Libya’s Conundrum

“Libya needs a strong government” tweeted the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Martin Kobler on 20 January 2016. Yet the Government of National Accord that was announced on 19 January and that emerged out of the signing of the UNSMIL sponsored Libyan political agreement in Morocco in December 2015 is precisely the opposite of strong. Once again, Libyans have been dished up another random assortment of leaders, chosen because of the need to maintain a particular regional and political balance rather than for their experience or expertise. Despite Libya’s tiny population of just 6.4 million inhabitants, this new ‘expansive’ government comprises a whopping 32 ministers, this being the only way to appease all the different constituencies vying for a piece of the pie.


That this Government of National Accord should have been composed in this way reflects the uncomfortable reality that Libya is no longer a single unit. Despite the endless protestations that it is still one country, one consequence of the 2011 revolution and its aftermath is that Libya has fractured not just on a regional level but locally too. Neighbourhoods, towns, areas and tribes are all still jostling for power, with the new Libya resembling little more than a collection of statelets, each with its own military force and mini government. All sense of the national good has been subsumed as these new local powerbrokers have sought to assert themselves in an arena where none of them is strong enough to dominate.

As a result, no government or political institution formed since the toppling of the former regime has been able to impose its authority on the ground. The National Transitional Council and its government failed to get a hold over the array of armed brigades and militias whose revolutionary legitimacy trumped any kind of political legitimacy. Even the General National Congress (GNC) and the House of Representatives (HoR), which have been competing to control the country since it split in August 2014, and which both had a popular mandate arising out of national elections fared no better.

The situation is made worse by the fact that Libya is devoid of politics. If Qadhafi worked for forty years to depoliticise Libya, then the revolution of 2011 has buried politics completely. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, the new Libya has not witnessed the emergence of meaningful political parties, let alone political activism or even any ideological debate. The role of Sharia that is has polarised Egypt and Tunisia since their revolutions has hardly raised its head in Libya. The 17th December political agreement upholds the principle that “Islamic Sharia is the source of all legislation, and that all that contradicts it shall be deemed null and void” did not attract even a ripple of debate. And the competing forces of today are divided not by ideas but by a struggle for control. Indeed, the new freedom that has accompanied the fall of the Qadhafi regime has unleashed an urge to fight rather than an urge to debate.

This newly crafted Government of National Accord, which suffers from the additional handicap of having been born in Tunis under immense external pressure, is unlikely therefore to be any different from its predecessors. It may comprise representatives from different geographical locations and political camps, but this does not alter the baseline fact that the armed powers on the ground are the ones in control. While the security provisions contained in the political agreement – which include the disarming of revolutionary brigades and the creation of a proper national army – may be laudable, putting them into practice will require a minor miracle.

Yet such concerns are premature. This new government is facing a series of challenges that may result in its being stillborn or in the best case scenario remaining as a government in exile, propped up by the international community. Firstly, it needs to be legitimised by a vote of confidence from the HoR. The HoR has proved unable to reach the necessary quorum to even hold a debate let alone a vote over recent months and its leadership still opposes the political agreement. Such an endorsement appears, therefore, to still be a long way off. Although international pressure could potentially convince the HoR to approve the new government, its doing so will further undermine the new body, already considered as a puppet of the West in some quarters.

Secondly, this new government has to locate itself in the capital if it is to have any clout. As the past year has shown, governing out of remote towns that have no administrative infrastructure, as the HoR and its government have done since their inception, is all but impossible given the degree of political, administrative and economic centralisation that exists in Libya. If it is to have even a chance of success, therefore, it is Tripoli or nowhere.

Yet with armed forces who object to the new agreement still in control of the capital and threatening to arrest any member of the new government who dares to set foot inside it, prospects are not looking good. The new prime minister, Fayaz Serraj has already faced difficulties in areas supposedly supportive of his new government. When he visited Zliten in January 2016 to pay his respects to the victims of the Daesh (IS) attack on a police training centre, he was attacked by armed elements as he travelled through Misrata, a city that has signed up to the political agreement.

Yet even if these issues can be resolved, the new government still has to hold itself together. Two members of its Presidency Council have already suspended their membership. First, Ali Al-Qatarni because he believes the demands of the eastern area, including those related to the army, are not being met; and Omar Al-Aswad because he believes that too many towns and groupings were excluded from the new government. With so many red lines, as well as so many explosive issues that were simply glossed over in the rush to sign the agreement, it is likely that further disagreements will ensue.

Cobbling together a government from opposing factions who have never truly accepted the need to compromise was always going to be a risky strategy. Yet the international community was so blinded by its desire establish a body to sanction military intervention against Daesh that Libya has been failed yet again. Despite the international panic, Daesh is one small component of the morass of militias and armed groups that are making Libya a living hell, and that have to be dealt with if the country is ever going to have an effective central authority.

As such, it is difficult to imagine what an effective solution might look like. However, one thing is clear. In order to move on Libya has to go beyond its revolution. More importantly, revolutionary legitimacy cannot continue to be allowed to take precedence over everything else. Only then can the country embark upon a desperately needed national reconciliation process that will open the way for the return of the up to two million Libyans (representing almost one third of the population) who are outside of the country and who must be allowed to play their part in rebuilding Libya’s future. Until such a time there is little one can do except hope. But to keep on throwing the same solution at a seemingly intractable problem, as the international community is doing, will lock Libya in a perpetual state of chaos and instability that serves no one, least of all the Libyans themselves.

  • February 7, 2021