North Africa, West Asia

Libyan political agreement: recipe for peace or disaster?

The United Nations-brokered Libyan political agreement has failed to bear any fruits thus far because it does not address the root causes of the Libyan crisis and only adds to its complexity.

Azza K. Maghur
26 November 2016
Yui Mok PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson with US Secretary of State John Kerry and other European foreign ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, at the start of international talks aimed at finding a way to break the political stalemate in Libya.Yui Mok PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Unlike what some politicians may think, the Libyan revolution of February 2011 did not produce a fledgling democracy; it only opened the way for a few democratic steps, which were quickly overridden by political fragmentation and polarization, ineffective state institutions, and violence.

The United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (PA), which was signed last December after more than a year of dialogue between different Libyan rivals and factions was intended to reverse this course. However, it has failed to bear any fruits thus far because it does not address the root causes of the Libyan crisis and only adds to its complexity. 

Moreover, the PA has not been legally adopted as part of Libya’s constitutional declaration, the document governing Libya’s transitional period since the fall of the Qaddafi regime. In fact, the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR), which is a party to the agreement itself, has failed to convene in full quorum and issue the necessary constitutional amendment to make the PA enter into force and be part of national legislation.

Almost one year has lapsed with these crippling deficiencies while Libya continues its slow motion freefall into chaos and turmoil. This political agreement, which was supposed to put an end to Libya’s political nightmare, has become a nightmare itself. Let’s try and understand why.

Politics in militia-land

The development of the nascent Libyan political system came to a grinding halt in 2014, but the crux of the Libyan crisis is not political. What stopped the political transition, and continues to prevent its resumption, is the constant threat posed by militias that regularly use intimidation and violence to influence politics.

In today's Libya, countless non-state armed actors are holding the country hostage, suffocating its institutions, and threatening its integrity and its very existence. This is hardly the environment for any type of democratization process.

Non-state armed groups proliferated following the 2011 revolution. They asserted their power over the entire Libyan territory and installations, and furled around the uncertain, fragile path of democratization until they strangled it. Since its outset, militias hijacked the transitional period, stymieing its progress and preventing any attempts to broker a lasting political agreement.

The most glaring example of this role played is the famous passing of the political isolation law by the GNC in 2013, under the direct armed threat of militias. This law was a manifest of human rights violations which harmed Libya’s democratic transition.

Libya’s greatest problem has been the security vacuum and the proliferation of armed groups. With no remedy from the PA, it has continued to worsen at an alarming rate, especially in the capital Tripoli. Although the longest chapter of the Libyan political agreement pertains to “security arrangements”, it is based on the existence of a political breakthrough that has never existed. 

The current stalemate indicates that security arrangements in Libya should have preceded any political agreement, or at least that they should have been adopted simultaneously. The political agreement turned into yet another obstacle as it became clear that it was not implementable under these conditions.

The design of the political agreement

The political agreement is based on two major points:

1. Libya is a fledgling democracy that should evolve and develop;

2. Since the democratic transition is stopped, it requires a shared power agreement through the PA with a new political design.

The PA preserves both post-Qaddafi elected legislative bodies: The General National Congress (GNC), which was elected in 2012, and the House of Representatives (HoR), which was elected in 2014 in accordance with the legislation passed by the GNC.

Despite its low turnout, this was the third successful election that took place in Libya between 2012-14. The peaceful handover of power from the first elected legislature to the second represented the most crucial test of Libya’s attempt to democratize. Alas, it failed awkwardly when the GNC - the first elected parliament - refused to hand over power to the newly elected HoR. This failure has been sealed by the Political Agreement, which preserves both bodies through a power-sharing arrangement.

While the PA recognizes the HoR as the sole legislative authority, thereby prolonging its mandate that had expired in October 2015, it also resurrects the defunct GNC that refused to dissolve. In fact, under the PA, the GNC becomes the High Council of State (HCS), an authority that is supposed to share some of the power and responsibilities of the HoR.

Besides the obvious problem of legality, this arrangement poses serious political problems. In particular, GNC members who had essentially impeded the democratization process previously by refusing to step down from their role are being rewarded with membership in the HCS while others who had supported the legitimately elected HoR are left behind.

Thus, it appears that the very complex and peculiar power-sharing structure devised in the PA is intended to appease all parties in order to sign any agreement on paper, rather than to actually implement a realistic one that would yield substantive results. 

The injection of a new and strange executive authority

The main innovation of the PA was the creation of a fresh new executive authority called the Government of National Accord (GNA), with two components: a presidency council (PC); and a cabinet of ministers (cabinet).

Once again, for the purpose of guaranteeing the sharing of power among opposing parties, the PC was designed to include nine members: a president, five deputies and three ministers. In accordance with the PA, PC decisions require unanimity of the president and his five deputies.

However, dissension and competition ensued soon after the announcement of the PC members. Two PC members (Deputy Qatrani, and minister Al-Aswad) first announced their boycott, and then rejoined the PC after eight months. Notwithstanding his new stance, Deputy President Qatrani refuses to join any PC meeting in Tripoli.

Furthermore, the PC has submitted two government proposals to the HoR, which have both been rejected. In response, the PC has endorsed its cabinet de facto, invoking a temporarily pending approval from the HoR. This has resulted in the refusal of some nominated ministers - mainly from the east - to join the cabinet. The PC has deemed their absence a resignation, which has essentially resulted in a lack of representation of the eastern region of Libya.

The next serious challenge facing the PC is the submission of a third proposed cabinet to the HoR for its approval through a vote of confidence, which is not expected to happen unless serious international pressure is exerted on parliament. However, the PC first needs to agree upon its composition, which is another dilemma.

Since the PC moved to Tripoli, the security situation has worsened significantly with rampant kidnappings, thefts, and other crimes. Tripoli has become the land of lawless militias and gangsters alike. Furthermore, the PC itself is guarded by a militia, which makes it unable to fulfill the security tasks conferred to it in the PA.

Moreover, Libyans are confronted with a series of problems for which there does not seem to be any solution on the horizon. These include: food shortages; unemployment; raising inflation; lack of cash; devaluation of the Libyan Dinar; fuel shortages; power cuts; and the deterioration of education and health care. Understandably, any public support from hopeful Libyans and Tripolitanians upon the arrival of the new government last March has evaporated.  

Prime Minister, al-Sarraj and his deputies have failed in addressing these problems with any viable remedies. In a televised interview last month, al-Sarraj blamed the governor of the central bank of Libya for acute cash shortages, an accusation that was refuted by the governor through an open letter two days later. Therefore, it is clear that the PC is neither able to assert its control over state institutions, nor to expand the geographical scope of its very limited authority.

GNA: a government among two others

The PA's plan prescribed that the new government (GNA) is the “sole executive authority” and that all executive decisions issued by other entities “shall be deemed null and void”. Though the GNA was supposed to put an end to any duplication and division, this has simply not worked. Rather than clarifying the distribution of power and unifying state institutions, the PA arrangements have exacerbated the chaos.  

The GNA is confined to a small military compound in the capital Tripoli, and does not have an approved cabinet from the HoR. Meanwhile two other governments are operating in the country. Thus, although the international community does not recognize any parallel authority to the GNA, this body has a very limited substantive power and lacks popular support on the ground.  

The GNA has ultimately proven to be weak and ineffective because it was never equipped with substantive power, beyond the hollow declarations of support by the international community. As a result, it is now just a third government in the country, adding to the fragmentation and complexity of the political landscape. 

The early flagrant violation of the PA with no objection or consequences

As part of a new governing design for the transitional period, the PA has created the High Council of State (HCS), which absorbs the remnants of the GNC - the rump of Libya's first parliament.

In April, in a hasty and controversial session, some members of the GNC in Tripoli established this body in practice by electing its president and deputies under the pretext of applying the PA. This initiative violated the PA provisions, particularly the steps laid out in article 20, and in annex 3. However, the international community has not reacted or even objected to this violation.

On the contrary, it has accepted the HCS as a “fait accompli”. The HCS symbolizes the first institution created under the auspices of the PA. Despite the series of objections raised from expert scholars and members of the GNC and the HoR, none among the UN, the dialogue committee, the PC nor the international community have taken any action. They appear to be unconcerned with their role in preserving the integrity of the political agreement and overseeing its proper application.  

As a consequence to this flagrant violation and with the help of militia guarding the HCS headquarter, last month few GNC members who were not included in the HCS reoccupied its premises in Tripoli. The HCS name and logo were taken down and were replaced by the GNC’s. This specific incident, which was labeled in the media as a “coup” is simply a consequence of the breach of the PA. This example proves that during the phase of the PA application, its violation not only discredits it, but leads to heavy consequences.

The tolerance manifested by the international community towards the violation of the PA by some members of the GNC changed in response to the so called “coup”. Paradoxically, the HCS president received calls of support from different states officials, despite the fact that he himself and members of the self-declared HCS had violated the PA in the first place.


The complicated Libyan political agreement hammered out by the international community through UNSMIL along with the Libya dialogue team has not proven to reflect or address the Libyan reality on the ground. No political solution, let alone democratization process can precede the establishment of state-enforced security. The current conditions of lawlessness and rampant non-state armed groups condemned the Libyan Political Agreement to failure and will prevent any such efforts from succeeding in the future.

The aim of a political agreement is to pave the way for substantive work: it must put an end to suffering and conflict. All recent events indicate that the PA is dysfunctional and inapplicable. It has not been adopted as an amendment to the current constitutional declaration that is governing the transitional period by the HoR, thus it is not part of the Libyan legislation yet. And the toleration of manifest violations of the PA by the international community contributes to its failure. These elements call for a profound revision of both the political agreement and the process underlying it.

However, what Libya needs most urgently today is not the revival of the democratic transition, or the precipitous restructuring of the national political architecture. Nowadays ordinary Libyans just want security, economy, and national reconciliation. The dialogue process brokered by UNSMIL and its final product under the form of the PA have failed to yield these three keys to Libya’s survival.

It is time to either open the PA for further dialogue and revision, or to devise a new one altogether that is based upon restoring security, saving the unraveling Libyan economy, and launching a serious and vital reconciliation process, rather than creating new power mechanisms and roles.

These three bases will be necessary for the survival of whichever political architecture that will be devised, and to provide dignity and quality of life for Libyans. One thing is certain: the status quo is no longer tenable - not that it ever was.

This Op-ed is part of the Libya Policy Forum Initiative, a US-based independent, non-partisan, and non-profit initiative that seeks to address the lack of accurate information and analysis of the Libyan context.

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