Forming a Unity Government May be Libya’s Best Bet for Healing Rift
Forming a Unity Government May be Libya’s Best Bet for Healing Rift
Ripples of dirt cover a graffiti of the Libyan flag painted under a bridge in Derna, eastern Libya, July 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Claudia Gazzini
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 12 minutes

Forming a Unity Government May be Libya’s Best Bet for Healing Rift

Libyan politicians have floated a plan to put together an interim government. The UN and other external actors should support this step toward breaking the country’s political deadlock.

Libya’s political crisis took a new turn after its House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk, approved a plan to appoint an interim government that would reunify the country’s two parallel executives as part of a roadmap to general elections. House members made this decision with backing from representatives of the rival Tripoli-based assembly, the High State Council, and from east-based military strongman Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. If it garners sufficient support, the plan could be an important step toward healing the rift that has placed Libya under the split administration of two separate authorities for much of the past decade. But it still faces significant obstacles, with influential critics both inside and outside Libya.

Opponents say the plan undermines already faltering efforts to hold elections and risks shattering a peace that has lasted for a year despite the deep divisions in the country. Western governments and some Libyans want Libya to hold general elections first, before forming a government, and so does the UN. But they find themselves at odds with the so-called 6+6 Committee, which was established by and comprises members of both the House and Council, and is tasked with drafting a roadmap to fresh polls as well as a set of laws to govern them. The UN has supported the Committee in helping prepare for fresh polls. But despite the UN’s insistence on holding elections before putting together a government – which would leave the two parallel administrations in place for the time being – the 6+6 Committee concluded in its deliberations that an interim unity government is a necessary first step. It drafted a plan to that effect, which the House and Council then adopted.

Proponents of the plan make a solid case that their effort is the most promising way to bring the country back together, given the challenges (some would say impossibility) of holding elections while governance is divided between two competing entities. But it remains to be seen whether their plan is viable – something that will depend in part on external support. If the process of selecting a prime minister to form this government is clear and transparent, international actors, including the UN, should endorse this course of action, which presents a concrete path for moving Libya beyond the political stalemate that has plagued it for so long.

Toward a New Unity Government?

At the heart of debates about the new plan stands the unresolved matter of Libya’s reunification. Since an international coalition ousted the Muammar Qadhafi regime in 2011, Libya has lurched from one predicament to another. In 2014, contested parliamentary elections in effect split the country in two, with one power centre forming in the capital, Tripoli, and the other in Tobruk. Fighting broke out intermittently between the two camps, with forces under Haftar’s command laying siege to Tripoli in April 2019. A ceasefire the following October ushered in the formation of a unified interim government. But the unity did not last. In February 2022, following botched elections two months earlier, a deal between the House and Council to replace the Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba collapsed, and the House asked Fathi Bashagha to form a parallel government.

The country has been split between two rival administrations since then, with precious little agreement either inside or outside the country about how to knit them back together. In Tripoli sits the Dabaiba government, which enjoys international recognition despite its failure to hold scheduled elections in December 2021, controlling most of western Libya. The parallel authority (which Russia has welcomed but no government has recognised) administers eastern Libya from Sirte, backed by the House in Tobruk as well as Haftar. In March, the House removed Bashagha, replacing him with his finance minister, Osama Hamad, in an acting capacity.

Local and international actors continue to disagree about the best way to bring [Libya] back under a single government.

Local and international actors continue to disagree about the best way to bring the country back under a single government – whether through fresh elections, a power-sharing deal or a new constitution. The elections-first approach is enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 2656 (2022), which “recognises the desire of the Libyan people to have their say in who governs them through elections” – language that partly explains the UN’s present opposition to creating a unity government.

Likewise, there are persistent divergences over who should lead reunification efforts: the rival assemblies, the principal political actors on the ground or a new UN-led forum. The 2015 UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement states that the country’s rival assemblies must agree on any major decision about the country’s political future. But in 2021 it was a UN-led body, which included members of the two assemblies and other representatives of Libya’s factions, that selected Dabaiba as interim prime minister.

Moves toward the present juncture began in late May, prompted by the deliberations of the 6+6 Committee. The Committee was formed in early March and comprises six members of the House of Representatives (Libya’s parliament elected in 2014) and six from the Tripoli-based High State Council (an advisory body created in 2016 by members of Libya’s first post-Qadhafi assembly elected in 2012). Two months later, it stated that it had reached agreement on an electoral roadmap and supporting legislation. To the surprise of those who believed the 6+6 Committee’s charge was to pave a straight road to elections, it conditioned the two assemblies’ endorsement of the election laws upon the prior appointment of a unity government.

Calls for forming an interim unity government were not new. House Speaker Aghila Saleh and Council Chair Khaled Mishri had publicly endorsed the idea in preceding months. The two men, once adversaries, and their allies in the rival assemblies agreed on the need for a new prime minister to replace Dabaiba. Yet it is unclear if what drove them was real enthusiasm for a unified government to organise elections or simply animosity toward Dabaiba, who by late 2021 had lost the support of members of the House and by early 2023 also of the Council. On 16 June, Haftar added his voice to the mix, saying the country needed an interim government of technocrats to oversee elections and unify the country.

The 6+6 Committee says the time is right to form the interim unified government because it has resolved key disputes such as those over the sequencing of presidential and parliamentary elections and eligibility requirements for presidential candidates. This claim is only partly true. The Committee’s members are in agreement on these matters, but neither the House nor the Council has accepted the proposed election laws that the committee drafted. The Committee scheduled a signing ceremony for the electoral laws on 6 June in Morocco, where its members had been negotiating behind closed doors; the speakers of both assemblies travelled to Morocco but stayed away from the ceremony, which was cancelled at the last minute. House Speaker Saleh subsequently explained to Crisis Group that he opposed the Committee’s provision for a mandatory second round in the presidential election even if a candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round. According to other politicians, another point of contention is whether and when a presidential candidate should have to renounce a second nationality (a potential issue because of Haftar’s reported U.S. citizenship). With these matters still outstanding, neither assembly has yet officially endorsed the electoral laws the Committee submitted, but the latter appears undeterred. Apparently bypassing these setbacks, the 6+6 Committee nevertheless went ahead and drafted a separate document laying out the terms of reference and selection process for a new interim government, as part of its electoral roadmap. It is this new text to which House members gave their preliminary approval on 25 July (the Council had already endorsed it earlier in the month).

[The] approved proposal for forming a unity government envisages full cooperation between the two rival assemblies in selecting an interim prime minister.

This approved proposal for forming a unity government envisages full cooperation between the two rival assemblies in selecting an interim prime minister. Candidates would need to secure formal endorsements (tazkiyat) from at least fifteen House and ten Council members. Next, the House and Council memberships would each vote for candidates from the list. The winner would need to secure the combined highest number of votes.

The plan might well still change. Several House members have said the Council should not be part of this arrangement, on the grounds that it is merely a consultative body. Some have also argued that selecting a government should happen only after the House has formally approved the election laws, with Council backing. They accordingly questioned the plan’s legal validity. In response, and to reassure House members, the House speaker argued that while the Council will share responsibility for selecting the candidate for the interim prime minister’s post, only the House will have the power to ratify or reject the selected candidate; he is right, because Libyan law provides that only parliament can give confidence to a government.

Fences line the perimeter of the Benghazi branch of Libya’s House of Representatives, July 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Claudia Gazzini

At this point, in light of House members’ remarks and possible amendments to the plan relating to voting procedures, it is unclear if both the House and the Council will need to approve an updated version of the plan another time. The two assemblies also still need to clarify the voting procedures and quorum numbers by which the selection process is to occur; and to make clear that part of the new prime minister’s mandate will be to prepare for fresh elections.

As a practical matter, for the Committee’s plan to bring an interim unified government into being, three sets of conditions are required. First, the two assemblies will need to continue good-faith cooperation on the selection procedure for the prime minister, the details of which remain unspecified. Secondly, the move needs popular support. Many Libyans embrace the idea of a unity government before elections – including political personalities who have been staunch advocates of polls and were themselves candidates in the presidential race. But their blessing for this particular plan depends on the perceived validity of the selection procedure and the interim prime minister’s credibility. Thirdly, the plan needs international recognition and UN backing, without which prospects for Dabaiba leaving his post are dim.

Potential Obstacles

Whatever the plan’s merits, the two assemblies have a record of striking deals and then backtracking, and there are other potential hurdles besides.

The first is that Dabaiba and his supporters could reject his being unseated as prime minister without elections. They could mobilise their armed allies in Tripoli to keep him in power. If they do, clashes could break out between Dabaiba backers and opponents, or individuals tied to efforts to replace Dabaiba could be kidnapped, a tactic commonly used in Libya to silence political opponents. Any of these events could halt the selection process and have destabilising effects.

The second possible obstacle is that, thus far, the main international actors in Libya appear not to support a move by the House and Council toward selecting a unity government. As noted, the UN has opposed the idea outright, saying it runs counter to UN-backed efforts to pave the way for elections. In a 26 July statement, the UN Support Mission in Libya called it a “unilateral initiative” that flies in the face of popular demand for elections, warning it could have “serious consequences for Libya and trigger further instability and violence”. But in a strongly worded response, the House Foreign Affairs Committee accused the UN of misleading the Libyan public in describing the plan as “unilateral”, contending that the proposed selection process is consistent with the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, which requires both assemblies’ imprimatur for major political decisions. The Committee is technically right, but the UN appears to believe that the two assemblies’ agreement is insufficient, and that legitimacy requires greater buy in, including from pro-election and possibly pro-Dabaiba factions – however far-fetched that may be.

Like the UN, Western capitals have distanced themselves from the interim government plan.

As for other outside actors, their views fall along a spectrum. Like the UN, Western capitals have distanced themselves from the interim government plan. In a 27 July joint statement, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the U.S. underscored the need to “address all contested elements of the electoral framework”, arguing that the focus of Libya’s leaders must be on responding to the “Libyan people’s continuous demands for national presidential and parliamentary elections as soon as possible”. In neglecting to mention the notion of a unity interim government, the statement suggested these capitals would not support one. This posture is no surprise: officials from these countries have been adamant that the next step should be presidential and legislative elections, followed by formation of a government by the new president based on the existing legal framework. They see no benefit to appointing a unity government, contending (not entirely plausibly) that the country can embark on elections just as easily with the two rival governments still in place. Some Libyans interpret such positions as a tacit endorsement of the Dabaiba government, which enjoys close relations with many of these countries. 

Middle Eastern actors have a range of perspectives. The Egyptian foreign ministry called for “respecting the role of Libyan institutions” and avoiding “any diktats or external interference from any party”. In doing so, it seemed to suggest that Cairo stands behind the plan to form an interim government – consistent with its repeated calls for appointing one before general elections and its longstanding support for negotiations between the two assemblies. By contrast, the United Arab Emirates has not expressed a view but is unlikely to throw its weight behind the 6+6 Committee’s plan. It probably leans toward a deal between Dabaiba and Haftar as the best way forward. Abu Dhabi has tried to forge an arrangement between the two power brokers over the past year, and Emirati officials have indicated to Crisis Group that they prefer that path. Officials in Qatar are less enthusiastic about a Dabaiba-Haftar deal as such, but they consider it more realistic than any other option that would require ousting Dabaiba. Many Libyans, however, contend that although Haftar and Dabaiba appear to cooperate on a host of matters, especially related to the oil sector, there is little chance that they will strike a political bargain that could lead to the appointment of a unity government.

An Opportunity to Break the Deadlock?

With the prospect of elections more remote than ever, it is possible that the UN and foreign governments are being too hard-nosed in opposing the idea of forming a unity government as the necessary first step. Of course, if the main Libyan parties could agree on elections, the ballot box would be the best way forward. But they remain divided over the same issues that torpedoed the 2021 elections, namely identifying the eligibility criteria for presidential candidates and the sequencing of presidential and legislative elections. The chance of overcoming these disputes right now is very low, despite the 6+6 Committee’s ideas about how to do so. Libyan politicians tend to profess publicly their support for elections but to temper or withdraw it when they suspect polls would threaten their own political aspirations.

The UN is in no position to impose a different solution on the Libyan parties.

For its part, the UN is in no position to impose a different solution on the Libyan parties. In late February, Abdoulaye Bathily, the UN special representative, proposed that the UN appoint a High-Level Steering Panel for Elections to complete the electoral roadmap. But after the two assemblies objected, and Egypt lobbied the UN Security Council against the idea, Bathily reversed himself. The UN’s role has since shrunk, reflecting the desire of Libya’s political leaders to make their own decisions about the country’s future.

With the UN thus constrained, and no viable alternative on offer, external actors concerned with Libya’s path to stability and good governance should soften their opposition to forming an interim unity government prior to elections. Instead, they should make clear that they can get behind the idea if the two assemblies agree on clear, transparent procedures for selecting a prime minister and if the mandate of the new executive is clearly defined to support electoral preparations. Both bodies should thus make refinements to the approved plan, offering further commitments and details concerning how they will organise internal voting. The House and the Council should also invite the UN to oversee the selection process to ensure that it is free and fair; the UN’s involvement would reduce the chances that other Libyans, including Dabaiba supporters, will contest the outcome, as occurred with the Bashagha government in 2022. Once a unity government is in place, the prospects for getting to new polls become much greater, although still fraught with challenges.

Outside actors are right to see risks in following this path, but if the two assemblies make the changes and commitments suggested above, those risks will be worth taking. The plan approved by the House on 25 July might not be the ideal way out of Libya’s political crisis, but for now it is the only realistic path to reunifying the country.

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