Libya’s rivals declare unity Cabinet under UN plan

Representatives of Libya's rival factions who are sitting in Tunis and negotiating through a UN-brokered process announced on Tuesday that they have formed a unity government aimed at stemming the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years.

BENGHAZI, Libya — Representatives of Libya’s rival factions who are sitting in Tunis and negotiating through a UN-brokered process announced on Tuesday that they have formed a unity government aimed at stemming the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years.

In a statement received by The Associated Press, the Unity Presidential Council said it has agreed on a 32-member Cabinet, drawn of representatives from across the country.

But whether that government will in fact be able to govern the country remains to be seen.

Libya slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Since 2014, its divisions only increased, splitting it into two governments and parliaments — the internationally recognized one in the country’s east, and an Islamist-backed one in the capital, Tripoli.

Each side is backed by an array of different militias. Amid the chaos, a Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State group has surged, claiming responsibility for a series of deadly attacks as it tries to expand its territory and take control of oil terminals and fields, the sole source of Libya’s wealth.

In December, blocs from Libya’s rival parliaments signed a U.N.-brokered deal to form the unity government and established a Unity Presidential Council. The Tunisia-based council includes representatives from the rival parliaments and governments, as well as delegates from other factions. But other members of both the two main factions have rejected the U.N. plan.

The United Nations has warned that further delays in implementing the plan will only empower the Islamic State affiliate. U.N. envoy Marin Kobler, who brokered the plan, tweeted this week that the Libyan political scene is divided while the Islamic State is united and “set on its destructive goal.”

On Monday, Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Dairi of the internationally-recognized government told reporters during a visit to Cairo that the formation of a Cabinet was a condition for lifting an international arms embargo on the Libyan army fighting Islamic militants.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called the Cabinet announcement an “essential step” and said Libya was now at a “critical juncture,” urging all key players in Libya to “uphold the interests of their country and its people.”

Italy praised the development as an opportunity to bring stability to its former colony, where the ongoing conflict has contributed to the migration crisis on Europe’s southern borders. Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said it was now “fundamental” that Libya’s internationally-recognized government approves the Cabinet.

Also in Rome, U.N. envoy Kobler and representatives of 18 countries and three international organizations were meeting to discuss international support for Libya’s political, economic, humanitarian and security needs.

According to the U.N.-brokered deal, the new government should be based in Tripoli.

However, it is not clear if the current Tripoli-based authorities who oppose the deal would allow it to operate in peace. Recently, a Tripoli-based premier threatened to use force against a security committee supposed to secure a venue for the new government.

The head of the council who is also supposed to be the prime minister, Fayez Sarraj, has struggled to form the unity government. The Cabinet now has 10 days to win the internationally-recognized parliament’s endorsement and a month to implement the remaining articles in the deal, including having all militias pull out from Libyan cities.

The lineup of the new Cabinet was approved by seven out of nine members of the presidential council, after two members walked out in protest. It shows Sarraj tried to bring together various opponents, a tactic that could potentially lead to a new round of bickering.

The designated defence minister, Al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, is one of eastern Libya’s army commanders. He has been fighting a coalition of Islamic extremists, including the local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group in the eastern city of Benghazi. He answers to army chief Gen. Khalifa Hifter, one of Libya’s strongmen and a divisive figure because of his enmity with Islamists of all shades, including the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

The designated interior minister, Al-Aref al-Khoga, is a former interior minister from the Tripoli-based government who is known to have close ties with Islamists. The designated-information minister, Khaled Nejm, held the same post in the current government based in eastern Libya. He is also a federalist, advocating a semi-autonomous region in the east.

Over the past years, Libya’s transitional governments have been intimidated by militias and, on occasion, armed men would storm ministers’ offices and besiege parliament sessions to pressure lawmakers and ministers to meet their demands.

Sarraj’s council is also supposed to name the army chief, though who will hold that post has been another divisive issue. The current army chief, Hifter, is despised by the Tripoli-based rivals.

Sarraj had been expected to appoint a 10-member Cabinet but came under pressure and increased the number of portfolios.

“If Sarraj succumbed to pressure to expand the government, what would happen if he tried to enter Tripoli,” asked Abdullah al-Amodi from the western city of Zintan, where most armed groups support Libya’s eastern, internationally-recognized parliament.

Sarraj also split some portfolios, distributing the sections among different tribes, political groups and regions. Instead of one foreign minister, he designated three diplomats for the job — one to head the foreign ministry, another for Arab and African affairs and a third one for international relations.

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