The Libyan political agreement: Opportunities and challenges

Ziad A Akl
Saturday 9 Jan 2016

The Libyan political agreement reached last month is a step forward on a path to peace that has been stymied for some time. Nonetheless, implementing the agreement will not be easy

A political entity was finally born from the womb of a long and exhausting dialogue process in Libya. Despite international enthusiasm and regional optimism, there are some points that remain controversial and eventually pose a number of challenges to the actual implementation of this agreement.

Similarly, there are some opportunities that Libya could seize and utilise if this agreement reaches the level of practical implementation. How to face the challenges and maximise the benefits of those opportunities is the central question that Libya needs to answer at the present moment.

The first challenge facing the new coalition government is the manner in which it was manufactured in the first place. Bernardino Leon spent his entire time in Libya trying to reach consensus between the two warring factions in Tripoli and Tobruk over a unified single entity. Leon’s mandate expired and that consensus was not reached.

In fact, the points of contention between the two camps in the East and the West remained the same despite the recurrent introduction of changes to the agreement and expanding the range of political actors present at dialogue tables. What is different this time is that the UN, backed by massive international pressure in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, decided to let go of the rationale that necessitated the pre-existence of a Tobruk-Tripoli institutional consensus. Instead, the UN and the international community decided to empower the individuals who demonstrated a will to sign the agreement despite the refusal of the institutions they represent.

Whether this is an efficient political tactic or not is a completely different question. But what the UN intentionally or unintentionally did was create a third faction inside Libya: the coalition government faction. It is true that the international community is doing its best to empower this new entity through exclusive recognition and threats of sanctions on those hindering the realisation of peace. However, the fact remains that there will be elements inside each of the two camps who will not acknowledge the coalition government, at least for the time being.

Dismantling the unofficial structure of interaction between the state and other illegitimate entities is another major threat facing the implementation of this agreement. Throughout the past two years, both governments were forced to establish communication and political and economic interactions with illegal entities, mainly armed militias, in order to secure their sovereignty in the absence of an efficient and legitimate coercive force. Those entities control vital components of Libya’s oil infrastructure, dominate crucial state facilities and monopolise security and force in some locations. In order for the coalition government’s sovereignty to be complete, this structure of interaction must be terminated, either through establishing state control over the different facilities and locations, or through assimilating the various militias into the state structure.

The Islamic State (IS) group is undoubtedly another central challenge to the realisation of this political agreement. It is true that until now there are some doubts about the extent of influence IS has over Sirte, and there are some views that believe in a covert alliance between IS in Libya and remnants of the Gaddafi regime. However, the mere presence of radical and violent Islamist militias in Libya is unquestionable, and the political and geostrategic environment necessary for such militias to expand and flourish is indeed existent. Therefore, whether IS or similar violent entities, the coalition government will have to face the challenge of violent confrontations.

In this regard, it is highly likely that such confrontations may erupt not only between the state and Islamist militias, but also between the state and renegade political or regional militias that exist in Libya and have not shown any potential commitment to acknowledging the legitimacy of the new government.

Finally, the formation of the government itself will have to be carefully and delicately handled. Although the political agreement details the structure of the government, the choice of individuals requires a conscious balance between different political powers.

In choosing a new government, both existing governments must be equally represented or equally dismissed. The struggle over legitimacy between the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the General National Congress in Tripoli should not be allowed to endure in the new government formation.

Despite all those challenges, a range of opportunities exist. International willingness to aid Libya has never been as intense since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. If the coalition government is capable of achieving sovereignty and stability, then a multitude of economic, military and political reforms will be possible in light of current international support.

Moreover, success for the coalition government will prevent military intervention that would be highly likely in case of failure. Although the international community would back the necessity of intervention, its political and humanitarian consequences would be catastrophic to say the least.

Libya has a real opportunity to avoid further division and fragmentation. Perhaps the political agreement is not the most ideal one, but it is a peaceful last resort that the Libyan people are in dire need of.

The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.  

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