Libya: In Bid to Unite Rival Governments, Pragmatism Gains a Small Victory

4 MINS READNov 21, 2017 | 23:05 GMT
Forecast Update

In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast we said that Libya's competing governments would move toward peace talks but that no major breakthroughs would occur before the end of the year. The House of Representatives' approval is a significant sign of progress, but there are still obstacles to peace that will continue to strain negotiations. 

Two of Libya's three governments are a step closer to unifying. On Nov. 21, Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) approved several controversial proposals designed to unify it with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and its current representative body, the High Council of the State (HCS), which has yet to approve the proposals itself. The HoR's approval is an important step along the U.N. road map leading to a national conference by early 2018 and a new constitution and elections later in the year.

The proposals would create a new transitional government, headed by a three-member presidential council made up of one president and two deputies, each from a different Libyan historical region: Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. The HoR would form the legislative wing of the government and would appoint members to the presidential council, which would name a prime minister who would then form a government. The HCS — made up of members of the Tripoli-based rival General National Congress government who have joined the U.N. process — would act as a consultative body.

The most interesting proposal approved, reported by AP, would allow the presidential council the ability to appoint and remove military leaders, a process in which the HoR had been demanding a part. Some sources, however, have disputed AP's report, saying an agreement on the issue hasn't been finalized. Libyan National Army Field Marshall Khalifa Hifter remains one of the most powerful — and at times divisive — figures in Libya. His Libyan National Army controls almost all of Cyrenaica and the vast majority of Fezzan yet has limited influence in the most populous region of Tripolitania. In past negotiations, Hifter has pushed for full control of the military without presidential council oversight. If HoR President Aguila Saleh did accept granting the presidential council the power to appoint military leaders, it would mean that Hifter, a key Saleh ally, is at least marginally on board with the proposal — so long as some of his key allies (or he himself) are placed in certain government positions.

Despite the step forward, the process could still fail, as did the previous U.N.-led effort. Only 75 members of the total 200 HoR members voted on the proposals, and there has long been conflict within the House on whether to participate in U.N. talks at all. In fact, 29 members of the HoR who live in western Libya were unable to participate in the vote, when their plane was denied a landing permit in Tobruk. Saleh criticized the incident and called for an investigation.

The HoR could still scuttle the entire process by refusing to approve the new presidential council, which is what prevented the United Nations from forming a unity government before. This time, however, Saleh appears to support approving the council; last time, he opposed the proposed members of the GNA and the minor role that Hifter would play in the new government. It will be important to watch if Saleh's support holds once actual names are picked for the presidential council.

Though only a small part of the HoR backed the plan, the approval is progress. Various political groups and leaders are adopting a more nationalist stance, including Hifter, who aspires to be for Libya what President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is for Egypt. And several key Libyan leaders are showing a kind of pragmatism they haven't before. Nevertheless, old rivalries could resurface as the details are hammered out, leaving Libya as divided as ever.

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