By Karim Mezran and Elissa Miller
For years, many actors have tried to mediate peace efforts for the Libyan crisis, but instead of an end to hostilities, conflicts remain.
Window for Paris
The most significant development in the mediation process came in July 2017 when French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Al-Sarraj and Haftar in Paris for direct talks. Nothing new was accomplished at the talks.
Al-Sarraj and Haftar both formally agreed to a joint declaration that emphasized a political solution but which did not specify a clear political path out of the conflict. Rather, the negotiations appeared to first, garner Haftar further legitimization on the international stage, and second, boost France’s role with regards to international deliberations on Libya.
The meeting occurred at a critical time for Haftar, namely following his victory over whom he called “terrorists” in the eastern city of Benghazi after waging a three-year battle. The end of fighting in Benghazi was important for Haftar because from his perspective, the victory asserted the strength of his Libyan National Army and reinforced his image as Libya’s savior.
Moreover, Haftar now had the opportunity to turn his attention to his self-proclaimed mission to militarily take control of Libya from the scourge of extremists and institute stability.
Haftar, therefore, was in a strong position when he attended the Paris summit. His confidence in this fact was clearly demonstrated afterwards, when he immediately snubbed Al-Sarraj as weak and alleged that members of the PC were connected to terrorist organizations.
Moreover, the widespread Western media attention that Haftar received during and after the summit was a clear indicator of his success in gaining considerable standing as a legitimate player in the Libyan conflict and in emerging from the talks as a winner.
Some praised Haftar for expressing the willingness to participate in future elections in Libya and to engage in a peaceful political process, but his past behavior suggests that such rhetoric was a hollow panacea to a plan he had no intention to follow.
France’s motivations for hosting the meeting cannot be overlooked. For years, France has sought to safeguard its interests in Libya, particularly its influence in the south. Paris has therefore not hesitated to lend support to various sides of the Libyan conflict and appears to have laid its bets on Haftar.
The July summit in effect elevated Paris as the key European player in Libya and sidestepped Rome, which historically has been the major European actor in Libya and was not notified about the summit prior to its occurrence.
Italy has since 2014 made some efforts to jumpstart negotiations in Libya by hosting more specific, ad hoc meetings of tribal elders and local municipal authorities to create a more locally based network to better support the UN-led negotiations. However, the migration crisis that has pulled Rome’s attention toward the immediate impact of Libyan instability on its own shores created a window for Paris.
“Too many cooks spoil the broth”
The plethora of mediation efforts led by various regional and international actors has overall hindered legitimate progress toward a negotiated solution for Libya.
On the face of it, Libya’s neighbors and international stakeholders rhetorically support the UN process and the LPA (although there exists a general consensus that the LPA must be amended). Yet these actors have simultaneously pursued their own interests in Libya and to varying degrees hijacked the negotiation process.
The UN Support Mission to Libya has candidly acknowledged the threat that these multiple-negotiation tracks pose to the UN process in Libya. As Special Envoy and current head of UNSMIL, Ghassan Salamé of Lebanon, said in September 2017 following Paris’s efforts, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
The UN mission cannot credibly work with Libyans to find a solution to the conflict while its nominal supporters engage in actions that ultimately undercut its efforts. Indeed, Macron and others purport to support UNSMIL but their maneuvers weaken UN authority.
It also strengthens Haftar’s position, as Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Paris appear to have aligned themselves with the strongman. This is probably why the UN has not been able to seize ownership over the process or change the current course.
Upon taking up his post in mid-2017, Salamé made clear that he would work to bring international and regional stakeholders in Libya under the authority of the UN umbrella. He warned of ad hoc mediation initiatives that muddy the waters.
To that end, Salamé held a number of meetings with Western and regional foreign ministers, as well as local Libya stakeholders, throughout the summer of 2017. These efforts culminated in the announcement of a new UN Action Plan for Libya at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
The UN plan aims to establish a clearly sequenced transition process to resolve Libya’s political crisis and build the confidence of Libyans in governing institutions.
The first stage of the plan involves convening Libya’s key political actors—one delegation from the HoR and one from the High State Council—to amend the LPA. The amendments will most probably consist of reducing the number of members of the PC from nine to three, abolishing controversial Article 8 (which stipulates that the military will be under civilian oversight by the PC), and a few other minor changes.
The second stage envisions a highly inclusive National Conference sponsored by the UN Secretary General, which will provide an opportunity for marginalized groups or those that have been reluctant to join the political process to participate in the transition.
The National Conference will also bring together key bodies already engaged in the political process, including the HoR and the High State Council.
Following the conference, the HoR and the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) will work together to review and refine—based on recommendations from the conference—a draft constitution issued by the CDA in July 2017 that has come under some criticism because it was not inclusive enough and did not address the issue of decentralization.
In parallel, the High National Elections Committee will prepare for an upcoming constitutional referendum and legislative and presidential elections, and dialogues will be organized with armed groups in order to reintegrate them into the political process and civil life.
A key component of this effort will be a focus on national reconciliation, which is sorely needed in Libya. These steps will all pave the way for the constitutional referendum and national elections, which will complete the UN’s vision for a successful transition.
Salamé’s plan, while ambitious, lays out a useful, step-by-step process for a resolution to Libya’s political crisis. Yet several major challenges remain that could derail these efforts. First, Salamé’s plan could threaten the interests of both Al-Sarraj and Haftar.
Under the plan, Al-Sarraj would lose his authority as head of the PC/GNA sooner if immediate amendments are made to the LPA than he would if such amendments were pushed further down and elections took place first.
Haftar would also appear to prefer that elections occur sooner rather than later; he may seek to boost his legitimacy by participating in elections. However, reforms to the LPA and the establishment of a new constitution would likely place unwelcome restrictions on his authority.
Finally, it remains unclear whether Salamé has succeeded in bringing regional and international parties engaged in Libya under the UN umbrella. If actors such as Egypt, the UAE, or France perceive a Libya under Haftar’s control as the scenario that best fits their interests, Salamé may face severely limited prospects for success.
He will likely face an uphill battle in keeping the new UN transition plan on track and ensuring that both Libyan and international stakeholders engage in the process in good faith.
While Salamé is attempting to reassert UN leadership over the process, these efforts will be unsuccessful if they cannot garner confidence among Libya’s rivals and neutralize spoilers and external players.
Indeed, even as Salamé attempts to build a consensus for his transition plan, Haftar continues to pursue his own interests away from the negotiation table.
Just weeks after the announcement of the new UN action plan, while Salamé was convening delegations from the HoR and High State Council to jumpstart negotiations, Haftar continued his tour of Europe by meeting with the Italian Ministers of Defense and Interior, Roberta Pinotti and Marco Minniti, respectively.
Through his strategy of garnering international recognition as a key player in Libya, Haftar is ensuring that he will be a thorn in the side of any UN plan the strongman views as damaging to his interests.
Meanwhile, amid flares of intense fighting among GNA and Libyan National Army-aligned groups in key cities such as Sabratha in October 2017, Haftar could easily find casus belli to denounce the negotiation process and take decisive military action against the GNA.
This fact demonstrates what has been a key challenge for negotiations since 2014: Libya’s actors will not sit back as negotiations take place. Mediation, rather, provides a useful cover for spoilers to expand their authority while superficially supporting efforts aimed at peace.
Top Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron and Libyan leaders in front of La Celle-Saint-Cloud castle, France, July 25, 2017. Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He is also an adjunct professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Previously, he was director of the Center for American Studies in Rome. His recent publications include “Libya: Negotiations for Transition” in Arab Spring: Negotiating in the Shadow of the Intifadat; “Libya” in Political and Constitutional Transitions in North Africa: Actors and Factors; and “Libya in Transition: from Jamahiriya to Jumhuriyyah?” in The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World.
Elissa Miller is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She previously served as an assistant director in the Hariri Center (2015–17). Prior to that, she served as a project assistant at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.