The US, Europe and the UN have all pinned their hopes for resolving Libya’s chaos and blocking the Islamic State group’s growth in the nation on a newly announced unity government. The problem is: It is not clear how the government can actually get into the nation.
The unity government, brokered by the UN and headed by a little-known Libyan technocrat, Fayez al-Sarraj, is supposed to replace the two rival administrations — one based in the capital, Tripoli, the other based in the eastern city of Tobruk — that have been battling each other for more than a year, each one backed by an assortment of militias.
However, the Tripoli-based government, dominated by Muslim militants, and some of its allied militias last week said they would never allow the new administration — whose members are currently in neighboring Tunisia — into the capital.
“We say it has no place among us,” said Khalifa al-Ghweil, the Tripoli-based prime minister.
He said the unity government was “imposed from the outside” and his administration would never let in a leadership “installed” by the UN.
Al-Sarraj told a Libyan TV channel on Thursday last week that he would be in Tripoli within days.
Meanwhile, the Tobruk-based parliament, which is the one recognized by the international community, still has not formally approved the UN deal. While some members support al-Sarraj’s government, others outright reject it, viewing it as a compromise to their Tripoli rivals. Most significantly, eastern-based strongman Khalifa Hifter, a general who commands a force of army units and militias that has been battling Muslim militants allied to Tripoli, has remained silent on the deal and many of his loyalists oppose it.
European nations are divided on how to act, even as they and Washington step up their warnings over the threat from the Islamic State group, which has taken advantage of the chaos to setup a powerful and expanding branch. There has already been some low-level, behind the scenes military intervention. US special forces have been on the ground, working with Libyan officials, and US warplanes have carried out airstrikes. Libyan officials said small teams of French, British and Italian commandos are also on the ground helping militia fighters against Islamic State militants in the eastern city of Benghazi, though those three nations have not confirmed their presence.
However, Europe and the US said they want the unity government, known as the Government of National Accord, in place so they can support it militarily to put down the extremist group — leaving open the question of how to get it into place. European nations are considering sanctions against several politicians accused of undermining it, including al-Ghweil, the head of the Tripoli-based parliament, Nouri Abusahmein, and the head of the Tobruk parliament, Agila Saleh. However, the EU is still debating the sanctions.
“The reality is, the unity government is the only way out, but may not survive,” European Council on Foreign Relations policy fellow Mattia Toaldo said, adding that if it does succeed in entering Tripoli, its members could come under attack from the Islamic State group.
“In general, it is a gamble,” he said. “We should not be surprised if the government is targeted physically.”
Toaldo said one way to secure al-Sarraj’s entry into Tripoli could be to arrange a deal among militias within both camps that have shown support for the UN deal to protect his government, or at least remain neutral. Most notably, the powerful militias from the city of Misrata, which nominally back the Tripoli administration, but are more concerned with fighting the Islamic State group, are largely behind the UN deal.
However, there is no guarantee that the other factions would back down. So, what is a war between two rival governments backed by militias risks becoming a war among three rival governments, none of which recognize the others — yet another permutation to the chaos that Libya has seen since the ouster and killing of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the 2011 civil war.
On Thursday last week, UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler, who has led the negotiations over the unity government, said it is vital that al-Sarraj and his leadership move into Tripoli and that the two rival governments “cease to exist,” but he did not say how to bring it about. He urged the Tobruk administration to throw its backing to el-Sarraj to legitimize it.
“The situation in Libya is urgent,” Kobler said during a visit to Cairo to meet Arab League officials. “The Islamic State is expanding, the economic situation going from bad to worse.”
“DAESH do not discuss agreements... They just take territory every day and they expand if nothing is done,” he added, using an Arab acronym for the militant group.
The Government of National Accord was the result of months of negotiations, including members of both the Tripoli and Tobruk parliaments, held in Morocco.
It created a presidential council headed by el-Sarraj that would set up a Cabinet and take control of the military, which is fragmented, but largely backs Hifter in Tobruk.
Mohammed Ali Abdullah, a representative from Misrata at the negotiations, said: “The deal is full of deficits and flaws.”
Abdullah said el-Sarraj was forced on the negotiators.
“We were surprised, but remained silent so not to cause divisions. He is unknown... He has no political leadership skills. He has nothing,” Abdullah added.
The UN sought agreement from the Tobruk parliament, or House of Representatives, which is internationally recognized as it was the last legislature elected, in 2014. However, lawmakers stalled for months. Finally, last weekend, a group of 101 of the lawmakers signed a list approving the government and handed it to teams of political dialogue, which decided, according to Kobler, that this is enough as an endorsement as the House of Representatives failed to meet.
However, many Tobruk lawmakers are crying foul.
Mahmoud Jibril, one of Libya’s top politicians, told Kobler that “jumping over democratic measures and the parliament’s authority is a clear violation to the political deal itself.”
The Tobruk House of Representatives is split into three blocs over the UN deal. One bloc supports it. Another is pursuing a separate track of negotiations. The third opposes it entirely, saying it cannot join ranks with “terrorists” — as it calls the Muslim militants in Tripoli.
The opponents have been encouraged by victories by Hifter’s forces, which largely defeated Muslim militias — including Islamic State fighters and pro-Tripoli militias — battling them for control of Benghazi. That has fueled their belief that they can outright defeat the pro-Tripoli militias without having to reach a deal with them.
“There are pressures on the parliament to let this unity government pass. They want us to unite with terrorists and militias in Tripoli,” said Ali al-Takabali, a Tobruk lawmaker.
Al-Takabali said the el-Sarraj government would eventually collapse and can “go to hell.”
“This unity government is carrying the seeds of [its own] death within it,” he added.
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