This article was originally published by Fair Observer.
By Ryan Turner
The vote of no confidence by the eastern parliament, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, underscores the fragility and volatility of the current political situation in Libya.
In August 2014, an armed coalition known as Libya Dawn seized the capital Tripoli and set up a parallel administration, forcing the internationally recognized government to flee to Tobruk in the east of the country. In an attempt to resolve the nation’s political and geographic division, in December 2015 the United Nations-brokered Libya Political Agreement was announced.
Under the peace plan, the House of Representatives—the internationally recognized parliament—was expected to vote to endorse the unity government. However, a formal vote had been repeatedly prevented by anti-Government of National Accord lawmakers, despite the fact that 100 members of parliament in the House of Representatives signed a pro-GNA petition in February 2016.
No-Confidence Vote in Libya
In the vote of no confidence by the House of Representatives, 61 out of a total 176 MPs voted against the proposed unity government cabinet, while 39 lawmakers abstained and one voted in favor. 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 the Islamic State 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 Government of National Accord vulnerable to the influence of rival forces.
In the wake of the vote, Prime Minister Fayez Seraj, who heads the nine-member Presidency Council that acts as Libya’s head of state, said he would form a new cabinet and present it to the House of Representatives 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 centers of power. The House of Representatives had voted for the government to submit a new list within eight to 10 days, but the lack of progress in naming new appointees demonstrates how such a timeline was never feasible.
The House of Representatives 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 Aug. 29 that Musa Koni, a member of the Presidency Council, was angered at the lack of 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 Presidency Council 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 Presidency Council 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 House of Representatives 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 in Libya Exacerbate Political Uncertainty
A sustainable improvement to the current security and economic challenges facing Libya requires a resolution to 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 from a peak of 1.6 million barrels per day, in August state oil company chief Mustafa Sanalla warned that the organization needed up to $1 billion 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 fueled unrest and clashes and led the United Nations 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.
The Islamic State 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-House of Representatives fighters repulsed a surprise assault on the Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidr 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 Threat May Worsen Conflict Over Resources
Diplomatic efforts and joint opposition to the threat from the Islamic State largely suppressed fighting between these factions since 2015. However, recent progress in the Misratan-led, GNA approved campaign against Islamic State has been accompanied by an upsurge in belligerent rhetoric and posturing by eastern forces. On Aug. 15, an official from General Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which is allied with the House of Representatives, warned its forces would secure major oil fields and ports, including Zueitina, Al-Sidr, 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 Defense 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 jeopardize 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 monetize Libya’s oil revenues by working to prevent exports outside of official channels. However, even with progress in the campaign against the Islamic State, Libya’s political institutions will remain too weak and divided to effectively maintain order, thus minimizing the GNA’s ability to capitalize on recent security gains. For example, although the Petroleum Facilities Guards 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 criticized 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 the Islamic State could lead to a resurgence of the unresolved conflict between rival forces in eastern and western Libya, creating fresh political and security challenges for the country’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.
Ryan Turner is a political risk analyst in the intelligence team at Protection Group International. He specializes in security issues affecting the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the global oil and gas market.
[Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan]