The Paris International Conference for Libya which ended on 12 November sent important messages ahead of the long awaited presidential and parliamentary elections of 24 December.
The participants, including nearly all international and regional stakeholders, confirmed their support for holding the elections on time, but also expressed the feeling that voting, difficult and complicated as it is in the light of divisions that have persisted since the ouster of late leader Muammar Gaddafi 10 years ago, would only be a first step in a difficult process to restore national unity, stability and security. In fact Libya is in effect divided into two parts, each with its own government, army, militias and even central bank.
Because of the long border and shared history, Cairo feels that Libya’s stability is a matter of national security, and it has consistently maintained that the way out of the current impasse is a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned political process.
Particularly after the parliamentary elections of 2014, the results of which were not accepted by all Libyan parties, the unfortunate alternative to which the warring sides resorted was to introduce foreign forces and mercenaries to bolster their stand in the ongoing war, and make sure they didn’t lose their share of Libya.
In the Egyptian view, the key first step to ensure fair and free elections is to end all foreign interferences in Libyan affairs, and to fully respect and commit to Libya’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity.
Egypt, and other participants in the Paris Conference, expressed full support for the comprehensive “Action Plan for the withdrawal of mercenaries, foreign fighters and foreign forces from the Libyan territory” developed by the Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC), including the prompt development of timelines as a first step towards the full implementation of the 23 October 2020 ceasefire agreement and UNSC Resolution 2570.
Turkey was the only participant in the Paris Conference that introduced a reservation to the wording of the final statement with regard to the status of foreign forces. This Turkish move shows that Ankara is unwilling to look to the future, or consider the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections the beginning for a new chapter in which older agreements with a government not recognised by all Libyans would not stand. Moreover, if Ankara continues to refuse to withdraw its forces from Libya, as well as the extremist mercenaries it shipped from Syria, it will give more than enough excuse to rival parties to maintain the status quo, with only the Libyan people paying a heavy price in terms of their security and deteriorating economic conditions.
However, coming a long way after endless military confrontations and regional and international intervention, the world leaders who met in Paris seemed to have learned the lesson of the past 10 years of civil war. They noted that support for Libyan elections in words alone was not enough, and clearly warned that “individuals or entities, inside or outside of Libya, who might attempt to obstruct, undermine, manipulate or falsify the electoral process and the political transition will be held accountable and may be designated by the United Nations Sanctions Committee in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2571 (2021).” They also affirmed the need to “agree on a plan to monitor and verify the presence and withdrawal of all mercenaries, foreign fighters and foreign forces.”
No illusions persist about the difficulties facing the elections in Libya. Infighting has already started on who has the right to run and who should be barred for either being part of the former Gaddafi regime, starting with his son who announced he was running for president, or for committing war crimes throughout the civil war. It will be the task of Libyan High National Election Commission (HNEC) to take those difficult decisions. The leaders who met in Paris stressed that what was needed was not only to hold open elections, but to also accept their results and ensure the smooth handover of power to the newly elected authorities and institutions. If such consent is not confirmed by all competing parties, then the 24 December elections could be the opening of a new chapter in Libya’s Civil War, with observers stating that “we’ve seen it all before.”
Any upcoming Libyan government will face several difficult challenges. Those will be topped with establishing a unified and inclusive military and security architecture. The participants in the Paris Conference encouraged “Libyan authorities to further engage and achieve progress through inclusive dialogue on these issues, sheltered from foreign interference, and especially taking into account the Cairo talks” among Libyan army and security officials.
The next Libyan president and government will also need to take urgent steps towards unification of the Central Bank of Libya, and to ensure the transparent management and equitable distribution of resources and the delivery of public services across the whole country. This will require restoring the unity of Libyan economic and financial institutions and improving basic services for the benefit of all people in Libya, wherever in the country they happen to live. Taking these much needed steps would pave the way to unfreezing Libyan assets, according to UN Security Council resolutions.
This is a long agenda which Egypt is ready to endorse all along the way in support of the Libyan people, first and foremost.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly