In Libya, the Tantalizing Promise of a Unity Government

Yesterday, on March 25, the international peace process aimed at ending Libya’s civil war concluded its latest round of talks in Morocco on schedule. Both sides have agreed to continue the dialogue, despite predictions that it might collapse. This is encouraging news, coming as it does at a moment when the rising influence of the ...

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Yesterday, on March 25, the international peace process aimed at ending Libya’s civil war concluded its latest round of talks in Morocco on schedule. Both sides have agreed to continue the dialogue, despite predictions that it might collapse. This is encouraging news, coming as it does at a moment when the rising influence of the Islamic State (IS) reminds Libyans of the high price of continued disunity. Even as the country’s rival governments — the internationally recognized one based in the eastern city of Tobruk, and the self-declared Islamist government in the capital of Tripoli — continue to fight each other, IS forces are drawing attention with attacks on oil and gas installations, which have included taking Western hostages and beheading Libyan guards. So far, though, the IS threat is failing to bring Libyans together as the United Nations and Western governments have hoped. (In the photo, the head of the Islamist government in Tripoli speaks during the funeral of a field commander.)

Optimists can take heart from the fact that the two competing sides have at least been trying to talk. The U.N.-brokered dialogue began in September 2014, and it has continued intermittently since then, though beset by huge difficulties. There are two major issues at stake: the composition and authority of a possible unity government, and the problem of how — and under whose command — this government would restore security and peace.

The U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has issued the participating parties a set of proposals describing a potential deal. UNSMIL recommends creating a presidential council that would fulfill the role of president and head of government, while retaining the internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk as the country’s legislature. The U.N. also suggests setting up a state council, consisting of leading representatives of society, that would play an advisory role if an agreement were reached. Two additional councils, one for local municipal authorities and one for national security, would be formed at a later stage. These proposals represent a good compromise between the two sides’ positions, and offer an excellent basis for forging a political settlement.

The devil, as always, is in the details. The two competing camps have already started to interpret the U.N. proposals to suit their own ends. Mohamed Emazeb, a member of the Tripoli delegation to the talks, has announced that the former General National Congress (GNC), which is based in Tripoli, would be part of this power-sharing arrangement. Abubakder Buera, a member of the Tobruk negotiating team, has countered by saying that there is no place for the former GNC in the outcome of a potential deal.

Given such sentiments, there’s good reason to presume that these differences may prove insurmountable even despite the U.N.’s ambitious recommendations. The delegates will now head back to Tobruk and Tripoli for consultations with their respective camps. If this latest push for a settlement fails, the U.N. and the Western governments that backed the revolution that overthrew the Qaddafi regime will face some tough choices.

If the dialogue collapses, Libya will be beyond any easy solutions. The options then available to the international community could include putting Libya under a U.N. mandate, meaning that vital institutions — such as the Central Bank, the National Oil Corporation, and the Libyan Investment Authority — would be under U.N. administration and oversight. On March 16, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told reporters that the EU should consider such measures to push the parties back to the table in the event the talks should fail. This would essentially transform the country into a direct ward of the international community, a role that the U.N. is undoubtedly keen to avoid. This scenario would probably also entail military intervention by the West, perhaps led by Italy, to halt the rise of IS. The intervention could include targeted air strikes on IS targets and the establishment of peacekeeping forces to protect vital oil and gas infrastructure as well as to help secure the borders of the country. Another option would be to create an Arab-Muslim military coalition, likely led by Egypt and Algeria, that would intervene to restore security and prevent the flow of arms and extremist fighters.

Even if the competing sides do agree on a deal, the resulting unity government would confront daunting challenges. The most obvious would be restoring security and combating terrorism. Given that a number of armed groups oppose both the negotiating progress and the very principle of compromise, a future government would find itself in immediate and direct confrontation with those who refuse to cooperate with disarmament and security reform initiatives. (Many of these militias are currently on the government payroll, a fact that has contributed substantially to the deterioration of public finance over the last three years.)

It’s worth noting that past attempts to integrate the militias into the army and security forces have failed miserably, largely because successive central governments have given in to pressure from militias and their leaders rather than implementing professional, efficient training and reintegration programs. This precedent set by previous governments will be a big problem for anyone who attempts to disarm the militias on a national level. A better approach would be to tackle the issue of disarming the militias on regional and local levels instead, since local groups and authorities are better positioned to influence groups operating in their cities or regions.

The other immediate challenge is the economy. The steep fall in oil prices, a corresponding drop in production levels, and terrorist attacks on vital oil infrastructure are all exacerbating an already yawning budget deficit, compounding the woes of an economy already battered by war. A unity government will also have to deal with the issue of porous borders, which are being exploited by extremist groups and arms smugglers.

In short, even if the warring sides can come to an agreement to end their conflict, that won’t translate into a quick fix for all the country’s problems. But at least it would be a start.

Photo credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Mohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.