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Libyan government, parliament enter into standoff

Libya's Government of National Accord is yet to get a vote of confidence by the House of Representatives.
United Nations envoy to Libya Martin Kobler (2nd L) waits to meet Aguila Saleh, head of the internationally-recognised Libyan parliament, in Tobruk, Libya, April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer - RTX2AKQX

Many Libya experts expected the arrival of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli to trigger violence between militias supporting it and those opposing it, but nothing serious has yet occurred. The government, brokered by the United Nations and headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, has installed itself with minimum trouble. That said, since its establishment on March 30, the GNA has been confined to temporary headquarters, an old naval base a few kilometers west of the capital, for security reasons.​

The GNA is completely dependent on local, supportive militias for protection, such as the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade (TRB). It helped to secure its arrival and provides security details for its headquarters. Hashim Bishr, a TRB leader, told Al-Monitor, “[We are] working within the Ministry of Interior, making sure that nothing serious happens and the capital remains safe.”

No single armed group or alliance has moved to establish itself as the dominant force in the capital, where security remains shaky and uncertain in terms of who controls what. The GNA’s strategy appears to be to gain as much political and bureaucratic support as possible before engaging the militias in the hope of integrating them into the armed and security forces. The good news is that no militia opposing the GNA has thus far shown any inclination to use force against it

Since its arrival, the GNA has gained the support of numerous municipal councils in western Libya as well as many district councils, the grassroots of political power, at least in the capital. The most serious political hurdle, however, remains the endorsement, through a vote of confidence, of the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, as required by the Libyan Political Agreement, signed Dec. 17, giving birth to the GNA.

The Speaker of the HoR, Agila Saleh Issa, has consistently stressed that the parliament cannot vote on the government unless it presents itself to the deputies in Tobruk, a basic requirement in the democratic process. The GNA has, however, failed to do so, without explaining why. Its reluctance, it seems, stems from security-related fears and the situation its members might face in eastern Libya.

A high-ranking military source speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed to Al-Monitor that Gen. Khalifa Hifter fears that after the GNA gains full authority his official role as chief of staff of the Libyan National Army could be scraped, because many militias and Islamist political leaders in western Libya do not like him. The mufti of Libya, Sadiq al-Ghariani, has called for jihad against the army led by Hifter, but at the same time, refuses to accept the GNA. Hifter is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, however, given the popular and political support he enjoys, thanks to his recent gains on the ground in his fight against Islamist groups, particularly in Benghazi.

More than half of HoR deputies have voiced support for the GNA, but they have been unable to assemble a quorum. A two-thirds majority is needed for a vote of confidence to be legal and binding. Some people, including UN envoy Martin Kobler, blame Issa for delaying the vote. This view is shared by the European Union, which has imposed sanctions, including a travel ban and assets freeze, on Issa and other politicians — including Nouri Abusahmen, former speaker of the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, along with GNC-affiliated, self-proclaimed prime minister, Khalifa al-Ghweil — for obstructing implementation of the political accord and thus obstructing the GNA from carrying out its duties. Abusahmen and Ghweil consider the GNA illegal, claiming that it does not represent the wishes of the Libyan people. Both men, however, lack international standing.

Meanwhile, the GNA has so far failed to translate the political support and endorsement of Western and regional powers into action. France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy expressed their support in strong terms when their foreign ministers visited Tripoli and met with GNA members on April 16. They also promised financial and military support and made it clear that they would only deal with the GNA, ignoring any other party claiming to be the legitimate government.

Some Western ambassadors, including from France, the United Kingdom and Spain, have visited Tripoli for the first time since the summer of 2014, when war broke out between the GNC, backed by a coalition of Islamists, and Zintan militias, forcing them out of the capital.

Thus, the political and security wrangling continues as the daily lives of Libyans become even more difficult, stemming from the banking system's lack of liquidity, skyrocketing prices and lack of security. Cash withdrawals from banks are limited to no more than 500 Libyan dinars (approximately $366), which doesn't last long for a middle-class family averaging five persons. The only cheap thing these days is gas and local phone calls.

This setting, with the government in Tripoli being far from safe, to the extent that it is operating from an old naval base, demonstrates how dangerous it is to go to the official government building, less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. The Islamic State (IS) is one of the serious sources of danger. After taking control of Sirte, IS has imposed horrific punishments on anyone daring to oppose it and has forced thousands to flee their homes, helping create nearly half a million internally displaced Libyans and more than a million emigrants.

Stemming the surge of migrants making the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean to Italy is another complex issue the GNA must attend to to satisfy its Western backers. The number of people making the journey is set to rise given increasingly calm seas and restrictions on the Turkish-Greek route.

The GNA faces a multitude of urgent problems with very little means to solve any of them, thus adding to Libya’s already combustible status as a country ungovernable for the last five years.

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