The latest round of UN sponsored talks to catalyse a Libyan unity government has concluded on familiar optimistic and menacing notes. The principal parties, the Eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR), and the Western-based General National Congress (GNC) agreed to a solution “within weeks,” while the plan’s main architect, UN Special Representative Bernardino Leon, warned that delay would mean chaos. By weakening central power and unanimity of purpose across the board, this exercise may cause the opposite of its intended effect, blocking any prospects of a sustainable central authority, and hastening a split between East, West and South.
The HOR is the legal heir to an election-based political process that followed the 2011 revolution. Its military arm, the The Libyan National Army, is led by General Khalifa Haftar, a 1980s-era defector from Gaddafi’s military, who has declared war on all Islamists, under the banner of his Karama (Dignity) movement, which has strong national support. The GNC, while it incorporates some non-Islamist elements, is heavily Islamist, and supported by a coalition of militias known as Libya Dawn. The GNC was formed unilaterally after the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist collaborators were routed in national elections in 2014, as they had been in 2012.
The HOR, which the international community still formally recognises as the legal representative of the Libyan people, appears to have lost some of its "soft legitimacy" as the UN process has continued, and as the GNC’s demands have grown bolder. The fact that that the HOR has been unable or unwilling to control the “rogue general” Haftar, is a major problem. To add to the spectacle, Abdullah Al Thinni, HOR Prime Minister since March 2014, seemed to offer his resignation during a press conference on Wednesday, following public accusations that his government was, indeed, losing control of vital state organs. A spokesman later told Reuters that he would only resign if the people demanded it.
The unity plan and its principle architect, UN Special Representative Bernardino Leon, is supported by the European Union, and its members France and Italy, which have been inundated by refugees from Africa. Over 200,000 migrants have arrived in the EU from Africa this year alone. Europe hopes that a compromise government will help stem the flow, but this is unlikely to happen. Indeed, attempts to mix ideologically incompatible elements are likely to advantage those who benefit most from chaos, supporters of the Islamic State (IS).
In an display of not-quite-déjà vu, pro-Gaddafi groups were out demonstrating in public in Libya’s three largest cities, Benghazi, Sebha and Tripoli this past week, stoked by the GNC-controlled court’s sentencing of Gaddafi’s son Saif Al Islam and other prominent regime members to death in late July (Saif al Islam is currently held in the city of Zintan, whose militia has refused to surrender him). Pro-Gaddafi sentiment lingers, particularly among those who benefited the most when he was in power, and those who are not fierce partisans of either the HOR or the GNC. Antipathy to Islamists among the general population has led some to conclude that perhaps the Gaddafis were right. The GNC clearly timed the sentences to project confidence, and to defy the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has demanded the extradition of Saif to The Hague for trial. It was not a unifying manoeuvre.
If a unity government is formed, the most likely result will be a trading of one set of ills for another: the Islamists will have secured the legitimacy they could not get at the polls; indications are that General Haftar would take either success or a failure of a new government as his cue to up the ante and set off alone; and IS will take advantage of nearly-assured deadlock to advance its own agenda. While Haftar is problematic, trusting that Islamists will fight IS, within or outside a unity government, stretches the bounds of belief. In the past, IS has been able to co-opt or overtake other Islamist groups to serve its own objectives, and it seems to be doing the same in Libya. While the tactics and strategies may be different, they share the same objective of creating an “Islamic state."
The irony of the parallel trajectories of Libya and Egypt is thick: in Egypt, the Islamist parties won national elections, and were put down by a strongman counter-coup; in Libya, the Islamists lost and are being given greater voice by internationally-sanctioned negotiation. If the unity government is formed, and then fails, it may well lead to the conclusion that Libya as a single entity is unworkable. Some have already come to such a view. While the talks have gone on, the process of administrative separation continues, with the HOR working to establish functional administrative replicas of the Central Bank, the Libyan Investment Authority (Libya’s $56bn-odd sovereign fund) and the National Oil Company (NOC), the bulk of whose administrative infrastructure remains in Tripoli. In and around the most populous southern city of Sebha, violence between warring ethnic groups, the Tebu and Tuareg, continues, as the Northerners duke it out.
As the peace talks in Geneva adjourned, Mr. Leon said the two sides "underscored their determination" to complete the negotiations. The UN’s aim is to arrive at a deal by late September, before the UN General Assembly in New York, and the next milestone in the Libyan political calendar—the elections for the HOR in October.
If the international community itself were not so determined to force the current programme, a logical course of action would be to address the weaknesses of the HOR, with an arrangement that fortified and expanded its effectiveness, reach and transparency while resolving the relationship between the HOR, General Haftar and the Libyan National Army in favour of order and accountability. This would not by any means be an easy task. Meanwhile, arguments in the west over whether or not it was a good idea to intervene in the first place, and whether leaving the Gaddafi regime in place would have been better than what we see now, are a waste of energy. The problem in 2011 was not the initial intervention, but the fact that the intervention was accompanied by no plan to contain and channel the forces that inevitably followed.