This week’s major international conference in Palermo managed to nudge forward the UN-sponsored working plan for Libya which has been stymied in disputes since it was announced in September 2017.
Attended by key figures from eastern and western Libya and senior international representatives, the conference addressed security arrangements in Tripoli, economic reform and efforts by the UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, to convene a nationwide national reconciliation conference in preparation for parliamentary elections to be held in the summer of 2019.
On the sidelines of the conference Italy’s premier, Giuseppe Conte, hosted a high-level summit. He said it was intended to “help end the armed conflicts and help Libya stabilise”.
The summit was attended by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who had arrived in Italy a day earlier for bilateral talks.
According to Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi, the president said that proposals to resolve the Libyan crisis have to be in compliance with the Libyan political accord and the UN envoy’s plan.
Stressing that Egypt does not side with any of the rivalling parties, Al-Sisi explained that Egypt has worked to unify the army in Libya, as it believes that any political settlement would need a security infrastructure that would enable the Libyan authorities to secure all the country’s territories and fight terrorism.
According to Radi, the president said that Egypt has reached an agreement with most of the Libyan factions about regulating the Libyan armed forces, expressing hopes that these negotiations will soon reach an agreement. Al-Sisi further added that any proposal to resolve the Libyan crisis must consider the political, security and economic aspects given the crisis’ complicated nature.
The president also stated that no international or regional party involved in supporting terrorism in Libya should be treated as part of the solution to the country’s crisis.
Also attending the summit were Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini.
Italy has been eager to play a bigger role in Libyan diplomacy, competing with France which held a conference in May that produced a commitment to hold elections in December 2018. That plan has now been shelved.
France has been courting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army which controls most of the east of Libya, while Italy has backed Fayez Al-Sarraj, prime minister of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, based in the country’s west.
After initially refusing to attend Haftar, the general commander of the Libyan National Army, arrived late for the conference.
Reuters reported that a draft communiqué agreed by the Libyan delegations committed them to respecting the results of elections now slated for spring 2019.
An Italian diplomat said Haftar now backs Al-Sarraj remaining in office until elections can be held. “You don’t change the horse until you cross the river,” the diplomat quoted Haftar as saying.
“There is no military solution for Libya. There is only a political solution which you, yourselves, need to find. Everyday this is delayed is not good for your country,” Salamé told participants at the conference.
He pointed out that “there is a problem concerning legitimacy and mutual accusations in this regard. The solution is to turn to the will of the people.”
Official sources in Rome told Italian news agency Aki on Tuesday that the agreement reached in Palermo “exceeded the expectations of the Italian government”.
Aki reported that Conte, in his meeting with Al-Sarraj and Haftar, had succeeded in brokering a “strong and very binding agreement” that constituted a “major step”.
On his official Twitter account Conte posted that Italy had brought together the key players in the Mediterranean region and re-launched a dialogue for the sake of Libya.
The international conference in Palermo is the latest episode in an ongoing international drive to support the UN working plan for Libya which now has its sights set on a comprehensive national reconciliation convention in January 2019.
The hope is that this event will end the three-year-long stagnation of the political process and pave the way for parliamentary elections which Salamé now envisions in June.
But for all this to occur the Libyan factions still need to bridge their outstanding differences and it remains to be seen whether this week’s Palermo conference is a concrete step in that direction.
As well as bringing together Libya’s duelling factions, the conference examined the economic situation in Libya and the implementation of a new package of measures to bolster the economic reforms introduced in September. Security issues, and new arrangements for the Libyan capital Tripoli, were also addressed.
On security the United Nations Support Mission in Libya Deputy Chief Stephanie Williams lauded recent steps taken by Fathi Bashagha, interior minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
These “steps send a strong signal that change is coming,” Williams said. She did, however, warn that “more needs to be done to boost logistical support and generate regular forces ready to assume security responsibilities in the capital”.
“Success will depend on the unequivocal and sustained support on the part of the Libyan authorities and the international community alike.”
During the economic session the House of Representatives delegation presented a set of demands: to introduce a programme to compensate the victims of the war against terrorism in Benghazi, Derna, the petroleum crescent and other areas, with particular attention to compensating the families of fallen members of the Libyan Armed Forces; the equitable distribution of oil revenues across the country and greater clarity over the mechanisms in place to monitor frozen Libyan assets abroad.
The latter was a reference to a recent Belgian report on the disappearance of large sums of money accrued from the interest on frozen Libyan accounts in Belgian banks.
The High Council of State (HCS) delegation complained of the difficulties it has encountered with the House of Representatives over the process of institutional reunification. The delegation also urged the Presidency Council and Central Bank to accelerate the implementation of outstanding economic reform measures.
HCS members called for the creation of an administrative body in the south to oversee the creation of a truly national police force and other service-providing agencies, in coordination with the executive authority.
In addition, they warned of the dangers of migration as southerners move north in an attempt to flee the violence, and of the consequences of any major demographic upheaval.
They stressed that the unification of the political establishment was a prerequisite for the unification of the security forces and, above all, the armed forces, arguing that the failure to implement the security provisions of the Skhirat accord underlay the ongoing insecurity in the country, and in the capital in particular.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Awaiting spring in Libya