American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
Among Libya’s many challenges is the fact that it has several governments. Not counting local armed groups, of which there are dozens, or the Libyan branch of the Islamic State (ISIS), at least three different groups can make credible claims to legitimate governance. Only one of those, the Government of National Accord (GNA), is recognized outside the country and in the West. In fact, Western nations and the United Nations don’t just recognize the GNA—they created it.
Setting aside problems with how the GNA was conjured, many Libyans supported it or muted their criticisms because some path out of the violence—even a bad one—was preferable to none. But now that the GNA government has moved into Tripoli, it is on the brink of collapse.
The GNA’s failure is not a political matter or a military one. Rather, it has failed on the most basic issues of politics and governance. For example, the number of deputy presidents allowed under its formation mysteriously shifted from three to nine—an increase outside any legal authority or explanation and based purely on ethnic and geographical considerations. Because of the increase, the council now looks more like a tribal council than a modern Western-backed government.
But then, in July, four GNA ministers resigned, including the ministers for justice, reconciliation, and finance. And although reasons for the resignations were not made public, it was likely no coincidence that all four ministers who quit came from the eastern part of Libya, which is under the control of the House of Representatives (HoR) government (one of the two major political powers that predate the GNA). In August, the HoR government conducted a vote of no confidence in the new international government. According to the political agreement that created the GNA, the HoR must approve the GNA cabinet before it can assume office. Without such a vote, the GNA has no legal standing, a reality the GNA and those in the West have ignored.
Still, the GNA could have survived its political and legal shortcomings had it tried to alleviate the many problems facing Libya, including chronic power and water shortages, inflation, a liquidity crisis, and a lack of security. Yet it has not. Despite many international pledges of assistance, the government has solved not one of these challenges.
Before the GNA, power outages in the capital typically lasted an average of eight to ten hours a day. Under the GNA, Tripoli was without power for up to 20 hours a day in June and is now back to the eight to ten hours of blackout a day. Likewise, water outages had been infrequent, but throughout the summer, Tripoli has been without steady water for weeks. In turn, riots have broken out in protest of the deteriorating conditions and Libyans regularly gather in front of banks waiting to withdraw some of their cash just so that they can buy the necessities.
Conditions in Libya are so bad that even UN envoy Martin Kobler, the final architect of the GNA government deal, has taken to Twitter to shame his GNA government into action. “Worried about the continued power cuts in large parts of tripoli. Urge #Gna to tackle energy supply for the population,” he tweeted in June. Libyans may be excused for thinking the envoy’s tweet won’t do much to restore water or power or security.
For its part, the GNA has blamed “previous governments” for its inability to quickly tackle the well-known and most pressing problems. The GNA has been eager to point out, though, that it has made good progress against the Islamic State. Yet the success against the group in its former stronghold of Sirte was a broad Libyan endeavor, not the sole work of the GNA. At the time the GNA was created, fighters from across the region representing various factions and militias were already in battle there. Meanwhile, the GNA has struggled to do the basics in the fight against the terrorist group; hundreds of wounded fighters have been unable to receive medical care. Kobler, taking to Twitter again, posted, “Thinking about the many dead and injured in fight against #ISIL in Sirt. Urge international community to help with medicine and evacuation.”
If nothing else, the GNA government in Libya is the international community. And it is deeply ominous that a Libyan government created and sustained and promoted by the West cannot execute the most basic tasks of governance. And so the GNA’s days are numbered. Very soon, Libyans might have to find yet another path.