The Paris meeting was another step in the direction towards a political settlement in Libya, or to be more precise, another step in the direction of trying to reconcile positions between Khalifa Haftar and Fayez Al-Sarraj.
The Paris meeting, at its core, was another follow-on of the Cairo meeting held in March, in the same manner that the Abu Dhabi meeting was conceptualised; it all began with the Cairo sessions.
However, the significant European interests in Libya cannot go unnoticed in European attempts to reach a political settlement that secures long-term European interests in Libya; which is why France and Italy specifically are in constant contact with Libyan political elites, and explains the EU’s steady concern and ongoing dialogues with different parties in Libya.
Finally, Europe has recognised that its strategy in Libya since the division began in 2014 failed to make connections between attempts at political dialogue and field realities in Libya, whether military or political.
Western Europe has refused to acknowledge Haftar’s influence for a long time, and despite the fact that some European interests in Libya are secured by non-institutional militias, Haftar’s inclusion in European attempts at political settlement came so late, mainly on the platform of his illegitimacy and the positions taken against Haftar by Europe’s allies in the west of Libya.
However, Haftar’s progress in the field and the continued support he receives from his Arab allies have allowed him to be an integral part of any political settlement process. It is impossible to engineer a political settlement process without realising the actual weights of various stakeholders on the ground in Libya, and this is what has started to take place, in Europe and among Libya’s neighbouring countries, and in the US.
Recently, initiatives of political dialogue in Libya have become plentiful. In addition to the Cairo declaration in March, there was a meeting in the UAE between Haftar and Al-Sarraj, a meeting in the Hague in the Netherlands between representatives from the House of Representatives and the State Council (although the House of Representatives stated that the participants do not represent the institution), several attempts by Italy to reconcile positions between Libyan political elites, and finally, the Paris meeting last week.
Other than the obvious fact that these efforts point to, which is the diverse interests in Libya by various actors, these attempts pose two main questions that should not be ignored. Firstly, what are the common points between all the different attempts and initiatives for political settlement in Libya, and secondly, why is it that despite all these efforts, political settlement in Libya still cannot be realised?
The different attempts at mediation and reconciliation initiatives, whether domestic, regional or international, have all held on to the Skhirat agreement signed in December 2015. The political entities acknowledged by the agreement (the Presidential Council, the State Council and the House of Representatives) remain the focal points in all political settlement initiatives.
All initiatives maintained the structure of power created by the agreement, whether on the level of stakeholders or hierarchical power relations.
In other words, all concerned parties have agreed on the presence of a legitimate framework of interaction represented in the Skhirat agreement, and on the increasing risks of dismantling the already fragile structural reality created by the agreement in search of a new one.
Therefore, the focus of all the initiatives of settlement was on amending the agreement via a process of negotiation between the entities legitimised by the agreement (the House of Representatives and the State Council). At the same time, all initiatives offered a series of political processes in a roadmap fashion that ends with presidential and parliamentary elections sometime in 2018.
The solutions envisioned in Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Paris prove that the core of the conflict at the present moment is not one of conflicting regional or international interests, which was the case for a considerable amount of time due to lack of coordination and consensus between Egypt and Algeria in particular.
The real challenge towards political settlement right now is conflicts and power struggles among Libyan political and tribal elites. In other words, the challenge towards political settlement in Libya is not trying to manufacture a Haftar-Sarraj mutually signed communiqué, the challenge is to end elite conflicts within each camp, then to employ a mechanism of reconciliation between elites in the eastern and the western parts of the country; which takes us directly to the second question, why is it that this still cannot be realised?
I intend to argue that, despite the vast regional and international interests in political settlement in Libya, and the willingness of various Libyan factions to engage within a process of dialogue or negotiation, the fast pace of change and transformation in practical politics, operational realities and military successes in the past few months have stood as an obstacle to the initiation of any process of mutual dialogue.
The Egyptian military intervention in the Libyan east and south has given Haftar a significant advantage that will indeed be reflected within any process of political dialogue over amending the agreement. At the same time, Egypt has been working for some time on reconciling differences between the tribes of the eastern region and the tribes of Misrata, the west’s most powerful military force.
Those efforts were part of Egypt’s strategy to break the blockage between Haftar and Misrata. On the western side, militia alliances keep fragmenting, and the practical power of Al-Sarraj is both constantly reduced by the ongoing emergence of renegade militias and systematically worn out by military confrontations between militias in Tripoli.
In other words, the process of political negotiation over amending the Skhirat agreement has been stalled by each side’s efforts to enhance their positions at the negotiation table. While Haftar seems to be mustering resources that would grant him more advantages within negotiation, Al-Sarraj keeps failing miserably, whether operationally, militarily or politically. Giving permission to Italian military ships to access Libyan waters to counter irregular migration, without manufacturing enough consent within his own camp over such permission, is just one of many examples of Al-Sarraj’s ongoing political failures.
Usually, as you approach the end of an editorial on Libya’s current position, you read a lot about the necessity of political settlement and the inevitability of maintaining the unity of Libyan soil. By now, I believe these are givens that should not be resurrected at the end of each piece. The method through which those givens will turn into practical solutions is the matter that should concern us most.
There is no doubt that neither Libya nor the region will be able to afford the cost of more years of division and a new phase of dialogue without any secured or promised outcomes.
Reaching political settlement in Libya requires applying extreme pressure by all parties concerned on various Libyan factions to form the joint body that will engage in the negotiation process in order for the agreement to be amended.
On the other hand, the process of negotiation must realise the actual shift in the balance of power taking place domestically in Libya, which will in turn reflect on the dialogue process and the extent of political compromises expected from each party. At the same time, the accumulated experience of attempts at political dialogue and settlement in Libya has proved that the mechanism of neighbouring countries (mainly Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia) is the most effective mechanism in achieving consensus in the Libyan interior.
The aggregate relations that each of the three neighbouring countries has with Libyan political and tribal elites, their involvement in the Libyan conflict with all its details due to their border security strategies and the networks of power that they can influence through their unified positions make Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia the most capable of facilitating negotiation between conflicting Libyan parties.
Libya is in need of practical positive initiatives that facilitate dialogue between its warring parties much more than it is in need of individual meetings between leaders.
The writer is a senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.