Unity government in Libya poised to proceed

Deutsche Welle
7 Min Read

Libya’s opposing parties aim to form a unity government at a meeting in Rome. The conference will also aim to mobilize international aid for the country. Time is short, as “IS” is growing stronger in Libya.
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has issued an urgent warning: Europe should concern itself more with its southern neighbors – and with Libya, in particular. Renzi has invited representatives from Libyan groups, the United Nations, the United States and other countries to Rome on Sunday. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will also be there. The UN special envoy for Libya, Martin Kobler, is playing a central role. On Friday, he apparently persuaded the rival parties to come to an agreement. But the international community does not just want a stable government in Tripoli; it also wants to prevent the terrorist group “Islamic State” (IS) from spreading further in the crisis-ridden north African country.

Since the ouster of long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, the oil-rich desert state has descended into chaos and violence. Militias, tribes, clans and political groups all control their own separate territories. The country, which is more than five times as large as Germany, now has two governments. One of them is internationally recognized and is based in Tobruk, in the far east of Libya. The other controls the capital, Tripoli, in the west. There, Islamist parties are in power. Clashes between heavily armed groups are constantly flaring up.

Fight against ‘IS’ prioritized

The ones to profit the most from the power vacuum are local “IS” affiliates. Their followers have hoisted the black flag of the self-styled caliphate in several cities and are threatening Europe with attacks. For this reason, Renzi is emphasizing that the destruction of “IS” has to be an absolute priority.

But so far, no group in Libya has been big enough, or strong enough, to carry out the task. For around a year now, the United Nations has been trying to bring together the most important parties once more. The aim is to create a unity and transition government, Merin Abbass says. He is in charge of the Libya projects at Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation. “The transition government is to make it possible to organize elections, establish a constitution and prepare a new government within two years,” Abbass told DW.

The vice speaker of the parliament in Tripoli has now announced that the two governments will sign a compromise paper on December 16. A representative of the parliament in Tobruk called on all groups to join the agreement. On Thursday, Kobler invited the rivals from Tobruk and Tripoli to Tunis in order to bolster their allegiance to the cause of unity. The diplomat confessed that all sides, including himself, still had reservations. But, he said, the text was now on the table and would not be discussed further. “That would mean re-opening Pandora’s Box,” warned Kobler, who heads the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

Opposition to separate arrangements

The resistance to an agreement was great. Only last weekend, several Libyan representatives signed their own paper envisaging the election of a head of government within 15 days. But Kobler spoke out against separate arrangements. He demanded that Libya’s leaders put the national interest before party interests.

Up to now, one obstacle to a compromise was people’s fear of being suddenly left without means and influence. According to Abbass, all those concerned are asking themselves questions like: “What happens when I no longer have the control of oilfields, no longer have the finance ministry or when I give up my weapons?” Many Libyan politicians found out what it means to be suddenly deprived of influence and position in May 2013. Back then, all of those who had at some stage had a function in the Gadhafi regime were excluded forever from holding public office. Among those affected were many experienced politicians and bureaucrats who had dissociated themselves from the regime long before the dictator was toppled.

Intervention from outside

But what is also important for a long-term arrangement is the role of other states – as with the war in Syria. “There are many regional powers that wield influence in Libya and also help determine what happens politically,” Abbass said. For example, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are on the side of the administration in Tobruk, he says, while the Islamists in Tobruk can count on support from Qatar and Turkey.

Another problem for the talks is the loss of confidence in the UN. Kobler’s predecessor as UN special envoy, Bernardino Leon of Spain, did not observe the necessary neutrality, the Libyan journalist Mustafa Fetouri wrote on the online portal “Al-Monitor.” For example, according to Fetouri, Leon is said to have passed on important information to the Emirates, who are on the side of the government in Tobruk. The Emirates, in their turn, reportedly offered Leon a high-paid job, Fetouri says.

It remains to be seen whether there really will be the long-term agreement on the UN paper that has been announced. An agreement has seemed within reach many times before. And the question of international aid for the country must be negotiated in Rome on Sunday as well. But for the time being, hope still prevails. “This is a day of joy,” the vice speaker of the parliament in Tripoli said.

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