Libya: another peace conference

Summary: Macron gets verbal agreement on elections from the main players. Many disagree. Outlook uncertain.

Yesterday 30 May President Macron hosted a one-day conference on Libya. It was attended by the four most representative political figures in Libya today, Fayiz al-Sarraj prime minister of the UN backed Government of National Accord, Khalifa Haftar commander of the “Libyan National Army” which controls eastern Libya with the exception of Derna, Aqila Salih speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and Khalid al-Mishri, the newly-elected head of the High Council of State (described in an International Crisis Group report as a “Muslim Brotherhood affiliate”). Also taking part were the UN special representative Ghassan Salamé and representatives from 20 countries including all the significant regional players, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE as well as the US, Russia and some European and African states.

Khalifa Haftar at the Paris conference

A joint statement was issued in the name of the four, though not apparently signed because of disagreement about status. They commit to work with the UN for credible and peaceful elections, and to respect the results. Steps include developing a constitutional basis for elections and the necessary laws by 16 September leading to elections on 10 December. They also commit to ending duplication of government institutions, such as unifying the Central Bank (at present under dual control of the House of Representatives and the High Council of State), and working with the UN to unify military and security institutions. They will further participate in “an inclusive political conference to follow-up” under UN auspices alongside Libyan institutions. The text of the statement is at link.

The big four by no means represent all the many political factions in Libya (a “Who controls Libya?” map on the BBC website shows about half of Libya – admittedly mainly desert – as “mixed, unknown”). Important absentees from Paris included representatives from Misrata (Misrata’s armed forces were mainly responsible with US air support for the defeat of IS in Sirte in 2015/16), who according to AFP boycotted proceedings after not being offered the same status as other invitees. Another example: Reuters reports that 13 military councils and brigades in western Libya issued a statement saying that the Paris initiative did not represent them. Objections include fears that Haftar is seeking to impose a military dictatorship, and accusations of foreign interference – which is often left vague, referring both to UAE/Egyptian support of Haftar and to external powers (Italy, France and Britain all being suspected of seeking to return to the imperialist past). These fears are sometimes combined, with suspicions that France has supported Haftar militarily and given him political and military legitimacy.

Before the conference an International Crisis Group report “Making the Best of France’s Libya Summit” described the French initiative as “audacious and risky”. It “could inject much-needed adrenaline into a sputtering peace process and should therefore be welcomed in principle. Yet both the meeting and proposed accord have stirred significant controversy… A Misratan politician said: We don’t see where the UN fits in all of this… Is the agreement to be signed in Paris supposed to replace the [UN] Action Plan?” An Egyptian diplomat said “We are very much in favour of elections… But… we do not understand why France is precipitating things. If the electoral process is botched, it will leave behind a great vacuum.”

Many commentators, such as former Prime Minister Mahmud Jibril speaking from Cairo before the Paris conference, expressed doubt whether Libya is ready for elections, emphasising that they are a big risk in a country lacking an agreed constitution or an effective government and awash with arms. Other negatives listed by AFP quoting analysts are the international factors. France would “need to convince the Sunni powers in the Gulf to stop their proxy wars in Libya, which won’t be easy”, and some in Rome suspect Macron of deliberately organising the conference when Italy – the former colonial power – is embroiled in a political crisis. Other commentators are cautiously hopeful. Claudia Gazzini‏ of the International Crisis Group tweeted “The 10 Dec target for both presidential and parliamentary elections in #Libya looks hard. But overall the document issued at #ParisSummit is a step forward: it supports the UN, and adopts more nuanced approach to military and financial reunification.”

Libya’s current condition can be described as mild anarchy. Possibilities for the future include deterioration into bloodier anarchy; unification by violence, which at present seems a possibility under Haftar; or a peaceful settlement which would allow Libyans to enjoy the fruits of their oil wealth (but require a motley collection of warlords big and small to hang up their weapons). Can Macron’s “nimble diplomacy” contribute to a reconciliation? An al-Ahram article strikes a sceptical note (and although current Egyptian policy seems to be dictated by its obsessive hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt needs a peaceful Libya more than anyone else, for legitimate Egyptian security reasons).

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