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Photo Gallery: The Search for Unity in Libya

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Failed State Can a Unity Government Succeed in Divided Libya?

The UN is trying to establish a unity government in Libya. But with competing governments, an expanding Islamic State and migrant smuggling as a primary source of income in the country, finding success will not be easy. By SPIEGEL Staff

This may be the only thing you need to know about the situation in Libya: For security reasons, the headquarters of the United Nations Special Representative for Libya is situated 500 kilometers (311 miles) away from Tripoli in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. Martin Kobler's office is located in a non-descript building in the city's Les Berges du Lac diplomatic quarter.

For trips to Libya, he has an 18-seat propeller plane at his disposal, parked at the nearby airport. He uses it to commute several times each month to Libya. But sometimes, he isn't given permission to land, for no apparent reason. On such occasions, the plane remains grounded, along with Kobler, in Tunis.

On a recent Sunday in April, Kobler has invited us to a meal in the restaurant Au Bon Vieux Temps in a posh suburb of Tunis. The view of the Mediterranean is spectacular. A slight man with a warm glint in his eyes, Kobler, 63, was once chief of staff to former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He has also served as German ambassador to Cairo and Iraq and, most recently, as the UN special representative to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today he has one of the most difficult jobs in the world. His task is to help create a state out of Libya at the behest of the international community. The fact that Libya was never truly a state, even under dictator Muammar Gadhafi, who was toppled in 2011, doesn't make things any easier. Considering what he's up against, Kobler is pursuing his mission with astounding optimism.

Chaos in Europe's Backyard

The situation in Libya is important for Europe for two reasons. First, because Islamic State (IS) is continuing to spread unhindered in the civil war-torn country. Second, because one of the most important routes for migrants making their way to Europe runs through Libya.

Now that the route from Turkey across the Aegean Sea is largely closed, the one across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Italy has shifted back into focus. At the moment, diplomats in Brussels estimate that a half million people are waiting along the 1,770-kilometer Libyan coastline to make the journey by boat to Europe. Most come from West Africa. Frontex, the European border agency, reports that 9,600 migrants made the journey using this route in March -- four times as many as during the same period in 2015.

Libya dominated the agenda of a meeting between EU foreign and defense ministers in Brussels on Monday, the same day that hundreds of people drowned making the crossing from Egypt to Europe. Top on the agenda were ideas focusing on improving Libyan security and aiding the country in assembling a government that is recognized by all parties.

In Berlin, government officials have also recently been discussing the possibility of hashing out the same kind of refugee return deal with Libya that the EU recently reached with Turkey. But given that the country of Libya as such doesn't exist for the moment, that idea seems absurd.

Libya is a failed state that has been divided by an east vs. west civil war since mid-2014 and the country has three governments, though none of them holds much power. Broadly stated, Libya is split into three parts: In the east is the government of the Operation Dignity coalition, whose military leader is General Khalifa Haftar, who is fighting against Islamists in Benghazi with his air force. The government of the Islamist Libya Dawn alliance resides in Tripoli in the west. A smaller area between those two regions is dominated by Islamic State. Both Dignity and Dawn claim they want to fight IS, but so far they have done so only half-heartedly. This has enabled IS, which reportedly has 3,000 fighters in the area, to establish a foothold.

Most of the country is actually controlled by local militias, which follow the latest decisions made by the government controlling their areas to varying degrees. The only things really holding the country together is the central bank and the national oil company which are dividing money evenly among all the parties. But oil production has fallen from 1.7 million barrels a day to just one-fifth of that total.

A Lack of Unity over 'Unity' Government

The international community and UN representative Kobler are now placing their hopes in a third government that is hopefully soon to be making decisions for the entire country: the so-called national unity government, brokered by the UN. In order to emphasize its legitimacy, Kobler has asked high-ranking EU diplomats to only speak with members of that government.

But there is still no unity in the country over this national unity government. The story of the new government's arrival at the end of March illustrates just how great the challenges are. Tripoli refused to provide clearance for Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj to land, so he and six other representatives instead traveled by boat and have mostly been stuck at the Abu Sitta naval base outside of Tripoli ever since.

Protection for the government is being provided by the powerful militias in the trading city of Misurata, which is located 160 kilometers away. There is also a proposal to establish a zone protected by the military for the national unity government -- similar to the former Green Zone in Baghdad. The EU has also assured that it would provide warships to evacuate the government in an emergency. Kobler, too, is planning to move soon to Tripoli with his team -- where they plan to be based in the Peacock Hotel, a luxury hotel surrounded by high cement walls, barbed wire and guarded by 200 security personnel.

In Tunis, Kobler shows Libyan newspaper cartoons that he's saved on his mobile phone. One depicts Kobler as a puppeteer pulling the strings on "Unity Prime Minister" Sarraj. Another shows Sarraj dropping into Tripoli by UN parachute. The criticism is clear: The new government is being steered from abroad and the United Nations is perceived in the country to be a tool of the West.

But Kobler is pushing forward with his plan. He wants to organize tribal councils across the country and persuade local leaders to follow the new government.

Although a majority in western Libya support the UN compromise and the national unity government, the government in the east is still putting up significant resistance. Should that not change, the UN plan could actually deepen the country's divisions -- and local warlords and IS supporters would be the ones to profit.

The roots of the current chaos lead back to 2011, when Moammar Gadhafi, who had ruled the country with an iron fist for decades, was toppled. Following the mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt, protests also sprouted up in eastern Libya, where people had long felt strong-armed by Tripoli. Gadhafi reacted predictably and sent in snipers, artillery and cluster bombs. Many feared that a long and brutal civil war would ensue that could claim countless civilian lives.

In contrast to the later war in Syria, the international community decided to take immediate action in Libya. But even before the military intervention began, the West made a mistake for which there are still consequences today. France became the first country to recognize the self-appointed, rebel-led National Transitional Council without actually knowing who its members were. But importantly, all key figures in the body came from eastern Libya. Other EU member states and the wealthy Gulf states Qatar and the United Arab Emirates quickly followed. The tug-o-war over the country's wealth had begun and the international community had unwittingly contributed to the country's disintegration.

Western Failures

The primary aim of the intervention approved by the UN Security Council on March 17 was not regime change. Rather, it was to provide protection to the civilian population from Gadhafi's government troops. By that standard, the intervention was successful.

Significantly fewer civilians were killed in Libya after 2011 than in Syria, where the West didn't take any action. Between 15,000 and 30,000 people died in Libya. But in Syria, estimates put the number who have perished in the war thus far at between 250,000 and 400,000, a vast number of them civilians.

In Libya, though, France, the United States, Great Britain and Italy all aimed at a regime change. The NATO mission ended shortly after Gadhafi's murder on Oct. 20, 2011 at the hands of Libyan rebels. Only then did the West commit its biggest mistake. Indeed, earlier this month, US President Barack Obama called it the greatest foreign policy mistake made during his term: "Failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya."

UN Special Representative Kobler of Germany adds: "It was a mistake for us to have abandoned the country after the 2011 intervention. When you make the decision to intervene militarily, you also have to support the country afterwards."

During his 42 years at the helm, Gadhafi ruled Libya like a mafia godfather, employing terror in addition to the bestowal of favors on those who were close to him. With the exception of the national oil company and the central bank, he never allowed any state institutions to become strong out of fear of potential rivals. Once he was killed, though, it wasn't clear who would succeed him. Worse, Libya had plenty of fully stocked weapons depots at the time and they were essentially open to all comers. The country quickly became a major source of weaponry for the entire region.

Fundamental Conflict Unresolved

The transitional government that was appointed didn't have the power to disarm the local militias. Instead it gave anyone believed to have fought on behalf of the revolution a generous wage. The number of self-proclaimed revolutionaries promptly ballooned from around 30,000 to 250,000. Soon, weapons took precedence over politics, culminating in 2011 with the brief kidnapping of the then-prime minister.

The fundamental conflict between the east and the west had never been solved. In spring 2014, a battle against Islamists began in the east under General Haftar, backed by the three most powerful tribes. In the western part of the country, the Islamists with the Libya Dawn movement seized power, backed by residents of the wealthy coastal city Misurata. Since then, the country has been in a state of civil war between east and west.

It was only after the November 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris that the international community increased pressure on the warring parties to come to an agreement -- primarily due to concerns about Islamic State, which had established a foothold in Libya. Things were rushed and countries were very quick to recognize the national unity government. It was only after the fact that attempts were made to convince as many militias and politicians as possible to back the new government. Critics argue that another path should have been taken: A deal should have been reached first on the distribution of oil revenues in the country. That, too, makes Kobler's job very difficult.

Many Libyans have been cynical about Kobler's efforts. "The only reason the diplomats are hoping that the former parties in the civil war will join forces in the fight against Islamic State is because they have been observing the situation for almost two years from Tunis," says Ayyoub Sufyan, an activist and former revolutionary from Zuwara, a city that is home to a Berber-speaking population in the western part of the country located near the border to Tunisia.

As in Syria, where IS was able to establish itself because Assad supporters and opponents were too busy fighting each other, Islamic State profits in Libya from the fact that it isn't the primary opponent of any party. And thus a growing number of young men from Tunisia, Egypt or Nigeria will continue to make their way to Islamic State's stronghold in Sirte.

'Most Important Source of Income'

Last week, a masked IS commander announced his group's intention to wage a war of attrition against the unity government, using car bombs and suicide attackers. In summer 2015, IS already launched one attack against the Tripoli government. The group also went after the country's most important oil refinery in Ras Lanuf, took control of several oil fields and carried out attacks on pipelines. The terrorist group has long since expanded beyond Sirte and into other parts of the country and is now working together with migrant smugglers.

Sufyan, the activist, tells how he and some friends in Zuwara founded a militia to take on the smugglers. Up until last fall, most of the boats heading for Lampedusa would launch from the Zuwara coastline. "Since the collapse of oil production," Sufyan says, "migration has been the most important source of income in the country." His militia managed to lock up many smugglers, forcing others to move their operations into the neighboring city of Sabrata.

It is a place long known for its extremist scene. Islamic State sympathizers still have the say in Sabrata and are profiting financially from the smuggling business, but the lines between IS, al-Qaida and other jihadi groups are becoming blurry. Sabrata is also the springboard for Tunisian extremists heading to join the fight in Syria.

The fusion between the extremists and the migrant smugglers, particularly in Sabrata, has now become a significant security risk for Europe and the rest of the West. Indeed, the US bombed an IS training camp near Sabrata back in February and British, French and American special forces are operating in the country. But the forces tend to rely on the help of local militias, which has created competition for weapons, money and influence -- and hindered the establishment of a national military.

Italy, the country's former colonial power, is particular anxious to quickly set up an EU military aid mission. Under the working title Libyan International Assistance Mission, Rome is planning accelerated training for a new Libyan army. The Italians introduced their proposal to representatives of 30 countries in mid-March in Rome, including EU member states, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Russia. The plan foresees military training and guidance but does not include sending in foreign troops to impose stability or carry out anti-terror operations. Part of the proposal is a unit to provide security for the new unity government.

The plans were discussed further by EU foreign and defense ministers on Monday in Luxembourg. The EU ministers said they were prepared to offer security support while the Libyan government said it was also interested in help setting up a coast guard.

The ministers, however, elected not to go ahead with a proposal from France that initially called for the expansion of the existing EU mission "Sophia," launched in an attempt to cut off migrant smuggling routes across the Mediterranean, into an anti-terror operation. The idea was to empower EU warships to stop and search ships suspected of smuggling weapons to Islamic State in Libya. But Germany was skeptical and France itself backed away from the idea prior to Monday's meeting.

Room for Skepticism

Still, the EU agreed as expected on Monday to make €€100 million ($114 million) available to the unity government for projects identified together with both the UN and the unity government. The focus is to be on humanitarian projects and on strengthening Libyan institutions. In addition, the EU in early April implemented sanctions, such as visa bans, on high ranking politicians who have come out in opposition to the new government. Among them are the president of the parliament in eastern Libya, Aguila Saleh Issa, and the "prime minister" of the Tripoli government in the west, Khalifa Ghwell.

Despite the progress made recently in resolving the problems facing Libya, many are wondering if the steps thus far taken will be enough. Libyan politicians and clans will have to accept the new government and new state structures will have to be built. There is plenty of room for skepticism.

Martin Kobler is pleased that the government he helped broker has at least won backing in Tripoli. But things don't look good in the east. The parliament in Tobruk is widely expected to reject the unity government's cabinet list, though it postponed the vote this week. And General Haftar, the military leader in the east, is also being difficult. He would like to head up Libya's new army or become the country's next defense minister, preferably both. Kobler, though, doesn't believe that is feasible, given the hate western Islamists have for the general. Still, though, Haftar will have to play a significant role in Libya's future armed forces.

Kobler says that the humanitarian situation in the country has priority. People have to quickly see that that the new government is improving their lives. One area that requires immediate attention, for example is exploding food costs, with UN representatives saying they have even heard about elderly Libyans breaking out their gold fillings to pay for foodstuffs.

Kobler says he doesn't particularly care how the state structures look in the end as long as they guarantee the protection of human rights. "We don't support a particular side, but we aren't neutral," he says.

He pulls a wrinkled piece of paper out of his wallet. On it, he has written the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 in several languages: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

By Matthias Gebauer, Mirco Keilberth, Peter Müller, Mathieu von Rohr, Raniah Salloum and Christoph Schult