Without roadmap, unity government struggles to make impact in Libya

Sunday 29/05/2016
Will he succeed in gathering Libyans around joint project?

TRIPOLI - Two months after his dramatic arrival in Libya's capital, Fayez al-Sarraj's unity government has won international support but had little impact inside a divided country plagued by jihadists, analysts say.

The head of the Government of National Accord sailed into Tripoli under naval escort on March 30 in defiance of a militia alliance that has been in control of the capital since August 2014, after it refused to let him fly in.

His arrival sparked hopes of a way out of the political, security and economic crises that have gripped Libya since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

But confined to the naval base where it receives visiting foreign ministers, the UN-backed GNA has yet to draw up any clear roadmap for ending Libya's anarchy and expelling jihadists from their strongholds.

Its targets of restoring peace and healing divisions born of five years of conflict are being stymied by a rival government in the east that refuses to cede power until a repeatedly delayed vote of confidence in Libya's elected parliament from which it takes its own legitimacy.

The rival administration, which itself had international recognition before the rise of Sarraj, controls eastern Libya through militias and units of the national army loyal to controversial General Khalifa Haftar, a sworn opponent of the GNA.

For Mattia Toaldo, a Libya specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations, the GNA has already lost a "precious two months" with its failure to secure a vote of confidence.

"While he has received several foreign delegations and made visits abroad, he (Sarraj) is invisible inside Libya," said Toaldo.

Sarraj "has not found the time -- nor the courage -- to address the east of the country. It's not a question of lacking the military strength, but rather absence of political will and... political initiative".

Othman Ben Sassi, a former member of the revolution-era National Transitional Council, said "the only achievement of this (GNA) government has been the fact that it has won international support".

On the ground, "it's the militias, as before, that control the situation. As for the unity government, it doesn't control anything," he said.

The task facing Sarraj, a 56-year-old political newcomer, is "extremely fragile", according to Kader Abderrahim, a specialist on Islamism at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

"It's imperative that a formal vote (of confidence) be held to head off challenges to his legitimacy," said Abderrahim.

He must "firstly gather Libyans around a joint project, ensure their security and undertake negotiations with the different militias to lay down their arms. This process could take several months," he said.

On the military front, the GNA controls several airports and has militias and army units based in the western region of Misrata, equipped with tanks and warplanes, under its command.

But the east-west divide rules out any unified control of Libya's porous borders through which hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans pour in in search of a better life across the Mediterranean in Europe.

And although Libya holds Africa's richest oil reserves, the economy poses a huge challenge for the GNA faced with spiralling food, transportation and medical costs since the start of 2016.

With the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starting in early June, food shortages and power cuts at a time of rising summertime temperatures will only serve to heighten the perception among ordinary Libyans of "Sarraj government failings", according to Toaldo.

Internationally, the GNA secured a Western pledge at a May 16 meeting in Vienna to ease the arms embargo in place since Libya's revolution to battle the Islamic State jihadist group.

But for Abderrahim, "Libyans are fed up with Western interference in their affairs and the fact that they have literally imposed Fayez al-Sarraj can only be damaging for him."