After ten chaotic, violence-filled years following the fall of the Qadhafi regime, there is a rare ray of hope on Libya’s horizon.
On 10 March 2021, Libya’s House of Representatives approved a new Government of National Unity (GNU).
This government, born out of the UN-backed peace process that has been in motion since 2014, is meant to shepherd the country through to elections in December 2021, a time when Libya’s fraught transition is supposed to come to an end.
The formation of this new government certainly marks an important step in a peace process that has been characterised by inertia and a conflict which has at times verged on farce, with competing governments, prime ministers, and legislatures all insisting they are the country’s only legitimate ruling power.
For the first time in seven years, Libya finally has a single, unified government and a Presidency Council comprising representatives from Libya’s three regions – Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan.
There is certainly much to applaud.
Unlike its predecessor the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was imposed on Libya by the UN, this new government has the approval of the House of Representatives, giving it the legitimacy that the GNA so sorely lacked.
Equally significantly, the GNU is deemed to be broadly representative of the country, with its ministers drawn from across the country’s different regions and constituencies.
It also contains no controversial individuals linked heavily to one or other side of the conflict, meaning that while it may be bland, it is currently viewed as broadly neutral and therefore acceptable.
Expectations are running high therefore both inside Libya and among the international community that this government will hold the key to setting the country back on the right path.
Yet such hopes may well turn out to be misplaced. Although this new government might succeed in easing off some of Libya’s immediate problems, including by healing divisions in the country’s sovereign institutions and improving general living conditions, the issues that have been at the core of this conflict have not gone away.
Both the government and the elections it is meant to steer the country towards may prove to be little more than mere papering over the cracks.
The GNU has been widely trumpeted as a political coming together after years of competing authorities and split national institutions, with the new prime minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, presenting himself as a leader for all Libyans.
On one level, this rapprochement has been achieved; the country now has one government and is working towards reunifying its sovereign institutions, including the Central Bank of Libya (CBL).
Yet at the same time, the establishment of these new executive powers has formalised an allocation system based on regions. The GNU was carefully crafted, with ministries shared out between Libya’s three regions and done in such a way as to appease various towns and constituencies within each of them.
Indeed Dbeibah did not select his own government, with ministers nominated and chosen on the recommendation of members of the House of the Representatives.
National institutions – from the Supreme Court to the Auditing Diwan to the CBL – are being doled in a similar fashion, with the process to choose the heads of these bodies currently underway. As such, Libya’s division into three parts has all but been formalised.
This approach does not sit easy with many Libyans despite the fact that the country has been edging in this direction for some time. Immediately after the collapse of the centralised state in 2011, power was carved up between towns and regions, with revolutionary legitimacy and prowess on the battlefield translating into political clout.
From 2014, the country was split more overtly into two competing camps – one in the west and one in the east.
While the Libyan Political Agreement of 2015, which was brokered and engineered by the international community, was meant to bring the country together, in reality it only aggravated this division, establishing a Higher State Council in the west that was meant to be a consultative body, but which ended up serving as a counterbalance to the House of Representatives in the east.
Indeed, the conflict which in the early years was sometimes incorrectly labelled as a struggle for power between Islamists and a more secular oriented current, ended up taking on a regional hue, with forces in the east pitted against those in the west and with both competing to bring the south into their orbit.
While these divisions were by no means clear cut, it was the realisation following Khalifa Hafter’s failed assault on Tripoli in 2019 that neither side could swallow up the other that prompted both sides to accept they had no choice but to strike some sort of political bargain.
Indeed, rather than any genuine desire to compromise, it was this realisation, combined with intense international pressure and the urgent need for funds given that oil revenues had been frozen since September 2020, that pushed the warring factions to accept the new arrangement.
Thus, despite the strong resistance to the concept of a federalist Libya, both sides ended up backing a solution that effectively carves the country up into three separate parts.
Although this new government is a temporary arrangement that is meant to last until elections take place, it has set in motion a process that will be difficult to reverse, and that risks deepening the regional fault lines that even Qadhafi, with all his centralising tendencies, could not overcome.
While the establishment of these new executive powers may have served a purpose and helped break the stalemate that had settled on the country following Hafter’s retreat from Tripoli in June 2020, it may have inadvertently sown the seeds for trouble further down the line.
Alison Pargeter is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London, where she is currently running a project on tribes in Libya and Iraq. She is also an Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Senior Associate at global consulting firm, Menas Associates.