Libya, the UN-brokered unity government between skepticism and hope

Libya’s humanitarian plight, political divisions, and growing vulnerability are evident and the urgency to take a step forward to solve the crisis is as evident. The Western powers concerned by the country’s instability and its spillover effects have tried to give a limited political answer through a United Nations-brokered dialogue. After the failure of Bernardino León’s proposal, former UN envoy to Libya,  for a national unity government led by a Prime Minister, two ministers and three deputies from the country’s east, west and south regions,[1] a revised proposal forwarded by the designed Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj found the support of the new Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Martin Kobler,[2] in December 2015.

Kobler himself welcomed the agreement, by stating that “after a period of political divisions and conflict, Libya is restarting its political transition” with an official document that “puts in place a single set of legitimate institutions – essential building blocks towards a peaceful, secure and prosperous Libya.”[3]

This analysis wants to shed a light on the content of the agreement reached in December, and on its actual implementation on the ground. By doing so, the analysis will address the three main challenges Libya has to face today: the political stability and a unified consensus, the security system rationalization and the ease to the economic and humanitarian crisis.

From the paper…

On December 17, 2015, the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) of Skhirat, Morocco, was signed to form a Government of National Accord (GNA) consisting of the Presidency Council and Cabinet supported by two other institutions, being the House of Representatives and the State Council. The agreement was the result of a political dialogue between the House of Representatives (HoR), the new General National Congress, together with representatives from municipal councils, armed groups, tribal leaders, civil society organisations.[4] In details, the new General National Congress[5] is a body formed by politicians from the blocs that lost the June 2014 elections in Libya. The GNC had appointed an alternative government for Libya, namely the National Salvation Government, led by Khalifa al-Ghawi and supported by the so called Libya Dawn Coalition. The LPA transformed this body into a consultative State Council. The House of Representatives also known as the Council of Representatives (CoR), or the Libyan Parliament, is a temporary, transitional council, elected in June 2014 to govern the country until the drafting of a new constitution, and now based in Tobruk, in the eastern part of the country.

The agreement outlines four main principles that have to be ensured in the country’s rearrangement: first, the democratic rights of the Libyan people; secondly, the need for a consensual government based on the principle of the separation of powers and the balance between them; thirdly, the need to empower state institutions, first of all the Government of National Accord, so that they can address the serious challenges ahead; fourthly, the respect for the Libyan judiciary and its independence.

On top of this, the articles of the agreement also point out the importance of territorial integrity and of the state’s monopoly over the two institutions guaranteeing security (the army and the police), in accordance with the law and in service to the public interest. Hence, it is prohibited for any individual, body or group to establish military or paramilitary formations, groups or organizations outside the legitimacy of the state. Furthermore, the famous clause 8 of the Agreement’s additional provisions states that “All powers of the senior military, civil and security posts stipulated in the Libyan legislations and laws in force shall be transferred to the Presidency Council of the Council of Ministers immediately upon signing” the “Agreement.”[6] This means that any military group existing at the moment in Libya, as well as any power in the hands of any citizen or senior chief should dissolve and a single security force should exist under the aegis of the GNA.[7]

Looking at the government’s structure, the agreement establishes that the Prime Minister, within a period that does not exceed one month of the adoption of the LPA, shall submit a full agreed list of members for the GNA’s cabinet and its program to the House of Representatives to fully endorse it, through a vote of confidence and adopt its program in accordance with the legally stated procedures within a period, that does not exceed ten days from its submission to the House of Representatives.

The agreement stresses that all parties shall commit themselves to respecting the institutions that stem from it, by supporting them and not prejudicing their independence or competences. Then, the main priorities are to promote cooperation and coordination between the bodies and institutions, as well as to enhance stability, security, national reconciliation and institutions’ good functioning in the name of national interest.[8]

UN Security Council Resolution 2259 of December 23, 2015,[9] welcomed the Agreement, calling upon the Presidency Council to form a Government of National Accord and finalize interim security arrangements necessary for stabilizing Libya. The text of the resolution also reiterates the support to the Government of National Accord as the sole legitimate government of Libya. This should be based in the capital Tripoli and should be urgently provided with the means to maintain governance and promote stability and economic development. The Member States, particularly those in the region, are encouraged to continue to urge all parties in Libya to engage constructively with the Government of National Accord and all other institutions included in the Libyan Political Agreement. The resolution also calls upon Member States to cease support and official contacts with parallel institutions, claiming to be the legitimate authority, though being outside the Agreement as specified by it.

On balance, both official documents focus on the key role that the GNA has to play in Libya’s political restructuring and on the necessary commitment that all the forces on the ground, regional powers, neighboring and foreign countries, have to make in adopting a concerted approach when supporting the government of Tripoli.

… to the field

Although it has obtained international recognition and a certain degree of internal support, the GNA has a plethora of challenges ahead of it. First, a political one: al-Sarraj’s Presidential Council has to build a countywide consensus, by obtaining the vote of confidence of the Tobruk-based House of Representative, and by balancing out local and regional affiliations, to reinforce its role as the unique legitimate power to guide the Libyan renaissance. Secondly, a security challenge: the GNA has to be able to create a joint command, that would reunite the present separated militias, as well as the army of General Haftar. On top of this, it has to heal the Daesh plague. Thirdly, an economic challenge: the GNA has to regain the control over the Central Bank of Libya and the National Oil Company, and establish a commonly agreed political economy. Last but not least, al-Sarraj’s government has to address the deep humanitarian crisis Libya and his citizens are suffering.

GNA arrived in Tripoli at the end of March 2016.[10] Although it initially faced the discontent of the Tripoli-based Government of National Salvation and its leader Khalifa al-Ghawi, recently al-Ghawi decided to step down and put the future of Libya in the hand of the GNA. Therefore, since its arrival, the GNA has gained the support of numerous municipal councils in western Libya as well as many district councils, at least in the capital.

The most serious political obstacle remains the endorsement of the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, in the eastern part of the country. The House of Representatives has repeatedly failed to take two crucial steps to move the political process forward: voting on the Government of National Accord and amending the constitutional declaration to implement the Libyan Political Agreement. A minority group of MPs close to House Speaker Agila Saleh have physically blocked other MPs from voting in support of the al-Sarraj government and the agreement.[11] The Speaker of the HoR, Agila Saleh, has stressed that the Parliament cannot vote on the government unless it presents itself to the deputies in Tobruk. The GNA has failed to do so, seemingly because of security-related fears and the situation its members might face in eastern Libya.

As a matter of fact, the eastern part of the country is under the influence of Libya’s military strongman General Khalifa Haftar, as it is clear that the HoR’s Speaker Agila Saleh is an emanation of Haftar’s military structure. Hence, it is not a coincidence that Saleh and the MPs close to him are trying to obstruct the process of establishment of the GNA. Both UN envoy Martin Kobler[12] and the European Union share the idea that some forces are voluntarily undermining the political process and the EU in particular has imposed sanctions[13] on Saleh and other politicians for obstructing implementation of the political agreement and preventing the GNA from carrying out its duties.

As a consequence, there are substantial fears that forces on the ground are competing, rather than coordinating towards the implementation of the political agreement.

The political fragmentation derives from the civil war that has been tearing Libya apart since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi’s decennial dictatorship: the internal split between the two rival governments of Tobruk and Tripoli summed up with the local and tribal powers’ claims. The disintegration of forces and the consequent absence of central power has not only given wide space of maneuver to self-designated military chief of not legitimated security apparatus, but has also created fertile ground for the establishment of the Maghreb roots of Daesh. In this framework, the city of Sirte plays a fundamental role.

Sirte is a city on the coast, close to important oil sites and source of migrants’ trafficking across the Mediterranean. At the moment, Sirte is the Daesh stronghold, and as it is located in the middle of the Libyan coast, it seems it is partitioning the country between the east, under the influence of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and of General Haftar, and the west, now under the formal control of the GNA, as well as of numerous local groups and tribes. Both sides are committed in the fight against the Daesh’s occupation of Sirte.

This fragmented answer to the Daesh challenge is carried out with fragmented military forces: al-Sarraj can count on a coalition with the city-state of Misrata and some of Tripoli’s militias. This coalition also includes forces from other city-states in the west and in the south of the country, together with the Petroleum Facilities Guards of the east. On the other side there is Haftar, formerly the Head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), who clearly opposes the LPA, as well as the GNA authority, because of the aforementioned clause 8, that states that the military leadership would be reset once the GNA is established. The LNA is a collection of different groups, among which a civilian one with no proper military training, as well as a tribal element.[14] Moreover, Haftar also benefits from the support of regional powers, like Egypt – whose leader has welcomed the creation of the GNA – and the United Arab Emirates – that provide Haftar with direct cash or with revenues coming from oil sales.[15] He fights against the Daesh’s stronghold of Sirte, with the hope of registering a victory that would allow him to bargain from a preferential position his future role in the Libyan government. As some activists close to the Haftar’s camp said, “Those who will conquer Sirte will rule the country.”[16]

At this stage, are these forces fighting against Daesh, or more against each other? Many of Libya’s factions are still more focused on viewing each other as more of a threat than Daesh, and are using Daesh as a pretext to wage war against local rivals.[17]

This puts in question the value of a potential Western intervention in the country: US and European countries do not have a unique force through which canalize counter-terrorism measures in the country and their outside intervention with a cohesive government yet to be formed could exacerbate internal political conflicts, strengthen the power of local militias and throw the country into greater turmoil. A collapse is then ensured if the progress of the unity government and the fight against Daesh are contemporarily addressed. Although they are inter-linked, these issues have to be tackled separately.

As a report from the European Council on Foreign Relations has rightfully pointed out, the fact that the US and some European countries seem to be working directly with specific Libyan armed groups damages the political efforts to reach a power-deal between these actors. Each group involved in these bilateral relations is working on the assumption that they will become the equivalent of the Iraqi Peshmergas. This means that in exchange for fighting Daesh, they expect to receive weapons, political support and maybe the recognition of their autonomous control of territory.[18] Should we be ready to see Libya split in two?

Both western and regional powers have to step up political efforts to boost an accountable, legitimate and unified Libyan government, equipped with an effective and reliable security apparatus. The anti-Daesh fight could strengthen the political process and vice versa, only if conducted in the name of the unity government, rather than in support of individual or separatist groups’ prerogatives.

A stabilized political order would also allow to better tackle the economic and humanitarian crisis. Until some year ago, Libya was a wealthy nation in Africa. Nowadays, more than 40 percent of the population needs humanitarian assistance.[19] The government deficit is expected to reach 54% of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2016.[20] Salaried are not paid since money should come from the state. Looking at some data collected by the European Council on Foreign Relations, UNOCHA and the EU Commission DG ECHO,[21] we can  gather that the four-year situation of instability and violence results in 40% of the population in need of humanitarian aid, 60% of the hospitals are inaccessible, 435,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and 4,348 violent deaths, only between January 2014 and January 2016. In response to an increase demand of aid (165,6 million USD), only 11,9% has been funded, as of April 2016. These data help to understand the significant numbers of people fleeing, as well as the Daesh further radicalization.

A strong unified government should retake the control over the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) and the National Oil Company (NOC), and resume the oil production and sales.


As the Libyan Political Agreement declaims in its prologue, “This agreement is the first step down a long road towards Libya’s recovery and prosperity. Political transitions are always difficult, and replacing authoritarianism with genuine democracy is a tremendous undertaking under the best of circumstances. There are no shortcuts, and it will not be easy. It is, however, a good first step that places Libya on solid ground to face the challenges ahead.”

As the analysis has pointed out, there are several challenges to be faced, as there are many points on the agenda unsolved yet.

In this framework, the international support is fundamental. On May 16, 2016, Foreign Ministers from Europe, the Middle East and the United States met in Vienna to discuss how to support the Libyan unity, around the newly born Presidential Council and the Head of the GNA, and which strategy to implement against Daesh. Formally, the political representatives jointly reiterate their commitment to support Libya’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity and to ceasing support to and official contact with parallel institutions.[22] Substantially, they declared themselves ready to consider demands from the GNA for exemptions from a United Nations arms embargo and militarily equip it in its fight against Daesh.[23]

This step can lead to unfortunate and further threatening consequences, because the weapons could fall in the hands of small militant groups and tribes which can use them as a strong point to claim their own prerogatives and interests. Should this happen, it risks to delegitimize the GNA and exacerbate the civil warfare.

First and foremost, it is necessary to prioritize the end of political and security fragmentation over any other issue.

Giulia  Formichetti

Master’s Degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

Notes and references

[1] This national unity government was rejected by the internationally recognized government in Tobruk and the rival government in Tripoli. See: “Libyan officials reject UN-proposed unity deal with rival government,” The Guardian, 19 October 2015.

[2] “UN welcomes ‘historic’ signing of Libyan Political Agreement,” UN News Centre, 17 December  2015.

[3] “Statement by SRSG Martin Kobler on the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in Skhirat, Morocco,” UNSMIL, 17 December  2015.

[4] “Libyan Political Agreement,” UNSMIL, 17 December  2015.

[5] Not to confuse with the General National Congress, the legislative authority of Libya for two years following the end of the Libyan Civil War. It was elected by popular vote on July 7, 2012, and took power from the National Transitional Council. It dissolved in June 2014, with the election of the House of Representatives.

[6] “Libyan Political Agreement,” UNSMIL, 17 December  2015.

[7] Ibid., Art. 3.

[8] Ibid., Art. 60-61.

[9] “UN Security Council Resolution 2259,” UNSMIL, 23 December  2015.

[10]Libya’s UN-backed government sails into Tripoli,” Al Jazeera, 31 March 2016.

[11] Toaldo, Mattia (2016, May). “Intervening Better: Europe’s Second Chance in Libya,” Memo Policy – European Council on Foreign

[12] حلول عقد حكومة السراج مؤجّلة: بوسهمين وصالح يواجهان العالم.

[13]Libyan politicians hit by EU sanctions over new government,” BBC, 1 April 2016.

[14] Toaldo, Mattia. “Libya’s competing centers of power and the West’s priority: support the political process,” Aspen Institute Italia, 3 May 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wehrey, Frederic. “The Path forward in Libya,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 3 March 2016.

[18] Toaldo, Mattia (2016, May). “Intervening Better: Europe’s Second Chance in Libya,” Memo Policy – European Council on Foreign

[19] Donaghy, Rori. “Interview: Martin Kobler, the UN envoy trying to put Libya back together,” Middle East Eye, 25 April 2016.

[20] World Bank database. Retrieved from

[21] European Commission. “Libya,” ECHO

[22]Ministerial Meeting for Libya Joint Communique,” UNSMIL, 16 May 2016.

[23]Libya to be military equipped in fight against ISIL,” Al Jazeera, 17 May 2016.

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