Libya’s flickering light at the end of the tunnel

Friday 26/02/2016
Fighter loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government

TUNIS - If the United Nations as well as Libya’s neighbours and allies had had their way, the Liby­an House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk would have had taken a major step towards peace and stability in Libya by ap­proving the national unity govern­ment proposed by the country’s Presidency Council.

It did not happen.

Three times the HoR was to have met and deliberated on the govern­ment and three times the session was postponed because of deep divisions over names on the list. There are accusations that some on the list are corrupt and others actively supported the Qaddafi re­gime.

Several in the HoR want the nine-person Presidency Council sacked and replaced with a three-member version on the basis that the cur­rent arrangement has proved inca­pable of uniting Libya and provid­ing it with the leadership it needed. There has been squabbling, even physical violence, between mem­bers and two have walked out. These people are trying to convince the HoR to reject the government.

What did happen, though, was a severe blow inflicted on Islam­ist militants, including the Islamic State (ISIS), in Benghazi by the Lib­yan National Army (LNA) under the command of General Khalifa Haf­tar. Since the launch of Operation Dignity in May 2014, Haftar has promised the imminent liberation of the city. It looks as if it is about to become reality.

ISIS and the other militants are far from destroyed in Libya. They have not been totally smashed in Libya’s second city, still have a presence outside Derna, remain in control of the central town of Sirte and the surrounding region and have cells in the south of the coun­try as well as in Tripoli.

Even so, ISIS has taken a major battering and not only in Beng­hazi. Along with its allies, it was forced out of Ajdabiya by the LNA, was badly mauled in an attempted counteroffensive in Derna, aimed — it is thought — at drawing LNA forces away from Benghazi and has had to flee Sabratha in western Lib­ya following the US raid there.

Many militants are reported to have gone south. Some who tried to escape to Sirte were killed when their boat was targeted by a fighter plane of unknown provenance.

The dramatically altered military situation is having major political consequences in the HoR. “The good news in Benghazi has had an effect” on members, one of them said.

Despite being told that they can­not make changes to the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), signed in December and endorsed by the UN Security Council, the events in Benghazi have boosted the re­solve of Haftar supporters to insist on precisely that. They want the Presidency Council reduced in size and reject anyone considered to be linked to Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, indeed espe­cially the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the meantime, HoR members who might have voted for the unity government are opting for a wait-and-see approach while those who back the LPA, arguing that Libya desperately needs a government now, are struggling to muster suf­ficient support in the HoR to vote it though.

The sense among members by the time the third postponement was announced was that the pro­posed government would be heav­ily rejected if put to a vote, which is why it was decided to delay.

There is, though, a growing feel­ing that time will not heal matters. Whether or not reports of members being threatened and intimidated are true, divisions within the HoR over the LPA and the unity govern­ment have deepened.

Despite UN Special Envoy Mar­tin Kobler continuing to insist that the LPA cannot be altered, that is precisely what a significant num­ber of members want. As a result, it is unlikely that even if Prime Minister-designate Faiez al-Sarraj were to come up with another set of ministerial names, it would not be enough.

The mathematics make that clear. There are reportedly 130-140 members in Tobruk. To amend the constitution to incorporate the LPA would require 126 votes, but the anti-LPA group can call on several dozen members. To endorse a new government would require a lower threshold but even that appears unobtainable at present.