Libya’s flickering light at the end of the tunnel
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.