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The following text forms part of Crisis Group’s Early Warning Watch List for December 2015, compiled for the European Union (EU) and its member states to provide analysis and updates on conflicts, and on opportunities for preventive action. Each Watch List identifies up to ten countries or conflicts which are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak or intensification of conflict or crisis – or which in some cases offer an opportunity for prevention or resolution – in the following six to twelve months.

Each country or conflict is chosen from the 70 crisis situations monitored by Crisis Group and regularly reported on in CrisisWatch; the choice of countries is representative of a range of conflicts and is not meant to be all-inclusive or a ranking of deadly violence. Each country summary contains an outline of recent developments and forthcoming events that may increase risks, and lays out opportunities for action for national, regional and international actors, in particular the EU and its member states.


Despite efforts by UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) Martin Kobler to re-engage with Libya’s competing governments and parliaments, there is still no consensus inside the country on a unity government or on a political framework that is supposed to end the feud between these institutions and their rival militia coalitions. Some Western countries are pushing for the recognition of a cabinet headed by Faez Serraj, the prime minister-designate selected by former SRSG Bernardino León, as a means to start containing the state collapse and stemming refugee flows, and confronting Islamic State (IS) Libyan affiliates that threaten European security. This approach fails to recognise that a key conflict driver in Libya is the fight over control of its oil and oil wealth, and that no solution to current divisions is possible without a preliminary deal on the management of its economic and financial resources, and the armed groups that control them. The likely outcome of a hasty endorsement of the Serraj government would be the co-existence of three governments, a military escalation, and financial collapse.

The EU, its member states, and the wider international community should:

  • Urge SRSG Martin Kobler to reopen the negotiations on the draft Libyan Political Dialogue agreement and ensure he brings in a broader number of constituents, especially in the east where people are most disaffected by the unity government line-up, before calling for international recognition of the Serraj government. The fact that Libyans from both sides have expressed a desire for an alternative government line-up should be seen as a confirmation that the Serraj government is not a viable solution.
  • Prioritise the question of economic governance and secure a deal on short-term economic policy and the interim management of key institutions, such as the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). This should take place through a separate track of the UN-led negotiations with the support of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, where possible.
  • The EU and member states sitting at the UN Security Council (SC) should unambiguously oppose any attempt to sell oil by the eastern-based National Oil Corporation and work to strengthen prohibitions against this, notably UNSC Resolution 2146 (19 March 2014) banning the sale of Libyan crude outside official government channels.
  • Re-evaluate the security plan for Tripoli proposed by the UN Security Sector Advisory team and, while developing this plan and other military strategies to confront IS, urge the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to redouble its efforts to launch a broader, nationwide security track. This should foster a security sector dialogue between Libya’s major coalitions to buttress the political dialogue and build, if not trust, at least communication channels as a precursor to trust in the future; where possible, UNSMIL or its international partners should also seek to negotiate local ceasefires.

UN attempts to forge a consensus on a broad political framework to end the rival claims of legitimacy of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), their respective governments and military coalitions, are stalling. GNC and HoR leaders and a number of local constituencies continue to oppose the draft Libyan Political Dialogue agreement and refuse to endorse a cabinet headed by Faez Serraj. Some Libyans are urging the international community to recognise the unity government, warning of further fragmentation, economic collapse and the expansion of terrorist groups across the country if it is delayed. Perhaps because of this, a number of Western actors are pushing for recognition of the Serraj government as an overriding priority, even without the endorsement of the GNC and HoR. The rationale underlying this push is that only after full government recognition can the international community start seriously tackling issues of greatest concern, namely migrant flows from Libya and IS affiliates that are growing stronger and more numerous.

Such an approach would be short-sighted, as it overestimates the military capabilities of the factions backing the UN-deal in securing Tripoli (the proposed seat for the new government) and in fighting IS forces in their Sirte stronghold. It also underestimates the support that some militias and political groups still nurture toward both the HoR and GNC, and the degree to which the rejection of the Serraj government does not necessarily indicate the rejection of any unity government. In Tripoli, an estimated one thousand fighters in the current set-up are likely to take up arms against the UN-backed government. In the Sirte area, the pro-deal factions are located primarily to the west of the city (around Misrata), but to its south and east there are few, if any, forces that would follow the Serraj government and its international allies in a fight against IS. Factions on both sides that continue to lobby against this UN-backed unity government have also powerful economic incentives, as they can still tap into Libya’s oil wealth illicitly. The Tobruk-affiliated government in Bayda and its associates, for example, are pursuing independent oil sales through their newly established NOC.

Current UN efforts to forge a consensus on a unity government are not likely to succeed without a simultaneous push to ensure at least a minimum consensus on economic governance. The longer negotiations stall, the greater the risk that the rival governments create their own economic institutions or weaken existing ones – notably the CBL and the NOC. Poor economic management is already causing shortages of fuel and basic goods; a wider economic crisis due to dwindling foreign currency reserves would bring more duress to ordinary Libyans.

Even more threatening to the UN-led process is that international trading companies might successfully conclude crude-oil purchases from the Bayda-based NOC, which has been doubling up its efforts to conclude oil deals since September. This would have a severe long-term economic impact, blow efforts to foster an agreement on a unity government, and risk leading to renewed fighting in the Sirte basin area – ultimately consolidating separatist aspirations in the east (Cyrenaica) and unleashing further IS activity. Some oil brokerage companies have already penned contracts with this new entity, and only hurdles in securing insurance coverage for their tankers has stopped the deals from being carried out. But this is likely to change if the current political stalemate continues.

A lasting agreement on a unity government is also unlikely to succeed without substantial progress on security plans for Tripoli – in particular, UN plans to secure the incoming unity government. It is unclear, for instance, who will lead on security, and whether this would only include current interior ministry forces (ie, those inherited from the previous regime) or also anti-Qadhafi rebel fighters (who have been integrated since 2011). There would also appear to be different perspectives among pro-agreement political factions and UNSMIL regarding the “other security forces” that are to protect the future unity government.

There is urgency, but rushing to announce recognition of a new government with insufficient backing from participants and key constituencies is almost certain to backfire. Particularly after the Tunis announcement on 6 December of a preliminary deal between representatives of the Libyan rival parliaments on an alternative unity government, forcing a deal – as some Western powers eager to secure cooperation from a new government on migration control and counter-terrorism advocate – would likely make things worse. It would be cast as a Western imposition, and may divide regional actors too – possibly even leading to a Syria-like situation where some countries back a government and others don’t. This would, of course, be a devastating blow to efforts to bring political stability to Libya, and the wider region.

Read the full Watch List for December 2015 (pdf).

Learn more about the Watch List.

Note: The Watch List is produced as part of the project “Strengthening Early Warning and Mobilising Early Action”, co-funded by the European Union. The project aims to strengthen the links between early warning, conflict analysis and early response, and to build civil society’s capacity for early warning.

The Crisis Group EU Early Warning Watch List is one of many products the organisation produces to alert policy makers and the general public on unfolding crisis or conflicts, and which offers them solutions to support conflict prevention, management and resolution initiatives.

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