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After almost two years of civil war among the various armed forces that have backed either the internationally recognized House of Representatives based in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk or the rival General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, Libya has finally made some progress toward establishing a unity government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA). On March 30, the UN-appointed prime minister of the unity government, Fayez al-Sarraj, and six of his advisers secretly traveled to Tripoli and established their presence in the heavily secured Abu Setta naval base. Since then, the new government has taken control of a handful of ministries and the Rixos Hotel, where the GNC had previously been meeting. Despite some success in the capital, however, the GNA faces major obstacles.
The GNC remains one of these obstacles, no doubt, but today, the main challenge comes from the House of Representatives and its allies. The House of Representatives was required to vote on accepting and joining the unity government ten days after signing the UN-brokered peace deal on December 17, 2015, but nearly half a year later, it still has not done so. Despite its favorable standing in the new government, the House of Representatives and its allies remain obstinate. Instead of compromising, some of them seek to completely delegitimize their opponents.
The West recognized the House of Representatives since the June 2014 parliamentary elections, which gave it some degree of legitimacy even though the voter turnout was less than 20 percent. The House of Representatives included familiar faces such as Mahmoud Jibril—a cooperative figure from the National Transitional Council, an interim government that ruled Libya after Muammar al-Qaddafi until a 2012 vote—and boasted secular leanings that seemed to make it more in line with the West.
The GNC was less attractive to the West. It was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and its allies, which would later form Libya Dawn, included some fairly nefarious figures. Many of Libya Dawn’s leaders came from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an anti-Qaddafi force that had formed ties with al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The GNC did not recognize the legitimacy of the June 2014 parliamentary elections and saw them as a way to undermine its February 2014 vote to extend its mandate to rule to the end of the year. Furthermore, the GNC felt that the legitimacy of the June elections was in question owing to the low voter turnout, partly caused the military offensive, “Operation Dignity,” led by strongman Khalifa Hifter, who had fought both for and against Qaddafi in the past and would later become an ally of the House of Representatives. Just a month before the elections, Hifter launched his attack against the GNC and its allies. Retaliatory attacks prevented the House of Representatives from taking power in Tripoli and drove it east to Tobruk.
When the fighting intensified, Western powers took a step back, insisting on negotiations between the rival governments. However, it seemed that the West, under the UN Support Mission in Libya, continued to favor the House of Representatives. The final version of the UN-drafted peace deal, also known as the Libyan Political Agreement, upon which the new unity government is based, gave the House of Representatives considerably more power than the GNC. It made the former the GNA’s legislative body and the latter a “State Council” that has consultative power but no real authority.
Perhaps because the UN process seemed to favor them, the Tobruk leaders did not take the negotiations seriously. In March 2015, House of Representatives Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani named Hifter, who was already fighting against the GNC’s Libya Dawn, as chief of the armed forces. Hifter continued his Operation Dignity, now ostensibly in defense of the House of Representatives, but in reality this was merely an opportunity for him to elevate his own standing and delegitimize his opponents. Among them was the Muslim Brotherhood, which he called a“malignant disease.”
The House of Representatives’ favorable standing continued in January 2016 when the Sarraj-led unity government gave key positions such as the ministers of oil, finance, and defense to figures who seemed to be associated with the House of Representatives and its allies. The Sarraj-led government also offered one of the deputy prime minister positions to Ali al-Gatrani, a close ally of Hifter’s.
In spite of all this, the House of Representatives has failed to hold a vote on accepting the GNA time and time again—most recently on April 18. This time, there were enough delegates present for a quorum. But out of obligation to Hifter, who sees the unity government as a threat to his newly acquired power, a handful of members of parliament created enough chaos to block the vote. They reportedly beat up one member and threatened others with detention. This is not the first time these members have used similar tactics.
A few days after the debacle, Emhemed Shouaib and Ahmaid Huma, the first deputy and second deputy presidents from the House of Representatives, organized 100 or so members of parliament to release a statement saying that despite having been blocked from casting a formal vote on accepting the GNA, they supported it. The United States and European countries praised these “courageous” efforts but failed to note that the statement did not give unconditional support for the unity government. The statement called for dropping Article 8 of the peace deal, which gives the Presidential Council of the GNA the authority to appoint the leaders of Libya’s state military and security apparatus.
Hifter’s proponents regard this article as a way to replace him with a new chief of armed forces, and indeed, it is likely the unity government would do just that to maintain support from the coastal city of Misrata, which had previously been aligned with the GNC. Misrata has been cooperative thus far—it has backed the UN’s efforts and accepted the GNA, a government in which its Tobruk rivals are dominant—but it remains strongly opposed to Hifter. This is an understandable position; Hifter’s quest to quash all of his opponents and rule in Qaddafi-like fashion has antagonized even former supporters. Showing no willingness to compromise, Hifter may need to be isolated for the sake of unity, but this will be no easy task. Despite disagreement among the members of the Tobruk parliament over his role, Hifter is still their strongest ally. It will be difficult to divorce the House of Representatives from him without significant pressure from the West.
Meanwhile, the GNC’s resistance to the unity government is weakening because of its waning support. The GNC’s key allies were the powerful brigades from Misrata. These brigades were, by and large, more revolutionary than Islamist in nature—some even despised the Islamist militias fighting in Libya Dawn—but they allied with them against Hifter and the House of Representatives, which they saw as being littered with Qaddafi loyalists. (Hifter recently accepted a visit from Tayeb al-Safi, Qaddafi’s right-hand man who was exiled in 2011 after suppressing protests during the Arab Spring and returned to Tobruk in early April 2016. This sort of behavior only strengthens the perceptions that Hifter and Tobruk are pro-Qaddafi.) For this, and other reasons, Misrata’s relationship with the GNC was always one of convenience.
Misrata’s alliance with the GNC began to collapse when a better offer came along. As early as February 2015, the UN Support Mission in Libya began reaching out to Misratan figures directly, allowing them to negotiate separately from the GNC. Misrata’s business community had a strong interest in ending the conflict, which had isolated them economically. The Sarraj-led government named Misratan politician Abdulrahman Swehli as head of the new State Council and businessman Ahmed Maiteeq as one of the deputy prime ministers. In late March 2016, the Misrata Municipal Council announced ithad recognized the unity government's sole legitimacy, thus abandoning the GNC. Days later, ten other cities formerly under the GNC followed suit,pledging their support. Misrata and the remnants of Libya Dawn still have hard-line militias that will continue to oppose the peace process, but even they seem more focused on protecting their own neighborhoods and are unlikely to engage in a military offensive on behalf of the GNC.
The loss of Misrata and Libya Dawn precipitated the GNC’s April 5 declaration that it would dissolve to make way for the GNA. When GNC Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghweil rescinded the announcement the following day, it seemed futile, given the GNC has lost most of its support. Still, on April 19, the United States rightly announced it would add Ghweil to its sanctions list for impeding the peace process.
Today, the biggest obstacle to unity is the House of Representatives. The UN has offered the Tobruk parliament more than its fair share of support, yet many of its leaders and members continue to undermine the peace process. In response, the West should maintain existing sanctions and enact new ones on key individuals—such as Hifter and his air force chief, Saqir al-Jroushi, both of whom were considered by the EU for sanction last year. The UN Security Council should continue the freeze on Libyan assets, conditioning the release of funds on acceptance of the GNA, and it should continue to restrict the sale of oil through only the unity government. It should also better enforce the arms embargo that the United Arab Emirates and others have repeatedly violated.
If the United States and the West exert and maintain this pressure, they may be able to compel Tobruk to fold and accept Article 8. If Tobruk remains obstinate, Western pressure can at least undermine its base of support. At the minimum, the West needs to recognize that its partiality to the House of Representatives—whether real or perceived—has led to an imbalance that in itself is threatening unity in Libya.