Libya’s new government is no guarantee of unity

West and UN want body rejected by existing power centres to tackle ISIL and migrants, but it can't even base itself in LIbya.

The head of Libya’s new national government, Fayez Al Sarraj, centre, celebrates with the deputy head of Libya’s House of Representatives, Mohamed Ali Shoeb, left, and the deputy president of General National Congress, Saleh Al Makhzoum, right, both of whom have now been disowned by their respective legislatures, after signing a deal on a unity government on December 17, 2015, in Skhirat, Morocco. Fadel Senna / AFP
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Wide grins and clenched fists from Libyan delegates as they signed a UN-brokered unity government plan last week were not enough to prevent questions on whether this administration will work.

The new government’s fragile state was even highlighted in the venue for the signing ceremony – Skhirat, Morocco, chosen because the Libyan capital, Tripoli, was considered too hostile.

Libya has two warring parliaments: the elected house of representatives in Tobruk in the east of the country, and the rebel general national congress in Tripoli. One of the few things they agree upon is rejection of the UN-backed unity government.

However, the people signing the deal were Libya Dialogue – delegates sent from both parliaments or appointed by the UN itself to negotiate the terms of a unity government. In a change to the rules this month, the UN decided that approval of the delegates themselves was enough for a new government to be created, without needing parliamentary approval. In its defence, the UN pointed out that 80 of the 188 members of the House of Representatives attended and supported the signing ceremony, along with 25 of the 200 members of the GNC.

These dialogue members have now been disowned by leaders of the two parliaments, while the militias – who need to stop fighting to allow a political process, but over whom the politicians have no control – were not even invited to take part.

Both UN and western diplomats are desperate to end Libya’s civil war so it can combat the country’s launch pad status for refugees fleeing to Europe, and the rapid spread of ISIL.

More than a year of negotiations preceded Thursday’s announcement, with UN mediators having found no way to persuade the two parliaments to work together.

During the past year the country has disintegrated into factional war between militias who, four years ago, united to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi.

But these factions are themselves disintegrating: Tripoli is now the scene of nightly violence between local brigades and those from Misurata, both theoretically backing the GNC, but battling each other for territory.

In the east, the struggle among Tobruk forces is political. Army commander Gen Khalifa Haftar wants to confront ISIL militants now battling for control of Ajdabiya, the gateway to Libya’s oil ports. He is being rebuffed by Ibrahim Jadthran, commander of the ports’ security force who sees the town as his territory.

Internationally, the priority is ISIL, which is expanding fast around its main base at Sirte.

French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said ISIL territory now stretched along 240 kilometres of Libya’s coast and deep into the Sirte basin oilfields.

“They are starting to penetrate the interior and to be tempted by access to oil wells and reserves,” he said last week.

The new government on which UN and western hopes rest consists of a nine-strong presidential council run by Fayez Al Sarraj, declared prime minister by the UN and dialogue delegates. For now, it will rule in exile, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta all listed as possible homes.

The one ace in the deck for Mr Al Sarraj is money. International recognition, which diplomats say will be conferred by the UN Security Council soon, gives him control of Libya’s oil revenues and US$109 billion (Dh400bn) in overseas assets. This is a powerful incentive for persuading the country’s warring militias to fall into line.

Mr Al Sarraj is also expected to invite western nations to bomb ISIL in Libya, a move that both parliaments have refused. Western powers hope strikes will blunt ISIL’s offensive against Ajdabiya.

Libyans have shown they are sometimes prepared to unite against ISIL. This summer, an unlikely combination of Al Qaeda-affiliated militants, local youths and the regular army united to push ISIL out of the town of Derna. But ISIL, reinforced with volunteers from Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, has compensated by creating a self-declared caliphate in the centre of the country’s coastline.

“It is important for US policymakers and other parties to understand that while ISIL did lose in Derna it has emerged even stronger in Sirte,” Aaron Zelin wrote in a report for America’s Washington Institute.

Foreign air strikes on ISIL positions around Sirte will damage the group, but as with Syria and Iraq, only ground troops will defeat it.

Persuading Libya’s militias to conduct joint operations against ISIL is the new government’s biggest task, and one that will define whether it truly unites the country, or becomes a third competing administration in an already splintered nation.