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Libya's Peace Process Moves Forward — But So Does the Islamic State

Libya named a new national unity government on Tuesday — a small but important step toward ending the nation's bloody, multi-party civil war. Looming over the ordeal is the specter of the Islamic State, which is expanding a mini-state in Sirte.
Photo via EPA

As Islamic State militants gain ground in Libya, the country's two warring parliaments announced an agreement on Tuesday to cobble together a new unity government.

Following divisive elections in 2014, Libya has been politically and territorially fractured. Two rival bodies — an internationally recognized Council of Deputies based in the eastern city of Tobruk and a self-proclaimed continuation of the Islamist-dominated General National Congress located in Tripoli, the capital — have since jockeyed for political legitimacy, while a vast constellation of affiliated and unaffiliated militias battle for military supremacy.


With the country in utter disarray, the Islamic State group has over the past year gained a foothold in the coastal city of Sirte, attacked forces loyal to both parliaments, and launched a series of raids against Libya's floundering oil sector.

The United Nations and the European Union have meanwhile been working to force the rival governments to negotiate their differences and put an end to the civil war. Tuesday's announcement is the latest step in a UN-brokered peace process. Last month, the warring factions were able to convene a nine-member presidential council tasked with electing a new unity government.

The new government will be made up of 32 cabinet officials and headed by Fayez Sarraj, a member of the Tripoli parliament who will act as prime minister. Al-Aref al-Khoga, the Tripoli government's Islamist-tied interior minister, will serve as the new unity leadership's interior minister. Things promise to be tense between him and Al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, an eastern Libyan army commander who was named defense minister. Barghathi reports to General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of armed forces loyal to the Council of Deputies who is known to be deeply hostile to Islamists.

Asma al-Ousta, the new minister of culture, was the only woman nominated to a post. On Tuesday, Ousta told the Wall Street Journal that she hadn't been consulted before the announcement, but that she would still accept the job.


"No one told me I was in the running. I just found my name on the list," she said.

The new cabinet was approved by seven out of the nine members of the presidential council, after two members abstained in protest.

Martin Kobler, the head of the UN's Support Mission to Libya, celebrated the establishment of the new government on Tuesday.

I congratulate Libyan people & Presidency Council on formation of Govt. of National Accord. I urge HoR to promptly convene, endorse the Govt

— Martin Kobler (@KoblerSRSG)January 19, 2016

Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, called the agreement "an essential step." Only a unity government, she said, would be equipped "to end political divisions, defeat terrorism, and address the numerous security, humanitarian, and economic challenges the country faces."

Though welcomed with something resembling relief, the resolution was hard fought and its viability remains precarious. The path to Tuesday's announcement was fraught with political brinksmanship and scandal.

In November, Bernardino Leon, the UN's special envoy in Libya, took a high-paying job in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The monarchy had been publicly taking sides in the Libyan conflict, backing the eastern Council of Deputies while privately courting Leon for a lucrative half-million dollar post as director of a state-backed foreign policy think-tank that has been described as the nation's "diplomatic academy."


Throughout the process, members of both Libyan parliaments criticized the emerging unity government as biased in favor of their rivals. This is why two of the nine presidential council members refused to back the final deal at the last minute. One of the two, Ali Faraj al-Qatrani, announced late on Monday that he was withdrawing from the process altogether. A representative from eastern Libya, Qatrani complained that his region was not given a large enough voice in the process. In a statement explaining his withdrawal, he cited "a lack of seriousness and clarity in dealing with our basic demands."

Qatrani also criticized the deal for not clarifying the future of the fighters who back the Council of Deputies.

One of the most contentious issues throughout the negotiations has been the future of General Haftar. Though his deputy Barghathi was named defense minister, it wasn't immediately clear if Haftar would be expected to step aside as commander of the eastern Libyan armed forces — a prospect that could serve to simply sow greater division and unrest.

It's clear that Tuesday's announcement does not spell an end to Libya's political and territorial schisms. The internationally recognized parliament in eastern Libya must approve the unity government within the next 10 days, and there has been little discussion about how power will actually be transferred to the new leadership.

The General National Congress in Tripoli is also backed by an array of Islamist militias known collectively as Libya Dawn, which hasn't yet made it clear if it is willing to allow eastern parliamentarians to relocate to Libya's capital.

Looming over the entire ordeal is the specter of the Islamic State. Earlier this month, members of the terror insurgency killed 60 in a brazen suicide attack on a military base in western Libya. Islamic State fighters have also increasingly targeted Libya's oil infrastructure. Just last week, the group launched a complex amphibious assault on a number of vital oil terminals along Libya's so-called "oil crescent."

In Sirte, the Islamic State's stronghold, the group has managed to set up it's own mini-state, fielding a police force and expanding its control to about 150 miles of coastline. Though the United States has conducted a number of airstrikes against Sirte, feuding Libyan factions have yet to mount a serious assault on the Islamic State compound.

Amid the chaos, Libya's economy has basically ground to a halt. Oil production has fallen below 400,000 barrels per day — less than a quarter of the volume produced in the final months of Muammar Qaddafi's regime.

With global oil prices at record lows, Libya's meager output could usher in an economic crisis if a central government cannot be established quickly.