Libya’s Government of National Unity – What Questions will Determine Success? By Robert Uniacke

Libya’s Government of National Unity – What Questions will Determine Success?

By Robert Uniacke

In a single year, Libya has progressed from open conflict on the brink of international escalation to its first unified government in seven years. Born of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), overseen by the United Nations (UN) but driven by Libyans, the Government of National Unity (GNU) now takes the reins of a severely fragmented Libya. The government’s central goal is to prepare the ground for national elections in December 2021. Significant achievements have already been made, and the mood is generally optimistic. But what questions will most likely influence the GNU’s success in achieving this goal?

Armed groups

Despite relative calm on the ground since an October ceasefire, ubiquitous armed groups remain mobilized and willing to fight for their perceived interests. This dynamic raises a significant question mark over election plans. Libya’s last elections in 2014 were marred by intra-militia hostilities. This contributed to an 18% turnout, the contestation over which deteriorated into outright civil war.  After a decade of failed disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) efforts, what can the GNU do differently to avert a similar outcome?

The security situation as it stands is highly volatile and presents significant challenges to any DDR program. Lacking a common enemy, elements of the previously warring coalitions have turned on each other. Formerly GNA-aligned armed groups in the west, some with quasi-legitimacy from links to GNA institutions, have clashed over limited resources, illicit revenue streams, and territory. In one incident at the end of March, gunmen in Tripoli assassinated a prominent militia leader from the powerful city of Misrata; his comrades reportedly blamed an armed group established by ex-GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

But it is the east that has seen more concerning escalation in recent weeks. The 24th March assassination of ICC-wanted Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Mahmoud al-Werfalli in Benghazi lays bare a vicious conflict unfolding in the city. Dissenting voices against Khalifa Haftar have grown amid his military defeats and eroding authority; in response, assassinations and kidnappings have rocked the city. Victims have included high-profile women, like politician Seham Sergiwa and lawyer Hanan al-Barasi.

Al-Werfalli’s killing and its aftershocks present the first major challenge to the new government. Promisingly, it has pledged to investigate a recent round of executions in Benghazi – a grisly consequence of the city’s security crisis. But its options to stem escalation and move towards reform are otherwise limited, particularly if local tribal constituencies follow through on recent threats to take security into their own hands. Mass arms proliferation and a fragmented security sector mean achieving any monopoly on the use of force is an enormous challenge. The GNU also effectively lacks mechanisms to hold armed groups in the east and west accountable; if anything, these groups command more leverage over the new government than vice versa. But the crux of the DDR problem is that the LNA and various western armed groups demand official recognition and integration into any future state forces, but each also sees their enemies’ involvement as unacceptable – particularly given significant grievances over conflict atrocities. Navigating, mediating and ultimately weaving together Libya’s atomized security sector enough to facilitate peaceful elections is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the GNU.

Corruption allegations

Persistent allegations of corruption, cronyism, and kleptocracy have challenged broad optimism over the GNU’s appointment. How will perceptions of corrupt governance shape the GNU’s term? Will potential spoilers with an interest in the GNU’s failure try to leverage corruption allegations against the new government?

The government may derive support and momentum from its association with a promising peace process, but this does not mean the government is in itself popular or trusted. This dynamic partly traces back to the GNU’s LPDF victory; it was tactical rather than sincere voting that selected the new Libyan Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dabaiba, and his cabinet. The prospect of the ticket favored to win – including divisive GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha – spurred delegates to converge around a compromise alternative in the GNU, which was not without its own baggage and implications. Firstly, the Dabaiba name is deeply associated with Qaddafi-era corruption; Scottish police have recently investigated Abdulhamid’s cousin, Ali, for links to an alleged £5 billion fraud. Fears over these links appeared vindicated by allegations of vote buying connected to the Dabaiba ticket at the LPDF. A recent UN report kept the findings of an investigation into the issue confidential, leaving the issue far from resolved. Secondly, the Dabaiba ticket’s strategy of expansive coalition-building – another factor behind its success in the LPDF – opens the door for future election spoilers: the GNU’s numerous ministers in its bloated cabinet, all now entrenched in the new status quo, may not ultimately see elections as conducive to their interests

However, Libyans have very recently exhibited willingness to hold corrupt, entrenched government figures to account on the streets. Last summer, thousands of protesters mobilized across the country to denounce a deterioration in living conditions and the corruption underpinning it – particularly as Libya’s state electricity company presided over a grid close to collapse. The protests showed the public’s patience was wearing thin, spooking the Libyan political class and encouraging a move towards dialogue. Libyans are now demanding progress towards national elections, but GNU figures’ corruption records and links to kleptocracy could be significant vulnerabilities for national or international actors trying to spoil that process. This is especially true as the peace process so far appears to have prioritized expediency over transparency, leaving significant space for theories about, and possibly conduct of, corruption.

Foreign intervention

Finally, how can the GNU secure the withdrawal of foreign forces without making compromises that could comprise Libyan sovereignty long-term? The period since Haftar’s ill-fated assault on Tripoli in 2019 has been defined by an erosion in Libya’s sovereignty. Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia, among others, have helped drive the conflict through arms transfers, political support, and direct intervention. Yet the GNU was born of the same peace process that, in October last year, produced a ceasefire mandating that all of these foreign forces leave Libya. The deadline passed in January with little change in the status quo, and Libya’s new foreign minister has since demanded foreign forces leave.

While all intervening powers have paid lip service to the GNU, they are not prepared to give up their pursuits in Libya. For instance, Turkey insists that its forces were legitimately deployed to Libya as part of an agreement with the internationally recognized GNA – a convenient narrative that supports its interest to develop military bases and secure reconstruction contracts. Meanwhile, Russia’s entrenchment in Libya is currently too strategically beneficial to expect Moscow to acquiesce to the new government’s demands, especially with the UAE footing part of the bill. The presence of parastatal mercenary forces also gives Moscow leverage in its diplomatic outreach to the new GNU with a view towards winning economic concessions.

For now, these foreign powers see their presence on the ground as instrumental in carving out significant spheres of interest in a post-conflict Libya; their deployment effectively guarantees that the GNU will have to engage and negotiate with their officials. While some elements of foreign presence such as reconstruction contracts may benefit Libya in the short term, the long-term upshot may be that the GNU loses the ability to dictate who operates within its borders and what they do. In this scenario, post-conflict Libya may continue as a pawn in broader regional developments, particularly given Turkey’s seeming ambitions to use bases in Libya as a launchpad to project power onto the African continent. The GNU’s negotiating position is weak, but it may stand to benefit from continuing to insist the withdrawal of foreign forces while hinging contracts on this condition in order to begin to claw back Libyan sovereignty. In any case, a failure to make progress on this file risks undermining the credibility of the peace process at large.


Answers to these key questions will help define the trajectory of Libya’s peace process and path towards elections for the next year, but they are far from the only factors at play. The elections’ very constitutional basis will be contested, not least because minority communities like the Amazigh and Tebu reject the current draft constitution due to long-running protests over minorities’ underrepresentation. However, very few expected Libya would have a unified government only months after open hostilities between regional blocs. Figures previously facing off across battle lines are now engaging in political fora. There is undoubtedly cause for optimism, but some creative statecraft will be needed to progress and deliver elections .