- The successful no-confidence vote in the Government of National Accord (GNA) on 22 August has led to renewed political uncertainty in Libya.
- The UN-backed unity government has consolidated its political position in Tripoli, but its legitimacy faces continued challenges from political rivals, who are manoeuvring to protect their own influence and interests.
- Recent threats against the oil sector by forces allied with eastern army chief Khalifa Haftar threaten to resume the country’s civil conflict and will hinder companies eyeing a return to the Libyan market.
The vote by the eastern parliament, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), underscores the fragility and volatility of the current political situation in Libya. In August 2014, an armed coalition known as Libya Dawn seized Tripoli and set up a parallel administration, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to Tobruk in the east of the country. In an attempt to resolve the country’s political and geographic division, in December 2015 the UN-brokered Libya Political Agreement (LPA) was announced. Under the peace plan, the HoR, the internationally recognised parliament, was expected to vote to endorse the unity government. However, a formal vote had been repeatedly prevented by anti-GNA lawmakers, despite the fact that 100 MPs in the HoR signed a pro-GNA petition in February.
In the vote of no confidence by the HoR, 61 out of a total 176 MPs voted against the proposed unity government cabinet, while 39 lawmakers abstained and one voted in favour. Despite protests from pro-GNA lawmakers that the vote had not been expected, the numbers were sufficient for a quorum. Some opposition to the GNA is motivated by the desire to maintain the influence of parallel institutions in the east, and to protect the powerful military general Khalifa Haftar. Since 2014, Haftar has led a campaign against Islamists and their perceived political allies, which has made him unpopular with supporters of the Libya Dawn forces that captured Tripoli, a coalition that included Islamists and powerful tribes from the wealthy western city of Misrata. Some in the east are also determined to challenge the growing strength of long-time political rivals in Misrata who have led the GNA offensive against Islamic State (IS) in Sirte and could extend their presence in the strategic oil-rich Sirte basin in central Libya. The presence of the unity government in Tripoli, where pro-Misrata militias are present, is also perceived in the east to leave the GNA vulnerable to the influence of rival forces.
In the wake of the vote, Prime Minister Fayez Seraj, who heads the nine-member Presidency Council (PC) that acts as Libya’s head of state, said that he would form a new cabinet and present it to the HoR for approval. The decision to continue to seek the backing of lawmakers in the east shows that expanding the GNA’s limited authority, which at present extends largely to ministries in Tripoli, depends upon securing the support of competing centres of power. The HoR had voted for the government to submit a new list within 8-10 days, but the lack of progress in naming new appointees demonstrates how such a timeline was never feasible. The HoR has also demanded the new cabinet comprise just eight members, down from 17 currently. The smaller cabinet makes it more difficult for the GNA to secure support and represent various interest groups. For example, the Libya Herald reported on 29 August that Musa Koni, a member of the PC, was angered at the lack official posts secured for fellow southerners. The process of replacing the ministers is potentially fraught, as it could expose Seraj and other members of the PC to pressure from different factions, especially those in the east and west, who may struggle to agree on candidates.
The reshuffle itself is likely to undermine the gradual consolidation of power by GNA ministers since the PC arrived in Tripoli in March. Given the extent of opposition to the GNA among some in the east, further challenges to its authority are likely by the HoR and its allies, especially those of General Haftar, who faces an uncertain future if all armed forces are unified under the Presidency Council as called for in the LPA. The inability of successive Libyan governments since the 2011 revolution to form effective and independent security institutions remains a key driver of the country’s perpetual instability.
Economic challenges exacerbate political uncertainty
A sustainable improvement to the current security and economic challenges facing Libya requires a resolution the country’s political crisis. High levels of crime and sporadic violence in Tripoli, including frequent kidnappings and regular clashes between rival militias, underscore the limited capacity of the government, which is unable to secure even the capital. Beyond Tripoli, the unity government remains dependent on alliances with armed groups to exercise authority. The deterioration of public services and the economy has reached critical levels, and if not ameliorated, the GNA could experience an irreparable loss of public support. Attacks on personnel and infrastructure, as well as unrest at oil ports that lie under the control of militias, have contributed to a precipitous decline in revenues from oil sales, which are at around 15 percent of 2013 levels, depriving the government of its main source of funds. Underscoring the challenge of restoring lost output, which has been slashed to around 207,000 barrels per day (bpd) from a peak of 1.6 mn bpd, in August state oil company chief Mustafa Sanalla warned the organisation needed up to USD 1 bn to repair damaged energy infrastructure and to pay tens of millions in arrears to international service companies.
Currency shortages have made it difficult to secure imports and pay wages and there is growing anger over power and water cuts, which have worsened since July. These conditions have fuelled unrest and clashes and led the UN envoy to Libya Martin Kobler to warn in August that support for the GNA was “crumbling.” Libya’s divisions have undermined the government response, as evidenced by the decision of eastern officials in June to order bank notes independent of the GNA-backed central bank in Tripoli, a move that officials warned could trigger hyper-inflation.
IS has staged repeated attacks on oil fields and ports in the Sirte basin from nearby strongholds, and its territorial losses in the key oil-producing region will only encourage greater competition for control of these strategic resources. There is a precedent for fighting over oil infrastructure in the region between eastern and western forces. In December 2014, pro-HoR fighters repulsed a surprise assault on the Ras Lanuf and Es Sider export terminals by the Libya Dawn group, an armed coalition that included Misratan militias and was allied with the now defunct General National Congress.
Receding IS threat may worsen conflict over resources
Diplomatic efforts and joint opposition to the threat from IS largely suppressed fighting between these factions since 2015. However, recent progress in the Misratan-led, GNA approved campaign against IS has been accompanied by an upsurge in belligerent rhetoric and posturing by eastern forces. On 15 August, an official from General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army, which is allied with the HoR, warned its forces would secure major oil fields and ports, including Zueitina, Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, to protect them. Many of the ports and fields in eastern Libya are held by the Petroleum Facilities Guards, a militia allied with the GNA and led by tribal leader Ibrahim Jathran. Both Western and Libyan officials have warned of the threat to oil infrastructure from possible fighting, especially near Zueitina where the presence of pro-Haftar forces has been reported. In June and August, small- pro-Haftar forces and the Benghazi Defence Brigades, an anti-Haftar militia that includes Islamists, engaged in small scale clashes in the vicinity of eastern oil infrastructure, including the Naga field in Jufrah. An escalation of the conflict for control over Libya’s lucrative energy infrastructure could jeopardise efforts to restore lost output, and undermine political reconciliation efforts.
Foreign powers will continue to constrain the ability of any group outside of the GNA to monetise Libya’s oil revenues by working to prevent exports outside of official channels. However, even with progress in the campaign against IS, Libya’s political institutions will remain too weak and divided to effectively maintain order, thus minimising the GNA’s ability to capitalise on recent security gains. For example, although the PFG is allied with the GNA, it has led a blockade of oil ports under its control since 2013, and officials from the state-run National Oil Co have criticised a recent deal to reopen the facilities, warning that the agreement would encourage other groups to target infrastructure in hopes of extracting concessions. Thus, gains in the conflict against IS could lead to a resurgence of the unresolved conflict between rival forces in eastern and western Libya, creating fresh political and security challenges for Libya’s embattled government. Resolving Libya’s enduring political divisions remains critical to fostering the conditions for a gradual improvement in the economic and security situation in the country.