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Q&A: Is an end to Libya's political crisis finally in sight?

Analysts see reasons for optimism as key institutions declare support for unity government and UN envoy poses for 'selfies' in Tripoli's old city
UN envoy Martin Kobler poses for photos with Libyans during a tour of Tripoli's old city on 5 April (AFP)

Libya's United Nations-backed unity government appears to be moving towards a political breakthrough after gaining the support of key institutions in Tripoli including the General National Congress (GNC), the parliamentary assembly installed by the militia groups that gained control of the Libyan capital in 2014.

The Tripoli-based Government of National Salvation said via a statement posted on the Justice Ministry website on Tuesday that it was "ceasing the activities entrusted to us as an executive power" in order to "preserve the higher interests of the country and prevent bloodshed and divisions".

The announcement came days after the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj, arrived in Tripoli. The GNA's arrival was followed on Tuesday by the UN's Libya envoy Martin Kobler's visit to the Libyan capital. Kobler was pictured taking photographs while touring Tripoli's old city.

The GNA is set to be a one-year interim government as stipulated by a UN agreement - signed by various Libyan factions in December - designed to end a political crisis that has wracked the war-torn country since the NATO-backed 2011 overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But the GNA and its designated cabinet of ministers must still overcome opposition before they can officially begin work, with the leader of the Tripoli-based Government of National Salvation on Wednesday backtracking on the earlier statement and refusing to hand over power to Sarraj.

"Given the requirements of public interest... you are requested to continue your mission in accordance with the law," Khalifa Ghweil said in a statement in which he also threatened to prosecute anyone who cooperated with Sarraj's government.

The GNA also still needs to be recognised by the House of Representatives (HOR) parliament, a rival government elected in June 2014 and based in the eastern city of Tobruk since being forced out of the capital two months after its election by the GNC-aligned militia alliance of Libya Dawn.

While the GNC has been backed by Libya Dawn, the HOR has been militarily supported by the Libyan National Army, which is headed by former Gaddafi general Khalifa Haftar, who returned to Libya as a rebel leader in 2011 after spending decades in exile in the US.

The GNC under the UN agreement is to become the State Council, as part of the December power-sharing agreement.

In the midst of such political chaos, the Islamic State (IS) group has emerged as a potent threat, carrying out a series of deadly attacks, including in Tripoli, and gaining a territorial foothold in the country concentrated in the central town of Sirte, where the former leader Gaddafi was born.

In order to try and demystify Libya's increasingly complex conflict, Middle East Eye interviewed two Libyan experts: Mattia Toaldo (Policy Fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations) and Mohamed Eljarh (Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council).

Mattia Toaldo

MEE: Why did the GNC cede power to the GNA now?

Mattia Toaldo: Libya Dawn has dissolved and therefore the government of Libya Dawn has dissolved. The moment 10 Libyan cities (which had previously supported Libya Dawn) signed a statement supporting the GNA, then Libya Dawn was over.

The Government of National Salvation had de facto dissolved since Thursday last week when the crucial institutions sided with the GNA – these included the Central Bank, the National Oil Corporation, the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office and the Interior Ministry.

Kobler was able to move around Tripoli's old city for two hours shooting selfies and buying groceries – this shows that the people he is playing with are in control for the moment.

MEE: Why did the Government of National Salvation decide to dissolve?

MT: There are several factors behind the peaceful dissolution of the Government of National Salvation.

First, they understood they couldn't win militarily. They tried to mobilise in Martyr's Square [in central Tripoli] but they quickly understood there was no way they would leave Tripoli alive if they started fighting.

Any militia operation in Libya always begins with public demonstrations and it was clear they couldn't muster enough political power to justify any kind of military action.

Second, they were internationally very isolated and that's the main difference with Tobruk (where the HOR is based), which instead has had consistent regional backers – that's why Tripoli has dissolved and Tobruk is still there.

Third, there were also political dynamics at play – people in Tripoli were happy, not with the GNA in itself, but with the idea of finally having a government in place. There's a lot of war fatigue in western Libya.

MEE: Is there concern in the HOR about the GNC's decision?

MT: Some people in Libya fear that the GNC might try to take the lead [in the GNA] because of the HOR not moving forward with its implementation.

They fear that some Europeans and the United States might say "okay, the HOR doesn't want to play ball, the GNC State Council has been purged of its hardliners, so let's work with the GNC".

To be honest I don't see that happening in the real world for political reasons. Tobruk is backed by Egypt and the Emirates and I don't see France or Italy doing anything against Egypt or the UAE.

The Government of National Salvation has a consistent minority of MPs coming from the Muslim Brotherhood, but the idea that they could dominate Libyan politics is a long shot.

MEE: Will the HOR approve the GNA?

MT: There is a letter which is circulating among Tobruk MPs in which they basically ask to convene the HOR and conduct a vote of confidence for his government.

And apparently it has 60 and 70 signatures (out of 200) – but the problem is someone has to convene the HOR, and if it is not (HOR chairman) Aguila Saleh Issa then it should be one of his deputies.

This is not clear though as there may be bylaws that allow the HOR to self-convene.

We are waiting to see if the pressure from the pro-dialogue HOR members will overcome Haftar's circle.

MEE: What is Haftar's position now?

MT: Haftar is concerned that there is not enough commitment from the GNA to the LNA (Libya National Army, which he currently heads).

Bear in mind that the minister of defence for the GNA is a member of Haftar's army – Mahdi al-Barghathi.

Haftar's worry is that he has a defence minister above him and a defence minister with some military credentials. His ideal situation would be to have no defence minister like he has had over the past year and a half in Tobruk.

MEE: Is Europe expecting the GNA to swiftly ask for military intervention in Libya against the Islamic State group?

MT: The expectation in European papers is that the GNA will ask for foreign assistance, now [that] it is in Tripoli.

The West should be patient (and not press military intervention) other than offering very innocent assistance, by which I mean not trying to drag the GNA into a new counter-terrorism effort.

The GNA has to legitimise itself as a purely Libyan government – and not as a foreign pawn that the spoilers have consistently portrayed them as.

In the past week they have demonstrated they can handle the situation for the moment. They are defended by Libyan people at the moment and they managed to have political/security negotiations that enabled them to arrive peacefully in Tripoli, which to be honest was surprising.

They have proved to have negotiating skills which were unknown.

MEE: Is the Government of National Salvation dissolving and the GNA arriving in Tripoli the beginning of the end of Libya's crisis?

MT: It's a positive development, at least in the short-term. There are three main challenges that remain.

The first is fixing the economic crisis. If they don't demonstrate to the people that they are going to pay salaries and that cash will get back in the banks, then they will lose all confidence.

The second is the East – the HOR and whether they will approve the GNA.

The third challenge is IS. I expect IS to do something. As everywhere in the region they are enemies of any political process. I am already surprised that one week from the arrival of the GNA in Tripoli that IS hasn't done anything.

Mohamed Eljarh

MEE: What is the HOR going to do about the unity government?

Mohamed Eljarh: The House of Representative's position is that it has been unable to meet for about five weeks now. But I was in Tobruk two days ago and it looks like things are moving ahead in Tobruk as well, not just Tripoli.

More House of Representatives members are arriving in Tobruk. The president and one of his deputies are there. The first deputy is supposed to be in Tobruk at some point this week as well. More numbers are basically arriving in Tobruk.

The next step is to convene the House of Representatives in Tobruk in order to vote on two key issues – these include the constitutional amendment by which the Libyan political agreement that was signed on 17 December in Skhirat will become part of the constitutional declaration.

Number two will be to vote on the government of national accord (GNA) - either to accept it or reject it. There is going to be most likely a positive vote from what I heard. The only contentious issues remain Article 8 of the additional provision that deals with General Haftar and senior military positions.

Article 8 of the additional provisions states that all senior military positions would be reset as soon as the agreement is signed, but that has not been the case because the House of Representatives about seven weeks ago met and voted to drop Article 8 or freeze it completely. I think that will be one of the sticking points there.

But my reading is that there will be a compromise and that we will see Article 8 frozen or dropped altogether and then we will see the GNA approved.

Libya's prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj chairs a Presidential Council of the Government of National Reconciliation meeting (AFP)

MEE: What happens next for Haftar?

ME: Haftar is saying that he is the head of the army, he does not do politics. He said (two or three days ago) there are no plans to have a military council in Libya and says he will support and back any government that is approved by the House of Representatives. This is positive in terms of Haftar's position.

I don't think that he will want to go into direct confrontation with the international community or the GNA, but he will most definitely try and use his proxies or backers or supporters to try and basically make sure that there is a secure place for him.

MEE: Could Haftar be left powerless?

ME: No. He will continue to enjoy a huge support base in eastern Libya – there is no doubt about that. I've recently met some of his key opponents in Misrata, including House of Representative member Mohammed Raad and it seems that there is no way that they would accept General Haftar being the head of the army all over Libya.

However, the city of Misrata and the leaders of the city of Misrata there have shown flexibility recently. Two or three days ago, they released Mohammed Bin Nayel, one of the most hated and most wanted pro-Gaddafi army officers and they reached a deal to let him go so it seems there will be a lot of pragmatism.

Misrata has distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and the political Islam group will be more willing to compromise to make sure that the GNA and the unity government works despite the attempts to sabotaging the whole thing, whether by political Islam or some hardline supporters of the LNA or General Haftar in eastern Libya.

MEE: Who could spoil the positive movement forward?

ME: If Article 8 is dropped, I'm sure there will not be any problems. My only worry is if we see a session in the HOR, but we don't see consensus reached and we do not see Article 8 dropped.

As a result, what we will see is a split within the HOR – we will have some staying in Tobruk, others going to Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya and we will have a repeat of what happened in 2014 where you have the east with its own parliamentarians and then you have the government of national accord in Tripoli.

It's like a new divide. But at least for now, what is happening is slightly positive. There are lots of challenges. It's normal because you are trying to bring two extremes into one agreement or to one setting so that's expected, but if we manage to find a settlement regarding Article 8 or General Haftar and the army, then I'm sure there won't be any spoilers in eastern Libya.

MEE: What's the mood in Libya?

ME: I was just having a fascinating conversation with a hotel manager in Bayda. He articulated eloquently what many people have said or are saying at the moment here in Libya. I live in Tobruk and I travel a lot in eastern Libya and the general feeling is that any authority or any government that can alleviate the suffering of the people on the ground, bring prices down, make sure that the cash crisis is solved, bring the dollar exchange rate down will be a welcome government.

It's a government that people will be happy with because people just want to stop the suffering that they have been going through.

"They want to be able to travel, they want to be able to have medical treatment. So if the GNA can deliver on this throughout Libya, they will win the hearts of the people. If the GNA delivers only in Tripoli, it will land in big trouble.

An employee counts US dollars (L) at a currency exchange in the Libyan capital Tripoli, on April 4, 2016 (AFP)

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