Since the overthrow of Qaddafi nearly five years ago, good news from Libya has been in short supply. But on March 30th some came at last. Fayez al-Serraj, the prime minister of a new Government of National Accord (GNA) nominated by a UN-backed negotiation process, entered Tripoli with six ministerial colleagues.
They had travelled by boat from Tunisia after the rival National Salvation Government, supported by mainly Islamist militias, had closed down Tripoli’s airspace. Despite fears that he would be killed on the way to his office, Mr Serraj was warmly received. Within days, key institutions of the state, including the central bank and the national oil company, had pledged loyalty to the GNA.
Mr Serraj will have his work cut out if he is to have any hope of uniting this extraordinarily fractious country. Libya has been in chaos since the revolution of 2011. Things went from bad to worse in 2014, when Islamists responded to electoral defeat by seizing Tripoli and setting up a rival assembly to the internationally recognised parliament, known as the House of Representatives, which was forced to decamp to the eastern city of Tobruk. Under the respective banners of Operation Dawn in the west and Operation Dignity in the east, loose coalitions of militias and remnants of the armed forces have since fought each other sporadically.
For several months, the GNA struggled to get off the ground, but on March 13th it was declared the sole legitimate government of Libya by Western powers impatient to end the deadlock. This was what gave Mr Serraj the confidence to move to Tripoli. The next, far harder step, will be to build on this surprising success.
Mr Serraj’s priority must be to persuade the House of Representatives to recognise his government. Before that can happen, a compromise must be found over the filling of senior military and security posts. The stumbling block is General Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Operation Dignity forces and has the backing of Egypt and the UAE. He wants to be defence minister, but he is a divisive figure. To win the parliament’s support, Mr Serraj must prove that he heeds its concerns about instability in the east. He may need to find a job for General Haftar to show that he is sincere (see article).
Once the legitimacy of his government is established, Mr Serraj needs to tackle two urgent problems, both of which will require the help of the outside world to fix. The first is Libya’s collapsing economy. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company, it will shrink faster than that of any other country this year. Libya was once prosperous, but nearly a fifth of its people are now thought to suffer from malnutrition. The only thriving business is the smuggling of desperate migrants into Europe from Tripoli.
The second and connected challenge is the growing presence of Islamic State. As IS has been squeezed in Iraq and Syria, many of the Libyans who went to join it have returned, bringing with them hardened foreign fighters and experienced administrators. They have carved out an area extending some 180 miles around Sirte, the coastal town where Qaddafi was born. Attracting some of the most extreme local jihadists, IS now has some 5,000 fighters in Libya and has been launching attacks on the country’s petroleum infrastructure. Output of Libya’s oil industry, which contributes nearly all state revenues, has fallen by 75% since 2011.
America, Italy, France and Britain have a shared interest in helping Libya rid itself of IS and improving general security. To that end, they have drawn up plans for a 6,000-strong international stabilisation force and for a much more vigorous campaign against IS than today’s largely covert one. But they cannot proceed without the invitation of a credible Libyan government. As soon as Mr Serraj asks, they should step in.
Greater domestic security will boost the economy. So, too, would the promise of Western investment to rebuild Libya’s hydrocarbons industry. A commitment by the UN to begin unlocking the assets of Libya’s $67 billion sovereign-wealth fund (frozen since 2011) will also help.
This is a rare chance for a devastated country to escape extremism, violence and economic collapse. It is up to the Libyans to take it. But the West should do more than just watch.