GNA) introduces an official request. “Defeating Daesh effectively can only happen through a legitimate Libyan government in charge of its own security,” the EU’s top diplomat said. “We have supported efforts to create a national unity government for months,” she said. “If we want to help them, we should trust them because they know their country better than we do.”

France and Italy have, on many occasions, expressed their readiness for a military intervention. The French FM Jean-Marc Ayrault has recently urged the international community to prepare in this perspective. Libya is a concern shared by all the countries of the region and beyond,” Ayrault said. “The chaos which reigns there today aids the rapid development of terrorism. It is a direct threat to the region and to Europe,” he added. US Special Forces have been on the ground, working with Libyan officials, and US war planes carried out airstrikes in Sabratha in February. Libyan officials have said that French, British and Italian commandos are also on the ground helping militiamen battling IS in the eastern city of Benghazi, despite denials from said governments. The establishment of the unity government could also pave the way for lifting the arms embargo on Libya, allowing Western countries to provide greater support to local forces defeat the Islamic State. The militant organization was recently defeated in Sabratha, Derna, and parts of Benghazi.

Abu-Abdullah al-Masry, an official leader of the Islamic Court in Sirte, has promised to wage a war against the UN-backed government, which he called “government of crusaders”.  In light of this threat, we expect that the efforts to organize an international intervention will materialize in weeks to come. Security reinforcements and the setting up of humanitarian camps in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt reinforce this belief.

The unity government faces a myriad of security, political and economic challenges. Where the two formerly competing governments of Tripoli and Tobruk failed, the GNA may succeed, due to the West’s unconditional support and will to root out the Islamic State, end the immigrant crisis that has become a major source of concern in Europe in the past few months, and stop the ticking time bomb that is Libya.