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Briefing

New Libya peace deal: What could go wrong? Plenty.

A UN-brokered deal to create a national unity government in Libya is to be signed Thursday in Morocco. But who signs and who doesn't is just one of the challenges.

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    A police officer rides his motorcycle in front of the International Conference Center where the signing of a UN-sponsored deal aiming to end Libya's conflict is expected to take place, Wednesday, Dec.16, in Sikhrat, Morocco. The deal is expected to be signed Thursday.
    Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP
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Libyan officials from rival factions are on the verge of signing an agreement to form a national unity government that is the culmination of more than a year of United Nations-backed negotiations.

The agreement, which has strong international backing, seeks to end the chaotic conflict that has allowed the Islamic State to take root in the North African nation and triggered its worst humanitarian crisis since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

The oil-rich nation is split between an Islamist-leaning government in the capital, Tripoli, and another based in the eastern coastal city of Tobruk. Each answers to rival parliaments and exerts only nominal control over territory and allied militias. A successful agreement would be the first step toward closing this divide and tackling the crises in the financial, oil, and security sectors.

The decision to sign the deal now seems designed to steamroll over its opponents, some of whom are powerful, on the assumption that the silent majority is supportive.

The signing of the deal, which was pushed back to Thursday, is taking place in the Moroccan city of Shkirat because of insecurity in the Libyan capital, the designated seat of the future unity government.

With the Islamic State – whose strongholds in Syria and Iraq are under pressure – eyeing Libya as a fall-back position, some analysts say the stakes are too high to allow this moment to pass.

But if the deal goes wrong, Libya could be left with three competing governments. Here are some basic questions and answers about the deal.

Q: What does the UN deal entail?

The United Nations plan calls for the creation of a national unity government within 30 days, comprising a nine-member presidential council responsible for forming a government.

The Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) would become the sole legislative body, while members of the Tripoli parliament are to be integrated into a consultative body, or state council. Each would enjoy a maximum mandate of two years. It appears that only members who sign off on the deal would be part of the new institutions.

Faiez Serraj, a Tripoli native aligned with the government in the east, is to head the unity government. 

Who is on board?

UN special envoy to Libya Martin Kobler hopes the deal will garner dozens of signatures, including members of the HoR, the rival General National Congress in Tripoli, mayors, and political parties. US Secretary of State John Kerry says the majorities in both parliaments are ready to sign, but it is unclear what constitutes a plenum in either legislative body.

One indication of popular support for the agreement will be the attendance level of mayors from across Libya, as they are the ones who live directly among their constituents, says Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations. That is not the case for many of the congressmen of the HoR who have found a base in Egypt.

“The mayors are getting double pressure – from people who want to have any peace whatsoever so they are basically pushing them on the plane, and from people who are opposing the agreement and are being quite threatening,” adds Mr. Toaldo. “There is a lot of support for the idea of stopping the fighting and having someone in charge, but it is not within the two parliaments.”

Who and what could act as spoilers?

One major concern is that while parliamentarians from both camps have engaged in the process, neither parliament has voted on or endorsed the deal. The speakers of both legislative bodies reject the current version although their deputies are on board. Again on Tuesday, HoR President Aguila Saleh, and his counterpart in Tripoli, Nuri Abu Sahmain, voiced opposition to the deal on the table after meeting in Malta, their first encounter since conflict erupted in 2014.

Egypt-backed Gen. Khalifa Hafter, an influential player who commands military forces in the east, has kept worryingly mum on this issue. There are reports that Mr. Kobler, the UN envoy, met with the general Wednesday in the eastern town of Al-Marj. Subsequently, he confirmed that the signing of the deal will go forth Thursday.

"It is highly likely that security conditions will prevent Serraj and his colleagues from taking office in Tripoli," Italy’s former Foreign Minister Emma Bonino and the head of International Crisis Group Jean-Marie Guehenn warned in a joint op-ed in Politico.

Tobruk-based Libya analyst Mohamed Eljarh, a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council, believes the deal is unworkable.

From a technical point of view, he says, it will be difficult for a nine-member presidential council representing different regions and parties to achieve the consensus necessary to pass urgent decisions. In the absence of a cease-fire, the new government will be unable to relocate to Tripoli or exert control over ongoing military operations.

“I believe that time is of the essence, but imposing a government that is going to be announced from outside Libya might result in even more fragmentation,” which would allow IS to expand further, he warns. “We see the international community insisting on signing and some Libyans insisting on signing, but that beats the whole idea. It is supposed to be a unity government and a consensus political deal.”

What are the incentives for signing?

“The best and most realistic scenario is one in which a number of factions in Tripoli realize that it is better for them to have an international government sitting in their town because it would mean the return of internationals and functioning militaries, which would increase both their leverage and their business,” says Toaldo of the European Council for Foreign Relations.

The situation in Libya is beyond critical, and civilians on both sides of the divide crave peace.

Nearly 2.4 million people out of a population of 6.2 million require immediate humanitarian assistance, including 435,000 internally displaced individuals, according to the United Nations. Law enforcement and border security is virtually non-existent, turning the country into a major destination for jihadists and a launching pad for human traffickers transporting refugees and migrants to the shores of Europe.

The oil and financial crisis has left the rival governments strapped for cash. The new internationally recognized government would have sole authority over key institutions including Libya’s Central Bank, the National Oil Corporation, and the Libyan Investment Authority. That in theory should introduce some clarity into the financial and oil sectors, although many militias can still play the role of saboteurs and obstruct sales.

What big obstacles lie ahead?

The collapse of the Qaddafi regime left Libya with weak state institutions and an array of military factions capable of influencing if not determining political outcomes. The new government, like its predecessors, will undoubtedly be weak and struggle to integrate militias into a functional army. Unlike in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 revolution, any new government will short on cash to buy off opponents or quickly address civilian demands.

On the security front, the Islamic State has become a major challenge, entrenched in the city of Sirte and making recent gains in the direction of Tripoli to the west as well as toward the eastern city of Ajdabiya. If implemented, the proposed UN agreement would open the door for military assistance to fight the radical jihadist group.

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