The Risks of Rushing a New Libyan Deal
Diplomats are working at fever pitch to resolve the long-running crisis in Libya, with one eye on halting waves of refugees headed for Europe and the other on uprooting Islamic State from the North African coast.
But there are even greater dangers associated with rushing the process to anoint a national unity government without first consolidating domestic support or addressing urgent security concerns.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joins his Italian counterpart, Paolo Gentiloni, in Rome on Sunday for talks with foreign ministers from Libya’s neighbors and the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. The goal, according to Gentiloni, is to “make a decisive push” for Libyans to agree on a unity government.
“We don’t want to give time to Daesh,” Gentiloni told the Italian Senate.
Libya’s divided government and fractious militias are indeed tearing the country apart. This is a principal reason that ISIL has become ever more deeply rooted in a base in Sirte, the Mediterranean hometown of Libya’s deposed strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
The U.N. and major powers are gambling that a strong push by the international community will pave the way for the establishment of a Libyan government that will restore law and order and be a partner for counter-terrorism and migration control.
This would be an irresponsible bet. The U.N.-brokered unity deal on the table is strongly opposed by the leaders of Libya’s two rival Parliaments — the General National Congress (GNC) in the capital, Tripoli, and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the eastern city of Tobruk. It’s not entirely clear that a majority of their members endorse it as is either. The two bodies don’t agree on much, but they do agree on blocking this deal.
Last weekend, Libyan delegates from the two parliaments announced an alternative peace plan. The U.N. and Western powers dismissed the initiative, stating unequivocally that the U.N. plan was the only way forward. “The train has left the station,” said Martin Kobler, the new head of the U.N. mission in Libya, in a press statement. The statement added that he “urges all Libyans to support this agreement, including those who still oppose it.”
That is wishful thinking. Libya’s proposed new sole recognized authority would be headed by Faez Serraj, a relatively unknown politician prior to his nomination by the U.N. in October. It is highly likely that security conditions will prevent Serraj and his colleagues from taking office in Tripoli.
This means they will have no control over state administration, including the pivotal central bank. It could trigger renewed fighting for control of the capital between factions backing and opposing the new government. Such a unity government would likely have little influence in the east, where there is significant opposition to the U.N. deal as currently configured. It could indeed fuel secessionist sentiment there.
Proponents of the Serraj government are already publicly considering alternatives, like the sleepy desert outpost of Jufra, less than 100 miles south of Sirte, or Ghaddames, a medieval border oasis where Libya meets Algeria and Tunisia. A government in either of these locations will govern in name only.
Many of the leaders meeting in Rome are fully aware of the limited support the proposed U.N.-sponsored agreement enjoys. They understand the shortcomings of available security arrangements. Nevertheless, they insist on pressing ahead as rapidly as possible, concerned about losing time in their plans to counter the threats of terrorism and uncontrolled migration from Libyan territory.
Seasoned diplomats and U.N. officials involved in the process say they are responding to a juggernaut of political pressure from powerful states, including the U.S. The worrying result is that important Libyan supporters of the peace plan are beginning to see the international community as irrationally driven to impose an agreement on a government that cannot survive in Libya’s fractured political landscape.
It is, however, not too late for Sunday’s meeting to make modest changes to improve the odds of the deal succeeding. Negotiators need to keep the door open to the various dialogue initiatives that Libyans have launched in recent weeks, not condescendingly slam it in their faces, as if the U.N. plan is sacrosanct and that any challenge to it is taboo.
Many opponents of the deal have made their future support conditional on further changes. Sending the message that there is still room for a change in the leadership and membership of the unity government’s presidency council — a nine-member body that will have key executive powers — would be one way to draw in fence-sitters.
Finally, it is essential to ask Libyans who support the U.N. deal to do more to change their compatriots’ perception of it. Serraj, whose mandate can only work if his support base is broadened considerably, and politicians from the western city of Misrata, who were key to efforts to reaching an initial agreement last summer, should reach out to their compatriots in the east of the country.
The international community should also change the impression that those who currently oppose the deal will be locked out of it forever — and perhaps even face sanctions — if they do not relent. This “now or never” attitude is not just polarizing, it pushes constituencies that could still be won over decisively into the anti-deal camp. The agreement, after all, is intended to bring Libyans together, not divide them further.