On 17 December 2015, the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) was signed in Skhirat, Morocco to the cheers of major powers, regional actors and Libya’s immediate neighbours; it was hailed as a major breakthrough, putting Libya on the road to redemption. In a ceremony hosted by the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, everyone was happy that Libya was finally going to have a government and start rebuilding after four years of destruction and bloodshed.
The accord created a nine-member strong Presidency Council and authorised it to establish what was called the Government of National Accord (GNA). This was meant to be a caretaker authority with a transitional agenda that included the drafting of a new constitution, organising elections and stemming the flow of illegal migrants into Europe, as well as running Libya.
A week later, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2259 recognising the GNA as the only legitimate government in Libya and giving it control over Libya’s impressive revenue from oil exports; the vote was unanimous. However, according to Article 4 of the LPA, the GNA would only be legitimate after winning the approval of the country’s House of Representatives. The legislative body was, after all, a signatory to the UN-brokered accord that created the GNA.
Just hours after the ceremony in Morocco, those parliamentarians who signed on behalf of the House of Representatives, publicly rejected it and claimed that they had been tricked into signing. The legislator denied the GNA a vote of confidence twice, thus rendering it illegitimate, and making it illegal for the institution to operate in Libya.
In the background, forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar were in eastern Libya gaining ground and territories from an array of different Islamist organisations which dominated Benghazi and much of the surrounding territory. Haftar himself never accepted the GNA nor the deal that brought it about. He continued his fight and last April took it to the outskirts of Tripoli claiming, sometimes rightly, that the GNA is controlled by militias and must be ousted.
Once established, the GNA moved to Tunisia and considered how to create a government and get back to Tripoli. At that time, four years had passed since the West and the UN made the disastrous mistake of using force, spearheaded by NATO, to topple Muammar Gaddafi’s government, which led to his murder in October 2011. Libya has been a battleground ever since.
Tripoli was under the control of various militias, most of which rejected the GNA and prevented it from entering the capital until March 2016. I witnessed the complicated negotiations at the time conducted by one such militia which liked the idea of having the GNA installed in Tripoli. It took Paolo Serra, the UN’s Libya military advisor, three months to convince the top militias to allow the GNA to enter Tripoli. Then, on 16 March 2016, it finally moved into a disused naval base east of the capital.
This was another mistake by the UN; it sent a government straight into the hands of the militias. At the time, the GNA was, and largely still is, without an army or police force and unable to protect itself. It stayed in the naval base for almost a year, unable to move to government offices a few kilometres away. The local militias wanted something in return for allowing the GNA to move to its headquarters in Tariq El-Sika. Fearing that they would lose control, the militias came up with the idea of becoming part of the GNA itself. The latter agreed and the militias became, nominally, part of the interior and defence ministries, effectively wielding power on the ground. The largely powerless GNA had no choice but to accept this and hurried to start its work. As days passed, it became clear that the GNA’s top priorities were to control illegal migration to Europe, and to fight Daesh in Sirte. However, with the militias dominating the GNA, the illegal migration has increased and Daesh has taken more territory along the coast, threatening Libya’s oil production and exporting region.
Late as usual, the West which supported and recognised the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government, started to realise its mistake. Apparently, some Western countries, particularly France, Italy and the US, wanted to install and legitimise the GNA only to claim that they have a partner in the struggle against migration and terror organisations in Libya. The GNA found itself forced to bless militias over which it had little or no control. The coalition of militias that expelled Daesh from Sirte was recognised as the GNA’s army even though it is an independent militia which fought the extremists for its own sake, not for the sake of Libya.
This made serving the people of Libya less important for the GNA. Living conditions, even in the capital Tripoli, declined even more. The cost of living soared, bank liquidity became scarce every single day, blackout hours tripled and adequate security was absent. The GNA could not function properly, even if it wanted to, simply because it was — and is — a hostage to the militias. Dominating government departments, the militias started to make money through a series of scams, mainly in the import-export business, while also getting paid by the government.
Instead of being an interim authority, the GNA is still in place, four years longer than it was supposed to be. Under pressure from Haftar’s forces, which control most of Libya, the GNA accepted Turkey’s offer of military help and signed a security deal with Ankara on 27 November 2019. The Europeans could not do much about this, despite disliking it. In terms of international legitimacy, the GNA is a UN-recognised government and can enter into agreements with other countries, and this is what it did in the deal with Turkey. The Europeans and the US were taken by surprise, and could not legally challenge the fact that Turkey is now sending arms and fighters to help the GNA against Haftar’s forces. It is worth remembering that Europe and the US created the GNA in the first place. With the war in Libya now involving many foreign state actors, getting rid of the GNA without a reliable alternative in place is dangerous and politically very awkward.
The UN and the West are now in a trap created by themselves. Getting out of it is easier said than done, because Turkey, not the UN, now has the upper hand in Tripoli.