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Libya's post-Skhirat deal govt: Facing collapse or awaiting political consensus?

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 1 Mar 2016
People hold a Libyan flag as they demonstrate in support of Khalifa Haftar's "Operation Dignity", a campaign against Islamists, at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli May 23, 2014 (Reuters)

After four sessions, the Libyan parliament did not approve the national unity government that embodied the outcome of the Libyan Political Agreement that was signed in Skhirat last December.

For the government to receive parliamentary approval it needs to fulfil the required quorum and secure over 50 per cent of the votes, though it is not only about giving support for a cabinet.

The parliament — which is temporarily based in the port city of Tobruk on Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast — should arguably reflect a state of political consensus.

This is needed to end the state of political polarisation and pave the way for facing the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) militant group in order to avoid a potential geographical split in the war-torn state.

There has been clear parliamentary agreement since last January in rejecting the large number of ministerial portfolios in the government — which reached 28 — as the conditions of the country do not allow for such a situation to take place.

The majority of parliamentarians have also revealed a need for an exceptional government that can deal with the ongoing civil war.

However, Article 8 of the Skhirat agreement was an issue of debate inside the parliament as it stipulates that General Khalifa Haftar should be retired, an article that was recently freezed for an indefinite period of time.

The UN-supported agreement was preceded by shuttling talks by Libyan political leaders and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya Martin Kobler to "save the deal from failure," especially since some MPs of the Tobruk-based parliament and the Tripoli-based parliament — which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Dawn of Libya militants — attempted to form a government outside the Skhirat framework.

The latter sides argued that Libyans need an inter-Libyan dialogue in order to end the years of civil war, while pointing out that the Skhirat talks aimed at imposing a mandate on Libya that eventually seeks foreign military intervention based on claims of combating terrorism and extremist militant organisations.

Such anti-Skhirat bloc held a number of meetings in Italy and Oman, but apparently did not achieve a success.

In the meantime, a number of politico-military developments have taken place in Libya during the last two weeks.

Firstly, most of Benghazi — the second largest city in Libya — was liberated by the troops of Haftar. Furthermore, the IS militants became trapped on the edges of the northeastern city of Derna.

In fact, the support of the people in Benghazi played the biggest role in such a victory, as well as the domination of Derna by the Ansar Al-Sharia group, which protected it from falling into the hands of the IS.

Secondly, the debates in the Tobruk-based parliament revealed that Haftar is not the only controversial figure in parliament.

Although the parliament was supportive of the notion of the rule of law, disagreements among the diverse factions appeared to dominate the scene.

The parliament was recently stormed by an anti-Skhirat deal bloc after 100 MPs — which exceeds the constitutional quorum (93 MPs) required for approving the government — announced they were backing the agreement.

The 100 MPs afterwards signed a statement that condemns these events — which occurred amid news of a military victory in Benghazi — although this is not enough to grant the government constitutional legitimacy.

These two developments raised questions on whether the parliamentary headquarters will be transferred to Benghazi, especially since the Libyans do politico-culturally believe that "who controls Benghazi controls the whole state." However, this is not by all means the key issue of discussion in the meantime.

According to a well-informed Libyan politician speaking anonymously to Ahram Online, the main challenge involves the extent to which Haftar will be capable of protecting the parliament whether he agrees with its decisions or not, a situation that will reflect his readiness to act as a state official instead of a militia leader.  

The third development entails transferring the Libyan talks from Skhirat to Cairo, which hosted a number of officials including Kobler, parliament speaker Ageila Saleh, and Prime Minister-designate of Libya Fayez Serraj.

Although the Libyan parties say that no talks have taken place in Cairo so far — other than meetings with Egyptian officials and President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi — well-informed Libyan sources say that talks do happen from time to time in an unofficial basis. The aim, the sources emphasised, is to avoid announcing the details of the talks "until a nationally-accepted outcome is reached."

Believing it can represent the political equation in the post-Skhirat deal period, one Libyan political source draws attention to the IS group ambitions of taking control of the coastal city of Sirte, east of Tripoli, in a bid to move towards Tripoli itself.

However, the source argued that this is unlikely to happen due to the limitations of IS group capabilities and the nature of jihadist-tribal alliances in these areas.

The source added that a leaning towards the formation of a presidential council that includes a president, two vice presidents and a state minister is taking place in the ongoing negotiations.

In such a case, the source says, Serraj would be the council's head, and his vice presidents would be Ibrahim Al-Godran as representative of the eastern areas and Saleh Azoz as representative of the southern ones. Omar Al-Aswad would be a state minister representing the western city of Zintan while Ahmed Mo'etiq would be the other state minister as a representative of coastal town of Misrata in northwest Libya.

Concerning the defence portfolio, it will probably be given to the head of government as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, while Haftar will remain as the head of the military, though without a ministerial portfolio.  

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© 2010 Ahram Online.