Libya’s new unity government got off to an inauspicious start on Tuesday, confined to neighbouring Tunisia after being refused entry to the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Prime minister Faiz Al Siraj unveiled a 32-strong cabinet in a Tunis hotel, with the Libya Dawn militia coalition threatening last week to arrest anyone from what they describe as an “illegal formation” who sets foot in Tripoli.
For now, the United Nations-brokered Government of National Accord will remain in Tunis while negotiations begin with Tripoli militias over access to the capital.
The UN hopes Mr Al Siraj’s government can unite Libya’s two warring parliaments, one in Tripoli, one in Tobruk, allowing them to concentrate on defeating the fast-growing forces of ISIL.
UN special representative for Libya Martin Kobler, who brokered the new government, welcomed the cabinet announcement, saying: “This is a sterling opportunity for Libyans to come together to build their country. The formation of the Government of National Accord is one important leap on the path to peace and stability in Libya.”
However, doubts about the effectiveness of this government came hours after the announcement, with two of the nine-strong presidency, Ali Gatrani and Omar Al Aswad, offering their resignation, complaining that the new government should not be in command of the armed forces.
Their resignations seemingly invalidate Mr Al Siraj’s government as the terms of its founding document, the Libyan Political Accord, require all nine presidency members to agree on the cabinet in order for it to be valid. The BBC quoted a source close to deputy prime Minister Ali Algetrani as saying the resignations mean the proposed cabinet is now “illegitimate”.
A more immediate obstacle is persuading the Tobruk parliament, the House of Representatives, to agree the deal.
The House is to become the legislature for the new government, but its leader Aguila Salah has previously objected to the Siraj government, insisting that only the Tobruk parliament can appoint a cabinet.
Meanwhile, negotiations are underway between Mr Al Siraj and the Tripoli government, the General National Congress, to allow his government access to the capital. Like the House of Representatives, the General National Congress has previously opposed the unity government plan.
For more than a year the UN tried without success to persuade the Libya’s two parliaments to unify and end the civil war, but a peace plan by Mr Kobler’s predecessor Bernardino Leon failed in October.
In December, alarmed by ISIL advances on Libya’s oilfields, Mr Kobler decided to press ahead with the plan without parliamentary approval, hoping to win it once the unity government was formed.
On December 23 the UN Security Council backed the plan, setting Saturday as the deadline for its formation. At the weekend, Mr Al Siraj announced a 48-hour-delay amid fierce disagreements, and his decision to name a cabinet anyway on Monday night smacked to critics of desperation.
In his quest for unity, Mr Al Siraj has enlarged the cabinet, previously expected to number 24 members. He has also opted not to give cabinet places to Libya’s heavy political hitters. Notably, there is no place for the leaders of the two biggest parties, Mahmud Jibril, head of the centre-right National Forces Alliance, and Mohammed Sawan, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party.
Instead, Mr Al Siraj has opted for representatives of regions, tribes and towns, apparently hoping the resulting government will avoid controversial figures.
If this new government can persuade the militias to allow it into Tripoli, it must then decide who will command the armed forces and which of the country’s warring militias are to be given roles in the army and police – and which ordered to disband. Without a sizeable army, the new government will be obliged to rely on the militias themselves for security.
Mr Al Siraj, a popular politician from Tripoli, hopes war weariness on the part of ordinary Libyans may encourage both sides to agree to compromise.
War has ruined the economy, with oil production plunging from 1.5 million barrels a day to 400,000, and the UN says that half a million of Libya’s six million population are now homeless.
Power cuts and shortages of basic commodities and medical supplies are commonplace, and continuing battles between militants and the army have reduced sections of the eastern city of Benghazi to rubble.