Libya peace conference: French initiative promises much but raises concerns

Mohamed Abu Al-Fadl , Tuesday 29 May 2018

Conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace
A view shows an international conference on Libya with Libyan leaders, heads of the states sharing borders with the country, European represent and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

Paris’ attention has long been focused on Libya; for France, the war-torn country’s fate is a security issue.

Tuesday’s special conference on the Libyan crisis, which will bring together many international actors, as well as Libyan factions, to the Elysee in the French capital, is also an attempt to entrench France’s political presence with regards to the issue.

Libya is riven with conflict, with a number of competing factions and armed militias, many more powerful than official institutions. Uniting these diverse groups is a tall order, and many participants and observers are sceptical of the Paris conference, feeling it is not up to the task.

Some have also expressed concerns that the origins of the conference made it seem more like a public relations exercise than an initiative to achieve a real breakthrough.

A political public relations conference requires a celebration, in which a number of parties are invited that are normally difficult to bring together.

The number of attendants suggests the existence of an organised political process, but the fact is that it is a hasty one, perhaps indicating confusion.

Achieving a breakthrough requires different preparations, the most important of which is accommodating the environment to the conference’s outcome.

The experience of France with Libya also raises concern; Libyans won’t quickly forget that Paris’ actions in 2011 are the main reason behind the deterioration of their country.

International scepticism

Most of the parties involved have not overtly announced their reluctance to participate, but instead have hinted of their dissatisfaction.

Those countries who backed the French initiative were keen to raise the level of representation, for example Algeria, which will send a prime minister. Those who did not back it will send lower-level representatives, like Egypt, which has assigned former prime minister and current presidential assistant Ibrahim Mahlab to attend.

Washington likewise has sent low-level representation to the conference; it views Paris as encroaching on its role, hijacking the UN mission to Libya, just because Ghassan Salamé, the UN envoy to Libya, has French nationality.

Rome believes that Paris wants to maintain its interests at the expense of Italian interests, and isn’t comfortable with the conference because it may secure France’s interests in the south, but it may incite tensions in the north, which is an essential area for the Italians.

Cairo feels that the conference is harvesting the results of continuous Egyptian efforts in supporting the Libyan military institution, efforts which have been bringing Libyan forces closer to each other, and believes the conference grants the Islamists a new kiss of life that will strengthen their position.

Some fear that the new attempt will result in a more bitter reality that will leave Libya facing two choices: turning the Islamist current, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, into a main force once again, or paving the way to the division of the country.

The division scenario will mean that France acquires the region of Fezzan in the south and protects a big chunk of its strategic interests in the neighbouring area.

The maximising of the Brotherhood’s gains in Libya is an objective for France and a number of international and regional forces, as has been apparent from the statements and meetings held between Brotherhood elements and different Libyan forces, meetings which had been impossible to arrange before.

This was an attempt to create a new network of interests, then gather them amid encouragement from Paris and via different channels. The Dakar conference, held two weeks ago, was a sign of France’s approach.

Imposing the Brotherhood

There is a looming desire by Paris, backed by Turkey, Qatar and Western powers, which still champion the Islamist current, to return to the scenario of pre-2014. This was the period in which the Brotherhood tightened its grip on a large number of the key posts in Libya.

The aforementioned circles believe that the return of the Brotherhood to Libya should be carried out by any means possible.

This explains the reason behind the sudden changes that were obviously clear in political messages made by the Brotherhood leadership regarding Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan army, and Aqeela Saleh, president of the House of Representatives, and other leaders considered part of the Muammar Gaddafi’s regime who attended the Dakar conference.

Those who back this approach overlook the fact that dealing with Libyan forces may be different to dealing with others in neighbouring countries; it is difficult to anticipate their reactions.

The standpoints can change between one moment and another; Saleh met with Khaled Al-Mishri, president of the High Council of State, who belongs to the Brotherhood, and it seemed that Saleh was distant from Haftar during Haftar’s recent illness.

Things have recently changed, and Saleh parted ways with Al-Mishri and returned to Haftar’s square. The pair had breakfast together last week, and Al-Mishri praised the Libyan army and withdrew his previous statement in which he accused it of being “illegitimate”, and described it as the national army.

Then two days before the Paris conference, he declared that he doesn’t acknowledge Haftar. That’s the case for the majority of the political forces and armed groups in Libya.

This is a major and rapid change in relationships.

The theatre is now being arranged in order to give the Brotherhood a considerable part of the political pie.

The Brotherhood scenario enjoys the support of, or at least faces no objections from, the Maghreb countries, as they do not resent dealing with the group.

Algeria sees the Brotherhood being in power as a guarantee to control the terrorist groups in Libya and stop them from pouring across the Algerian border, because the Brotherhood knows how to deal with Al Qaeda, IS and the Islamist militias.

Egypt has a big problem with the Brotherhood being in the forefront of Libyan politics; it believes that the French initiative may lead to this, if holding elections before the end of the year is upheld without taking steps to ensure a certain degree of fairness.

Many observers are concerned about the French push for elections. They wonder which body will be responsible for holding the poll.

First, a national unity government must be formed, to take responsibility for this process. 

Is there a security body that can control the situation in the light of the rejection of the role of the Libyan national army by some? Some even fight it and obstruct it in while it is performing the mission of cleansing Derna of terrorists.

What is the body that will ensure that the election results will be executed in the light of current circumstances? What would happen if Haftar is nominated and won the presidency? What would be the consequences if an ex-Gaddafi regime man won?

Thus, it is necessary to be well-prepared for this step, because hastiness will lead to a distorted process, reminiscent of what happened in 2011, and could have bleak consequences.

Elections and beyond

What’s interesting is that the main forces in Libya don’t lean towards holding elections in these circumstances.

Haftar wants to wait until the national army imposes its will and enters the capital, Tripoli, and a solution be found concerning the problem of the militias. 

In these elections, Fayez Al-Sarraj, the prime minister, will be the first to lose his post, which he obtained in the Skhirat Agreement.

Saleh can’t guarantee being the president of the House of Representatives.

Al-Mishri wants to hamper the elections in order that the Brotherhood be able to create and expand internal alliances, to ensure its control over a large piece of the pie.

Why is France, which was unable to carry out its previous initiative when it brought Haftar and Al-Sarraj together in Paris last year, being hasty in presenting a new initiative now?

Perhaps the recent suicide attack on the Electoral Commission headquarters in Tripoli is a clear sign that the militias reject the idea of holding elections, which presumably would curtail their status.

The statement issued by military forces and militias in western Libya ahead of the Paris conference means that they are rejecting the political process in its current form and that they could sabotage it.

Going along with the French initiative will lead to giving priority to the internal division scenario, because the French conceptions, in their essence, don’t make an effort to reach a detailed political settlement that takes into consideration the complicated situation.

This will lead to increasing infighting in Libya, affecting the efforts of the national army to take control of certain areas and to halt the march of the armed militias.

Consequently, this will open the door wide to the division scenario. This probability wasn’t acceptable during the first few years after the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime, so as to not embarrass or expose those who stood behind the downfall and abuse of that regime.

Now unwise developments may lead to a return to this option as inevitable. It will result in the realization of the interests of the big powers wanting to acquire certain areas, at a time when the country’s citizens are about to lose faith in the unity of the Libyan state.


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