The Libyan political process is effectively stuck. The few recent steps toward a power-sharing agreement are unlikely to accomplish its main goal of giving Libya a single government again. In the meantime, the Islamic State is escalating its presence in Libya, stirring up alarm in Western capitals and creating momentum for a new international intervention in the country, albeit on a more limited scale than the one to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi.
In Spring 2014, the situation in Libya devolved into armed confrontation between the two broad components of the anti-Qaddafi uprising: those who had worked with Qaddafi but then had switched sides and those, mostly of Islamist tendencies, who considered themselves to be the “true revolutionaries” looking to build a new state from scratch, starting with the security sector. These two sides are represented respectively by General Khalifa Haftar with his “Operation Dignity” and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives on the one side and “Libya Dawn” and the Tripoli-based “Government of National Salvation” on the other.
Since September 2014, the West has tried to push the two reluctant factions and their regional sponsors into a power-sharing agreement to be brokered by a Special UN envoy, first Bernardino Leon, then Martin Kobler as of November 2015. This process culminated with the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Skhirat, Morocco on December 17, 2015. The LPA transformed Tripoli’s resurrected General National Congress (GNC), now representing what is left of Libya Dawn, into the consultative State Council, and made Tobruk’s House of Representatives (HoR) the sole legislative authority, with the power to grant a vote of confidence to the new government. The functions of head of state are exercised by the new Tunis-based Presidency Council, which is now composed of nine people representing all factions.
On January 28, more than a month after LPA was signed in Skhirat, the HoR, under the control of Dignity though theoretically representing all of Libya, at last decided to approve the agreement, but without clause 8. Clause 8, one of the final provisions of the agreement, transfers all military powers to the Presidency Council, who will then decide on new military appointments within 50 days. In essence, this means resetting the military leadership of the country—and more importantly, the position currently held by General Haftar as head of the armed forces. The exclusion of clause 8 puts the whole agreement at risk, as almost none of the other factions are ready to accept an agreement that leaves the general in his current position. This means that unless a dramatic change is made, the implementation of the LPA is at a dead end. Even if the Government of National Agreement (GNA) is formed under these circumstances, it is unlikely to move peacefully to Tripoli.
The HoR’s vote on the LPA demonstrated that as long as the process is based exclusively on consolidating the two parliaments into one bicameral legislature it will suffer from several flaws. First, as long as the HoR is located in Tobruk, in Haftar’s fiefdom, it will hardly take a stance that jeopardizes his position. This gives him disproportionate leverage over the whole process, considering that among his enemies are those who control Tripoli and Misrata, as well as the Petroleum Facilities Guard in eastern Libya and most military commanders in Benghazi. The GNC, for its part, is now controlled by a minority of hardliners. Libya Dawn does not exist anymore as a coalition and this effectively leaves Misrata and other important players out of the diarchy created under the LPA.
Finally, the legal basis of the two parliaments is shaky. The GNC is a resurrected parliament with many MPs that have been brought in to replace original members without new elections. A verdict by the Constitutional Court on November 6, 2014 repealed the constitutional amendment that had allowed for elections for members the HoR, whose mandate expired on October 20, 2015—and it is unclear what its plenum is given that dozens of MPs have been boycotting it for more than a year now.
The coming weeks, the outside world could be faced with a paradoxical situation: the HoR could approve a new list of ministers for the Government of National Agreement while implementing the LPA without clause 8. The international community would probably recognize this government while saying that further negotiations would be needed on the LPA. In fact, the GNA would not be able to move to Tripoli anytime soon and would become another government sitting in Tobruk that does not control the state. Alternatively, Libya could continue to have three governments, none of which is governing the country.
In the meantime, the Islamic State escalated its activities with a January 7 terrorist attack in Zliten that killed dozens and an offensive against oil installations in the east in the same week. This boosted the argument in Western capitals that even though any intervention against the Islamic State in Libya should come upon request of the Libyan government, in the absence of such, urgent action should still be taken against the group. The Islamic State in Libya, as elsewhere, has thrived in ungoverned spaces. Unless there is a political agreement that reduces the number of those spaces and governs them, a military intervention is unlikely to change the picture.
The stalemate of the political reconciliation process can be avoided by reforming the process itself. To that end, the HoR could be moved to a more neutral location so it can be recognized as the only legislative authority that includes all factions. Second, a more inclusive consultative body could discuss the way forward on the LPA. This Shura could include representatives of the municipalities from tribes and of the hukama (local wisemen) important to Libya’s social structure. But these reforms would require political courage and strategic patience from the West—both of which are lacking at the moment.
Mattia Toaldo is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.