By Patrick Wintour and Chris Stephen
French president says Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar have shown ‘historic courage’ at the meeting outside Paris.
Libya’s two main rival leaders have agreed to call a ceasefire and hold elections early next year after a meeting in Paris hosted by the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
Macron said Libya’s UN-backed prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, and Khalifa Haftar – the military strongman whose forces control large tracts of land in the east of the country – had displayed “historic courage” at the talks outside Paris on Tuesday.
“The cause of peace has made great progress today,” declared Macron at the end of the talks.
On paper, the agreement represents a step towards a political settlement to end years of violence – but previous peace deals since the 2011 fall of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi have not been honoured, and the absence of a specific date for proposed new elections will be seen as a diplomatic disappointment.
The communique says the two leaders accept that only a political solution can end the crisis, and calls for all militia to be brought under the reins of a national army under political control.
“We commit to a ceasefire and to refrain from any use of armed force for any purpose that does not strictly constitute counter-terrorism”, the document says.
The communique, replete with broad good intentions and commitment to the rule of law, was inadvertently issued at lunchtime by the Élysée before the two sides had met. The final communique issued later in the afternoon was little changed.
The ceasefire does not cover efforts either by Haftar or Sarraj militias to counter terrorism, a phrasing that will leave both sides free to interpret legitimate targets. It is also contingent on Sarraj’s ability to persuade all Tripoli’s powerful militias, many opposed to his rule, to lay down their arms, with many doubting they will do so.
The newly appointed UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, chaired the talks, but Macron made a statement at the end insisting that “civil war in Libya is not inevitable”. Macron said the two rival leaders could become symbols of a national reconciliation.
The French initiative has caused some consternation in Italy, which had previously seen Libya as its diplomatic preserve, partly due to its colonial past in Libya and large current oil interests.
It is the second time Sarraj and Haftar have met in the space of three months: they held talks in Abu Dhabi in May but failed to agree on a communique.
Tuesday’s joint statement, and the call for fresh elections, is an implicit recognition that Sarraj’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has failed to unify the country since it was established in 2015.
A rival administration based in Libya’s remote east – with which Haftar is allied – has refused to recognise Sarraj’s government, and blocked the House of Representatives from being quorate.
On the face of it, the Paris deal offers more to Haftar than Serraj.
Most western capitals have been reluctant to give Haftar any political role save as defence minister in a Sarraj-led government, but the territorial gains of his forces have made that an increasingly untenable position.
Haftar’s eastern army has won a string of victories that has left it controlling two thirds of the country, including key oil ports and Benghazi, the country’s eastern capital. The general has already declared his intention to capture Tripoli by the end of the year.
Sarraj, by contrast, has no security force of his own or any means to force militias to disarm. Some Tripoli militias have aligned with his embryonic government, while others back a rival Tripoli administration, the Salvation Government, with the city shuddering under clashes between the two groups.
With Sarraj unable to impose his authority, public services have ground to a halt across swaths of the country, and jihadist groups had temporarily seized cities such as the Islamic State capture of Sirte and the capture of Benhgazi. The absence of a functioning state had also allowed human traffickers to develop a booming business that has seen tens of thousands of migrants reach Italy each month.
Haftar is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and the bulk of the French military, but has shown little commitment to power sharing and has been accused of human rights violations in capturing Benghazi.
Libyan commentators are sceptical about the chances of success for a ceasefire.
“Militias who are with Sarraj will agree on the ceasefire, but there will be clashes with the militias who are not considered legitimate,” said civil rights activist Hana El-Gallal.
Within hours of the announcement of the deal, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party – a key opponent of Haftar – signalled its rejection of the terms, saying it would abide only by deals struck by UN mediation, not the separate Paris talks convened by Macron.
“I do not envision any meaningful armed groups laying down their weapons,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at Paris 8 University. “In west Libya you have Sarraj-aligned groups that tolerate him but do not obey him. And you have the National Salvation-aligned groups that were excluded from the talks to begin with.”
If Tripoli’s militias are not disbanded, Haftar may consider the Paris deal void, with a resumption of war possible.
Haftar, meanwhile, has to convince the Tobruk parliament to agree the deal. Tobruk leaders were not invited to the talks and have so far rejected Sarraj’s government. With control of the majority of the country and its key oil installations, Tobruk lawmakers may be reluctant to endorse the Paris deal.
Human Rights Watch said it was following the talks closely after a video appeared on social media this week showing the execution of 20 blindfolded people in orange jumpsuits, reportedly by members of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Haftar.
Eric Goldstein, Middle East and North Africa deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said if confirmed the executions were “yet another manifestation of how (the LNA’s members) are taking the law into their own hands in the absence of accountability and rule of law”.
The rights group called for those accused to be removed from active duty and held accountable if found guilty.
But political leaders in the west are likely to overlook Haftar’s shortcomings in the interests of creating peace in a country that is threatening to bring civil disorder to the EU, and especially to Italy.