Crisis Group Libya Update #3

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This Briefing Note provides up-to-the-minute analysis of attempts to end Libya’s almost decadelong civil war through talks focused on reunifying the country’s government, oil-based economy and security forces. It is the third in a series of regular updates.

Fragile Progress toward a Unity Government for Libya

Despite a reported breakthrough in mid-January, there are still many steps to take before an interim unity government can emerge in Libya. The country has been divided in two, between two parallel governments and military coalitions that have been intermittently at war, since 2014. Participants in the 75-member forum that the UN assembled to bring the two back together agreed on an internal voting mechanism for appointing top officials. But the complicated voting process could easily trigger further disputes. Moreover, rival Libyan factions disagree on who should lead the country and are only paying lip service to transparency in voting. All these factions have the political, military and financial means to spoil the voting process or reject its outcome.

The UN Continues to Sponsor Political Talks among Libyan Factions The signing of a ceasefire agreement between Libya’s opposing military coalitions in October 2020 injected momentum into UN-backed political talks, which are supposed to lead to the appointment of an interim unity government, but progress has been sluggish. In November, the UN convened the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunis, a gathering of 75 delegates from the country’s two rival assemblies as well as some handpicked independents. In the first round of negotiations, the delegates agreed in principle on the need for a new executive composed of a three-person Presidency Council and a separately appointed prime minister tasked with leading the country until national elections in late 2021. This new executive is meant to replace the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and Prime Minister Faiez Serraj (who is also the Presidency Council’s head), and the competing east-based government, which in the latest conflict supported the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. But in subsequent meetings throughout December the delegates failed to agree on the voting mechanism needed to fill these top positions. Talks were deadlocked.
In a last-ditch attempt to build consensus on a voting mechanism, the UN secretary-general’s acting special representative, Stephanie Williams, convened a smaller group of eighteen forum delegates, called the Advisory Committee, in Geneva on 13-16 January. At the meeting’s opening session, Williams made clear that she saw the UN’s role as creating a mechanism, not helping select individual leaders. “We will not discuss the names of candidates for leadership positions in the unified executive authority”, she said, “and I will not accept that the [UN] Mission plays any role in naming the executive authority as promoted by some”. Her words reflected the gist of her overall approach to political negotiations in Libya: the UN should help Libyans agree on the process, rather than becoming an instrument for promoting certain individuals to top positions. This approach is markedly different from that of previous UN envoys, who took part in selecting the political leaders now serving in the Presidency Council and Government of National Accord.