At the end of July, two of the prominent players in the Libyan Civil War met with new faces at the discussion table — France’s newly elected president and the newly appointed United Nations Support Mission in Libya chief — in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, a commune just outside Paris.
The declaration that the Élysée Palace published outlining the agreement between Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, and Khalifa Haftar, the eastern military strongman who leads the self-styled Libyan National Army, is full of broad good intentions, most notably a pledge to a ceasefire against all non-terrorist groups and an affirmation of intentions to hold elections “as soon as possible.”
Where French President Emmanuel Macron was quick to trumpet the agreement’s success, calling it “great progress” toward “the cause of peace,” others have been wary of the monumental rhetoric, in light of the seeming intransigent political process that has seen a slew of diplomatic agreements partially implemented, including the Libyan National Agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco in 2015.
Indeed, in the weeks that have followed the meeting in Paris, much of the apparent political good will
Q&A with Jalel Harchaoui :
To parse out the political dimensions of the agreement and its aftermath at an international and domestic level, Mada Masr conducted an interview via email with Jalel Harchaoui, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geopolitics at Paris 8 University whose doctorate research focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict.
Mada Masr: Perhaps a good place to start would be to lay out for our readers the terms of the July 25 Paris agreement between Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar and Government of National Accord head Fayez al-Sarraj and mediated by French President Emmanuel Macron. What did and didn’t this agreement entail?
Jalel Harchaoui: First of all, is it an agreement? Neither UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, nor eastern military strongman Khalifa Haftar signed President Macron’s 10-point text. So we can’t truly speak of an agreement per se. It was more of a nod. Both Sarraj and Haftar retain the option to renege on it soon thereafter.
For every diplomatic initiative, it’s always important to look both at its substance and — also— its form. The Paris meeting was short on substance, but its format carried a lot of significance. In effect, the president of a major Western power welcomed and greeted east Libya-based military commander Khalifa Haftar as a legitimate statesman. Such a move could (and did) only weaken an already-weak Sarraj and embolden a rising Haftar. Importantly, Paris also failed to include several Libyan factions that do matter on the ground. That, too, boosts Haftar and favors his military solution. Indeed, his main characteristic is his refusal to speak with his true political opponents, of which Sarraj isn’t.
MM: A natural follow-up question, it seems to me, is why has France taken action, given the fact that several international parties, whether individual nation states or larger entities like the UN, have all intervened in the Libyan political and military conflict to varying degrees? France has not often been pegged as the most overt political actor in the North African country. So why make such an overt move now?
JH: While François Hollande was not a media-friendly president, Emmanuel Macron is. Moreover, Macron is definitely someone who thinks primarily in terms of headlines. In his first 100 days, he sought announcements to that effect. He was in a hurry to make a splash on each important facet of his agenda. The July 25th peace talks on Libya must be looked at in that context.
France opposed the United States’ intervention in Iraq in 2003. It therefore was very important for Paris that its own ostensible zeal in Libya eight years later be perceived as a success. Starting in 2014, it became clear that the intervention in Libya was the opposite of success. During his 2012-2017 time in office, Hollande avoided the topic of Libya as much as possible. In terms of public perception, he was loathe to be associated with “Sarkozy’s mess” in any way.
Macron was fully aware of that awkward reluctance on Libya and chose to break with it. One month after becoming president, he said France made a mistake by waging war in Libya the way it did in 2011. So the sudden rhetorical escalation and the peace talks give the impression of a new start, a wiser French approach to Libya. In its actions, however, Paris has been supporting Haftar for almost three years now. The only change under Macron is the greater visibility. France’s thinking and actual policy have not changed. There is no “new start.”
MM: That comes up against characterizations of France’s foray into Libya as a “sudden” and “new” development, then. I wonder if you might sketch out more of the backstory, so to speak, of Paris’s Libya policy, its key actors and positions, and how that has changed under Macron, if it did indeed change?
JH: The main champion in Paris of the marked preference for Haftar’s military campaign in Libya has been Jean-Yves Le Drian. He is a hawk who has recommended several times since September 2014 that France intervene militarily in Libya. In the five years prior to becoming France’s Foreign Minister in May, Le Drian was a very influential defense minister under Hollande. I don’t expect him to be as powerful under the current president as he was from 2012 to 2017. But, interestingly, since Macron swept into power on May 14, he co-opted Le Drian’s views and ideas on the Middle East and Africa. This definitely is the case for Libya.
MM: While France seems to be backing the LNA, does Haftar or Sarraj have more to gain in the partnership with the European country? I know it is a question that, of course, is a reductive one in some senses, for it forgets that there are many actors in Libya. So, while not neglecting that there is a power dynamic between the two most prominent figures, might we characterize Paris’s singular focus on Haftar and Sarraj too narrow to make real political inroads?
JH: There are many features in Paris’ approach that structurally help Haftar. From the very start of his military campaign over three years, the constant hallmark of Haftar’s narrative is that he does not speak with his political opponents. That is why the UN-backed Skhirat agreement of December 2015 insists on political inclusion. Refusal to talk to militarily powerful groups increases the odds of a violent resolution down the road. France is a major world power. It could have exerted some pressure on Haftar. Instead, it chose to not include several Libyan factions. That automatically gave legitimacy to his 39-month-old military campaign. Macron even said the latter possesses “military legitimacy.” That’s very unambiguous encouragement.
JH: Tunis and Algiers’s response to Macron’s move could be summarized as polite unease. Concretely speaking, what does it mean when France encourages Haftar by recognizing him? What does he, himself, say almost every time he speaks to the press? Haftar systematically and invariably says he doesn’t believe in political solutions. He defines himself first and foremost as the leader of a military campaign. So, to give him legitimacy amounts to enabling his military campaign to make headway into west Libya, an area much more densely populated than Cyrenaica, [the eastern coastal region of Libya]. Countries closest to west Libya — namely, Algeria, Tunisia and Italy — are acutely aware of this geographic reality. That is the principal reason they are unhappy with Paris. It is mainly about geography, not politics. France’s exposure to a rise in the level of violence in west Libya isn’t anywhere near the exposure of those three countries mentioned above.
Regarding Egypt, one must note that there is no daylight between Cairo and Paris on Libya. The Egyptians haven’t said anything in particular, simply because they largely agree with the French. Egypt is rather happy with the last few weeks’ developments with regard to Libya. But what is interesting here is that Egypt does not view France as a potential leader when it comes to tackling the Libya crisis. For the Egyptian leadership, the true leader on that file remains the United Arab Emirates.
Among all the foreign states that back Haftar, the UAE is the most energetic one. If you look at the Macron presidency’s diplomatic approach to Libya since May, it closely emulates Abu Dhabi’s own approach. On Libya, the Emirates play a central role in terms of both military considerations and diplomacy.
MM: A little more than a week prior to the Paris talks, Macron, standing next to United States President Donald Trump, indicated to the press that France and the US share the same intentions on Libya. Are we then to partially understand France’s motivations in Libya against the backdrop of a US framework?
JH: The dynamic between France and the US on Africa as a whole is certainly not a dynamic of competition or antagonism. In fact, Washington has a long tradition of not considering the African continent a vital strategic interest. One must bear that in mind: Africa doesn’t matter all that much to the Americans. As soon as then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the creation of AFRICOM 10 years ago, US policymakers were prompt to note that American and French interests could “intersect” in Africa. So, since 2007, you’ve had this constant idea in Washington of relying on France (and other European or Gulf powers willing to help out) when it comes to African security.
France fits well into the US-desired framework. The Americans (including the current administration) want France to play a greater role in the security of Africa. When it comes to Libya specifically, this was true in 2011 — remember the “leading from behind” dynamic desired by President Obama. And it is very much true today under Trump. The latter made it clear he doesn’t want the United States to play a prominent role in Libya. If France, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia can take care of Libya, the Trump presidency will be delighted.
MM: On August 2, the Italian Navy launched a mission to help Libya’s coastguard curb migrant flows. Haftar ordered his forces in response to repel “any naval vessel that enters national waters without permission from the army.” The LNA leader later gave an interview with Corriere della Sera, in which he called Sarraj’s coordination with Italy “illegitimate and illegal,” adding that he had provided Macron with a list of migration control-related supplies and training that came with a hefty price tag of US$20 billion. There seems here to be clear tensions between France and Italy, ranging from the “crisis” of the European border regime to hydrocarbon interests in the Mediterranean.
JH: Haftar knows Italy has deals with west-Libya actors, so he has an incentive to see those deals collapse. The current government in Rome faces elections in less than a year. It considers the current migrant crisis an urgent priority. Meanwhile, it is important to recognize that France is relatively insulated from the phenomenon. As a result, Paris does not feel a need to work out, let alone maintain, arrangements with west-Libyan actors.
A full 85 percent of new arrivals into Europe end up and stay in Italy. Other EU countries do not want to share the burden affecting Italy. Thus far, the Alpine border crossing with France has been kept largely impermeable to irregular migrants seeking to leave Italy. So you have a profound divergence between the two EU states’ attitudes with respect to the post-Qadhafi morass. Adding to that, Rome has substantial hydrocarbon interests in west Libya, when France has less at stake there.
MM: And to stay on the international terrain, on August 12, Haftar traveled to Russia for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and, in the following days, seemed to all but declare the Paris agreement a failure, with Lavrov making deference to the UN as the sole body able to resolve the crisis. What can we glean from these remarks about the balance of power after July 25, as much as French-Russian relations on the Libya file?
JH: A pillar in Moscow’s narrative is the notion that Western countries are inherently unreliable — even when they support the right side in a conflict. Macron granted more recognition to Russia’s preferred camp in the Libyan Civil War. In addition, Macron signaled his desire to cooperate with Russia on counterterrorism in Islamic countries, including Libya.
Yet, despite all of this, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov still makes a point of being dismissive of French leadership. When Russia says all states meddling in Libyan affairs should comply with the UN’s mediation framework, it effectively means, “France mustn’t take the lead on Libya diplomacy.” Haftar, who is smart, of course went along with that, and played into the hands of Moscow on that particular rhetoric. That gives him leeway. He reaps the upside from the Paris summit without any downside.
MM: And finally I’m curious how the subject of general elections, one of the terms of the Paris agreement, is being seized upon by various actors, especially with the expiration of the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat in 2015 on the horizon. Does Paris remain committed to Skhirat, or does it have enough clout to change the course of Libya’s political future?
What does the Skhirat document say? Skhirat rules out a military solution and emphasizes civilian control of the armed forces. It also calls for the inclusion of as many Libyan political rivals as possible. Clearly, many major states involved in Libya violate these principles in an egregious way. The reason they keep saying they support Skhirat is because the December 2015 achievement is unlikely to be repeated. Libya is more polarized today than it was 20 months ago. In other words, the UN-backed framework provides a veneer of legitimacy that is very precious to states interested in influencing the Libya conflict.
Now, regarding the March 2018 elections: I am skeptical. If you look at how the ongoing civil war started in May 2014, much (not all) of its initial phase had to do with the June 25, 2014 parliamentary elections. Libya has been, since 2011, a country overwhelmed with an extraordinary abundance of weapons and armed actors. Concretely, this means that a political faction, whose showing is poor in an election, has the means of rejecting its outcome using force. That is one of Libya’s principal problems: armed groups.
This was true in June 2014, and it will likely be true in the spring of 2018. So, while successful elections are still possible, I believe there are also many scenarios where things could go awry. The morning after the elections, do you think unpopular armed groups will say, “Oh, okay, we will lay down our weapons now.” Of course not.
Another important aspect is how some actors exploit the notion that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in 2018 and everything will be resolved. This narrative is perfect for parties, whether international or Libyan, interested in evading any form of genuine dialogue with their political opponents. The period between now and the proposed elections is what worries me, especially knowing that no specific date has been set yet, and that the process in Bayda related to the constitutional draft has been anything but smooth.
Jalel Harchaoui, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geopolitics at Paris 8 University whose doctorate research focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict.