After more than a year of talks, U.N.-backed political negotiations in Libya yielded a deal Dec. 18 to forge a unity government. The landmark agreement seeks to end the long-running rivalry between the internationally recognized government in the eastern city of Tobruk, the House of Representatives, and the General National Congress based in Tripoli. The United Nations tried to include wide regional and tribal representation in Libya's unity government to represent the country's diverse array of interests. The final agreement will establish a nine-member council that will be based in Tobruk. The council will consist of five deputy ministers and three ministers led by a prime minister, Fayez Sarraj, who is a lawmaker in the current Tobruk government. Sarraj is originally from Tripoli, and his selection was a concession to interests in the country's west.
However, the agreement will be difficult to implement. The challenges leading up to the deal give an indication of the problems that still lie ahead. Last week, U.N. Special Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler announced that an agreement would be reached by Dec. 17, but it was ultimately postponed by a day to secure the support of the Tobruk government's military chief, retired Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter. The general had previously been critical of the U.N. deal but will now lead the new unity government's military. In the end, 88 lawmakers attended the signing ceremony, less than half of the official 200 members of the rival governing bodies.
In spite of the deal being signed by lawmakers from both rival governments, the speakers of the two legislative bodies have declared the U.N. deal illegal. Neither speaker attended the signing, and instead, the lead negotiators in the talks were the Tobruk-based House of Representatives' deputy speaker, Emhemed Shoaib, and the General National Congress' second deputy speaker, Salah al-Makhzoum. The speakers, meanwhile, have spearheaded parallel bilateral "Libya-Libya" negotiations without U.N. oversight. These talks are ongoing and the two legislative leaders will almost certainly work to undermine the rival U.N. deal.
When it comes into existence, the new unity government will face three main obstacles. The first will be opposition from within both legislatures, especially from the speakers of parliament and the lawmakers who refused to attend the signing ceremony. Western militias, particularly from Misrata, will also cause problems, opposing Hifter's new central military role. The third challenge will arise within the unity government itself: Reports emerged during talks of numerous negotiators threatening to walk out over the choice of appointments to the nine-member council. For example, although he was ultimately selected, Ali al-Qatrani was a contentious candidate for eastern Libya, while eastern lawmakers rejected General National Congress Deputy President Saleh al-Makhzoum's candidacy for deputy prime minister for the south, pressuring for Abdulrahman Allgashi to be chosen instead.
Increased support for Hifter will not be enough to defeat the Islamic State if he does not have the backing of a broader array of political and militant groups.
But the United Nations sees potential benefits of even an embattled unity government. The new governing body will have an official military that the United Nations can then arm to combat terrorism. This could facilitate increased international military intervention in Libya against the Islamic State and its gains in north-central Libya, particularly near Sirte's vital oil assets. International military support for Hifter was very likely a key subject of Hifer's Dec. 17 talks with the U.N. representative, and offers may have been made to guarantee such support. Hifter will likely be awarded certain powers that will make his leadership position even more contentious among both western Libyans and Islamists.
However, increased support for Hifter will not be enough to defeat the Islamic State if he does not have the backing of a broader array of political and militant groups. But such an agreement would require granting power to the other factions within the conflict to establish a political rule that provides a check to Hifter's military power. Such checks would help to avoid a repeat of the autocratic rule established by former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that ultimately led the numerous factions to form in the first place. Without the inclusion of the western factions that oppose Hifter, foreign support will not be enough to either defeat the Islamic State or restore lasting order. Hifter's forces are already bogged down fighting various militias and jihadist forces in eastern Libya, and the general has shown little desire in the past to devote forces from his limited resource base to push against the Islamic State. Instead, one of the main anti-Islamic State forces in Libya is Ansar al-Sharia, which continues to fight against Hifter.
As currently formulated, the U.N. agreement does not effectively incorporate Libya's major armed factions into the political process, meaning that foreign intervention will likely find itself bogged down in the country's larger internal conflict. The next steps will require the unity government to effectively incorporate militia forces such as the Misrata, and to a lesser extent, the Zintan brigades, both of which are allied with Hifter but openly opposed the U.N.-backed political negotiations. Neither an empowered Hifter nor the Tobruk government can hope to extend its writ over the country – even with foreign support.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated the location of the House of Representatives.