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Libya's Future Is Up in the Air as Political Talks Between Rival Governments Collapse

These negotiations are the international community's attempt to retain Libya as some sort of viable state. Meanwhile, a power vacuum has allowed people-smugglers and Islamist militants to gain an edge in the chaos.
Photo by Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters

Libya finds itself in a new state of political limbo this week after the two rival governments vying for control in the country failed to agree on a United Nations-brokered power-sharing deal by the deadline, leaving some to question what this means for the international legitimacy of either faction.

The current uncertainty started on Monday when the House of Representatives (HoR) government based in the eastern city of Tobruk, which gained international recognition after elections in 2014, announced it would not be signing on to the draft agreement. That agreement would have formed a unified government that would have included the older, the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, which is supported by an alliance of militias called Libya Dawn, was formed after losing the elections.


Politicians with HoR claimed the accord included various amendments that the GNC had inserted without its approval. The primary sticking point was a provision that would empower the unity government to dismiss officials who were not unanimously approved by the new lawmakers — a perceived threat to the viability of HoR army leader General Khalifa Haftar.

The agreement also included a list of individuals compiled by the UN who would be candidates to serve in the new administration, but the release of this list became a matter of controversy for both factions.

These negotiations are part of the international community's attempt to retain Libya as some sort of viable state since the 2011 collapse of strongman Muammar Qaddafi. "We think we need someone to talk to, and we need something to be called Libya," said Jason Pack, a Libya expert and researcher at Cambridge University.

This power vacuum has allowed people-smugglers and Islamist militants to gain an edge in the chaos that's just across the Mediterranean from Europe. Libya Dawn, which includes Islamist-leaning and other armed factions connected to Misrata city, reinstated the old parliament and essentially controls Tripoli. In the east are Haftar and the elected parliament.

Related: On the Frontline of Libya's Fight Against the Islamic State

Both sides have come forward, however, and said they were willing to continue negotiations, something the UN special representative Bernardino Leon highlighted in a press conference on Wednesday. According to Leon, the process will continue.


"I am coming here today, first of all, to insist that the process goes on, that there is no chance for small groups or personalities to hijack this process, that a majority of the Libyans want a political solution," he said. "They don't want any more confrontations."

Nevertheless, the varying factions of popular and militia support of the major players in Libya could complicate the success of any deal reached, according to Arturo Varvelli, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. He explained that neither of the governments in Tripoli and Tobruk maintain direct control over the military alliances they are associated with.

"In any case, the deal's implementation could collapse at any moment under the pressure from spoiler actors," he said. "The extreme sides of the two coalitions are the problem."

Varvelli noted that a major subset of GNC supporters are young men who revolted against the Qaddafi regime and evolved into revolutionaries. This core group has managed to hold influence over that government, while pushing the implementation of radical Islamist ideals. This conflicts with the largely secular ambitions of the HoR supporters. Meanwhile, many expect Haftar to reject the unity government altogether, with expectations that he could form a parallel administration to propel his desire to run Libya.

By failing to sign the deal by Tuesday, the HoR government mandate expired.


Throughout the process many international governments and the UN have stressed that the government formed under that agreement, referred to as the Government of National Accord, would become the only legitimate institution in Libya.

In between the expired mandate and the yet-to-be-signed power-sharing agreement, questions quickly arose as to how the failure to sign the deal impacted the legitimacy of the HoR. Some discussed the fact that the internationally recognized HoR was now illegitimate and had lost Western backing, but neither experts nor the UN were willing to jump that far.

Related: In a Southern Libya Oasis, a Proxy War Engulfs Two Tribes

Asked in a press conference about whether he still considered the HoR a legitimate body, Leon replied that this question was one to ask the international community as it was up to individual states to decide whether or not to continue recognizing HoR.

"The United Nations is a facilitator, but recognition is something coming from the international community. However, today we are in a kind of limbo," Leon responded.

"The message from the agreement is very clear. The legitimacy of the institutions will come only from the agreement," he continued. "So if the agreement is adopted or supported by the House of Representatives they will, of course, be in the legitimacy."

Leon did not specify further, only saying that if the HoR or any other group proposed a unilateral solution that was not in line with a national agreement to the UN-brokered deal, he was under the impression "that this will not be recognized by the international community."


As Libya expert Jason Pack explained, the status of questionable sovereignty has not gone through a dramatic change in the days since the deal was rejected.

"This is just the final step in making it super clear that the HoR is not legally sovereign, which is different than whether we recognize it as a government and the font of sovereignty in the Libyan system, which we appear to still do," said Pack.

In fact, he said that there is no legal jurisprudence in Libya that demands the international community recognize the HoR as the country's official governing body.

"There is no legally sovereign government and according to international law there should be no recognized government, but the West still implicitly recognizes HoR," he said.

Countries would have to officially withdraw their recognition of the government, which would entail kicking Libyan ambassadors and diplomats out of their countries, and barring any ministers from conducting business on behalf of the Libyan state. This would all come through an official decree or statement, according to Pack.

As Pack explained, if that kind of move was going to happen, we would likely have already heard a joint communique between world leaders saying they would no longer recognize Libya in light of recent events. Since that has yet to happen, however, he said it's unlikely they're going to wake up in a few days and do so.

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"It would require real courage to take such a bold step, especially when no one knows what the implications of it might be," he said.

While the failed talks may not have immediate impacts on government recognition in Libya, there are a number of likely practical consequences, particularly as international skepticism in the viability and legitimacy of the government grows.

Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, pointed to several ongoing court cases or disputes that are in limbo until a peace deal is struck, including a dispute over the Libyan Investment Authority's $60 billion fund — an account that was frozen following the 2011 conflict that ousted Qaddafi.

A continued stall in talks could further international concerns in the long term, but according to Toaldo most international business dealings will continue as normal with no immediate effects of this week's shortcomings.

"One important thing to say is that most businesses things will go on as usual," Toaldo said. "It's not that, for instance, from today on oil companies don't know who to pay, [they] basically stick to contracts."

As he explained, an oil company that has had a contract in Libya for 20 years will still maintain that agreement and their business operations, paying into the same bank account as before. In the face of political instability, however, problems arise when a militia or a rival government steps in and tells the corporation they should be paying them instead.

"It's just a stranger coming there and telling you… you should pay millions in another bank account of someone who is not recognized by State Department," he said.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB