The State Council in Tripoli declared earlier this week that it would assume legislative powers until the Libyan parliament decides on the unity government, while demanding that parliament members who reject the peace deal be ignored. They also accused the army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar of conducting a “military coup” in eastern Libya and provoking an escalation of the civil war.
The announcement – which has in turn been labelled a “political coup” – triggered angry reactions from both supporters and critics of the Libyan Political Agreement. The LPA outlines the responsibilities of each of the three key political institutions – the House of Representatives (HoR), the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the State Council, granting the latter not a legislative but a consultative role. There are fears that the new development – interpreted as an attempt to undermine the HoR – will deal a final blow to the laboriously devised but so far only partially implemented UN-backed power sharing deal.
“The Supreme Council of State finds itself compelled to exercising the full powers set out in the Political Agreement until the HoR convenes in accordance with articles 16, 17 and 18 of said Agreement”, declared Abderrahman al-Swehli, the head of the political body, and his two deputies, Saleh al-Makhzum and Mohamed Moazab, in a press conference Wednesday. “The High Council of State appeals to the majority of HoR members who endorsed the Political Agreement and designated the First Deputy Chairman of the HoR to sign the Agreement on 17 December 2015 in Skhirat to abide by this signature and hurry up to hold a correct HoR session”, they continued.
The HoR ought to convene in a “safe location”, the State Council leadership said, hinting at the reluctance of some HoR members to attend parliamentary meetings in Tobruk.
While it is not entirely clear what “assuming full functions” entails, the State Council leadership is evidently trying to move ahead with the state formation without the full support of the HoR.
By calling on the Presidency Council to form a full government “in consultation with the State Council and those HoR members who signed the LPA” it intends to shortcut the process specified by the LPA, according to which the GNA cabinet proposal requires a quorate HoR vote. Furthermore, the State Council appealed to the UN mission to Libya to continue implementing the LPA regardless of a formal HoR approval. “This should not be made dependent on the approval of the HoR President [Agila Saleh], who rejects the LPA and its outcomes, and who has been placed under sanctions by some countries. The HoR minority that opposes the LPA must be disregarded”, the statement read.
The HoR only partially approved the LPA when, on 25 January, it voted by a large majority in favor of the text signed in December 2015, provided that Article 8 of the additional provisions is removed. Article 8 stipulates that the leaderships of key institutions – including the Chief of Staff – should be reappointed by the Presidency Council of the GNA. Subsequent attempts to complete the process – by amending the 2011 Constitutional Declaration to include the LPA and approving the second cabinet proposed by the Presidency Council – failed due to lack of quorum. After a tumultuous parliamentary session was suspended on 22 February, around 100 MPs signed a statement endorsing the GNA cabinet proposal, a decision that was not accepted by the HoR Presidency. The second GNA cabinet formation was finally rejected on 22 August in a formal HoR session that met the simple majority quorum requirement, but not the two-thirds quorum needed for amending the Constitutional Declaration.
While pushing ahead with the government formation the GNA Presidency Council should continue exercising its functions – so the State Council – crucially that of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, as per the LPA. This again contradicts the HoR’s current position. With its approval of the GNA cabinet still pending, HoR President Agila Saleh has refused to hand over the Supreme Command to the Presidency Council.
Finally, the State Council called on the international community to prevent foreign governments from trying to “abort” the LPA and supporting the eastern army militarily.
Prior to delivering their 8-point declaration, State Council head Swehli and his deputy Moazeb accused the army leadership of deliberately escalating the conflict by taking control of the oil crescent and undermining civil institutions in eastern Libya. “The HoR President and some MPs are providing a political cover for a military coup”, they added.
But not all State Council members stand behind their leadership. In particular three members – Bilgassem Gzit, Abdallah Jawan and Naji Mukhtar – are at odds with Swehli and have rejected Wednesday’s move. Swehli had already ordered legal proceedings against the three at the start of September after they met with a rival body in eastern Libya without his knowledge.
Bilgassem Gzit decried the declaration as “unacceptable escalation” and said he had no part in it.
Abdallah Jawan directed his criticism at the State Council Presidency. “We all wanted to see new faces in the State Council and then we saw Dr. Swehli emerge from the [internal] vote”, he told Libya Channel, referring to when the political body first convened in April. “The State Council must not be a ‘second GNC’, and its head must not be a controversial figure”, he argued.
HoR Deputy President Imhamed Shuaib – who headed the HoR delegation that signed the LPA – said the State Council statement constituted an escalation of the national conflict and would not help to make the dialogue succeed. “This is a coup against the HoR – the only legislative authority in Libya”, Shuaib said.
Speaking on Libya Channel’s Newsroom HoR spokesman Abdallah Blihaq also denounced the State Council’s “coup” attempt, adding that Swehli and his supporters had repeatedly tried this in the past and plunged Libya into the crisis. “The LPA, which Swehli claims to be committed to, says in Paragraph 10 that the HoR is the sole legitimate authority in the country…Swehli and his supporters are overriding the LPA”, Blihaq said. “They are speaking on behalf of a minority in the – unconstitutional – Council of State”, added Dialogue member Tawfiq Shuhaibi.
Shuaib and Blihaq both dismissed the State Council move as irrelevant. “We have gotten used to the shows that Abderrahman Swehli makes”, Blihaq said.
The State Council is also facing resistance from within the international community.
“Concerned with unilateral decision of State Council. Contradicts letter and spirit of LPA. Libyan institutions shall work hand in hand”, UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler tweeted on Thursday. “LPA clear on separation of powers. HoR is the legislative authority of the State. Conflict mechanisms of LPA should be respected….All need to play their part 4 unity of Libya – PC to present Cabinet, HoR to fulfill its obligations under LPA, SC to continue to collaborate”.
The issue was also brought up implicitly in a joint statement on Libya signed by 22 governments and four international organizations on Thursday. “The international community will not provide support to or maintain official contact with parallel institutions that claim to be the legitimate authority, but which are outside the LPA as specified by it”, they said, recalling that the HoR was Libya’s legislative authority.
Adding further complexity to the issue, the Tripoli-based State Council (officially: Supreme Council of State), which was formed in April by the so-called Wifaq Bloc of former Parliament the General National Congress (GNC), is being challenged by a rival body anchored in Benghazi – the Supreme Consultative Council of State – which was created on 4 August. The Consultative State Council is composed of former GNC members who were not selected to be part of the Tripoli-based State Council because they resigned from the GNC before the signing of the LPA. In their view, the LPA rule that 134 of 145 State Council members must be (at the time) acting GNC members was unjust as it did not reflect the original composition of the GNC when it was elected in 2012. The election of controversial Misratan politician Swehli for State Council President further discredited the political body in the eyes of those who turned their back to the GNC when the civil war broke out in 2014.
The State Council leadership in Tripoli has refused to engage with the parallel body, and reprimanded Gzit, Jawan and Mukhtar when they met with the Consultative State Council last month. The Bayda meeting on 28 August concluded with participants pledging to reunite the rival bodies in a way that would establish a “fair representation” of all political components based on the 2012 elections. Participants also asserted that the State Council’s role was purely consultative and that the HoR was the only legislative authority.