French President Emanuel Macron succeeded in bringing together, for the first time, four key Libyan leaders representing different political and regional factions in the war-torn country: Commander of the Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Speaker of the House of Representatives Aquila Saleh, Chairman of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord Fayez Al-Sarraj and speaker of the High Council of State Khaled Mishri.
The summit in Champs-Élysées on 29 May was also attended by high-level representatives from around 20 countries as well as from the Arab League, the UN, the EU and the African Union.
The three-hour summit explored ways to revive the stalled political process and resolve the protracted crisis in Libya, and culminated in the “Paris Declaration” which calls for the unification of Libyan government institutions and legislative and presidential elections by 10 December.
Critics, however, fear that the French-led process could backfire and undermine the political settlement process.
The international summit in Paris on Libya was not greeted warmly by Libya’s neighbours and by the UK, the US and Italy in particular, due to divergent views on how to re-engineer the situation in Libya in a manner conducive to reaching a lasting settlement to the Libyan crisis.
In addition, there is intense rivalry between foreign powers who are keen to advance the roles of their local Libyan partners in order to secure their own interests in the country.
Some in Rome have charged that Paris had taken advantage Italy’s preoccupation with its governmental crisis in order to advance its own interests in Libya at the expense of Italy’s.
Others hold that the Paris initiative is overly optimistic and ambitious given the current conditions in Libya.
It was not long before the meeting between the key Libyan players began to show signs of failure.
The summit was to culminate in a “Paris Accord”, but the French presidency was soon forced to change it to “Paris Declaration” when the participants refused to sign the document they produced collectively on the grounds that they needed to consult with their respective bases.
Then they effectively backed out of the declaration in meetings with the French media afterwards. Both Saleh and Mishri told France 24 TV that they refused to recognise any process that undermined the gains they realised during the past four years.
Saleh’s and Mishri’s remarks are a strong sign that the major Libyan factions will refuse to compromise and that they will continue to take advantage of the conflicting stances of regional and international powers on Libya.
This is the first time that Libya’s neighbours, in spite of their generally divergent views, agree with the US, Britain and Italy on how to move forward with the Libyan political process.
They all share the view that there has to be a political settlement first, before proceeding to elections which Paris insists on holding before the end of this year.
Nevertheless, Paris does have the backing of the UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, who is eager to salvage the stalled Libyan political process after having to abandon portions of his own plan for Libya which ran aground on the intransigence of local parties and the divergent views of foreign parties over the substance and aims of the plan.
Salame had hoped to broker agreements over amendments to the Libyan National Accord, signed on 17 December 2015, preparatory to creating a new government that would oversee the rest of the interim period through general elections.
Regional and international parties uncomfortable with the “Paris Declaration” fear that any new initiative for resolving the Libyan situation will backfire in the absence of a political settlement and that this will lead the Libyan factions to further entrench themselves in their adversarial positions with the support of outside powers which have so far sheltered them from having to commit to any understandings, including the 2015 Skhirat agreement.
Washington was the first to signal its reservations concerning the French unilateral step, even though Paris took pains to offer reassurances by modifying the final wroding of the declaration so as to provide for the need to ratify the constitution so as to hold elections, “if possible” on a “constitutional base”. The US insists that a political settlement and constitutional framework must be reached before elections are held.
The day before the summit convened in Champs-Élysées, the US removed Libya from its list of non-cooperative nations and informed the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, based in Tripoli, of this step.
Then, on 31 May, Stephanie Williams, chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Tripoli, and US Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of US Africa Command, met with Al-Sarraj in Tripoli as a sign of support for his government.
The two American officials also held meetings with Libyan Chief-of-Staff Abdul-Rahman Al-Taweel, commander of the Presidential Guards Colonel Najmi Al-Nakua, Interior Minister Abdel-Salam Ashour and other military and security officials as a further assurance of Washington’s commitment to supporting the Tripoli-based government established by the Libyan National Accord.
Williams and Waldhauser said that their visit “represents a true strengthening of the US-Libya strategic relationship,” as was reported in a communique released by the US embassy in Tripoli and AFRICOM.
Italian officials, for their part, underscored the need to avoid a proliferation of initiatives on Libya so as not to undermine UN-led efforts. Commenting on the Paris summit, Italian Ambassador to Libya Giuseppe Beroni said that his country had worked with the UN to carry out Salame’s plan and it was committed to working together with all international partners to carry out the commitments outlined in the “Paris Declaration” in order to help Libyans reach a comprehensive solution.
He added, “regarding the details of the political process and the date for elections, the Libyans will determine them.
They know that dialogue and a comprehensive reconciliation are in Libya’s interests.” Alluding to the French initiative, he also cautioned against divisions and unorganised initiatives that will contribute to renewed deterioration.
The current situation in Libya is deceptive. Outside forces involved in the crisis are convinced that they have reached a point where they have sufficiently secured their interests and they are not prepared to alter the status quo for fear of jeopardising their investments in domestic factions.
Also, local armed conflicts over wealth and power have worked to generate a protracted social conflict which makes it difficult to speak of a solution at present without further consideration of how to lay the groundwork.
Regional and international forces should, therefore, open opportunities for local initiatives to mend the political and social fragmentation through confidence building measures and other such steps that would pave the way to broader initiatives that would contribute to a genuine settlement process.
As for international initiatives, they are not useful in the current phase, in view of the intractable domestic polarisation and regional and international competition over Libya, and will undermine UN-led efforts against a backdrop of intensely volatile conditions.
Therefore, the current focus should be on remedying the repercussions of domestic conflict through a series of ground-up social and economic measures to promote reconciliation and to stimulate investments in health, education, infrastructure and social services, thereby alleviating the intensity of polarisation, which poses the gravest threat to the political settlement process.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: No deal yet