By Nola Valente
French President Emmanuel Macron, flanked by French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian (second right) and UN Special Envoy for Libya, Lebanese Ghassan Salame (left) speaks during an International conference on Libya in Paris, last May. (Etienne Laurent/AFP/Getty Images)
Analysts, however, are skeptical about France’s ability to mediate between rivals contending for ultimate power in Libya
French President Emmanuel Macron recently signaled a shift in his country’s policy toward Libya. Last week, he directed his Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to hold meetings with the main political rivals in the war-torn country to ensure they are taking steps to hold elections before the end of the year, a deadline that was apparently decided upon in Paris earlier this year.
The French initiative is not necessarily aligned with the U.N. Action Plan for Libya, which aims to reinvigorate the country’s poorly performing government. It is instead a bilateral strategy, working in tandem with the U.N. plan that sets timelines for Libya to create stable governance.
Toward that end, Macron intervened shortly after his election in July of last year when he invited the country’s two main political contenders to Paris for meetings. One was the internationally recognized prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, and the other, Khalifa Haftar, a military strongman whose forces control large tracts of land in the eastern part of the country.
Macron continued holding meetings with high-ranking Libyan officials in May of the following year. He hosted Aghela Saleh, speaker of Libya’s House of Representatives, located in the city of Tobruk; and Khaled Mishri, the recently elected head of the High State of Council, a Tripoli-based chamber that plays an advisory role to government officials under the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement.
The initiative comes as out of many failed attempts to stabilize a country that has been reeling since the 2011 ouster of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. His fall from power was the result of a democratic uprising that spread throughout the country and spilled over into neighboring Egypt and beyond, igniting what is now commonly understood as the Arab Spring. The loosely related protests across the Middle East and North Africa targeted autocratic regimes.
Since Gaddafi fell from power, four governments ruling separate regions have kept Libya in a state of tension and civil war.
Tim Eaton, a Libya expert at London’s Chatham House, told The Media Line that Macron’s initiative has thus far rendered little as no agreement between the contending parties was signed during the May meeting in Paris. “Some of the reporting on this meeting has been quite misleading,” Eaton said.
Since the meeting, Libyans have effectively distanced themselves from the timeline set by the French, Eaton explained, adding that Foreign Minister Le Drian’s visit to the country appears to be an attempt to make good on agreements the French apparently thought were binding in Paris.
Rhiannon Smith, managing director of Libya Analysis, a U.S.-registered consultancy, told The Media Line that the Libyans agreed in theory to the French initiative. “But the key issue in the whole Paris process, and also part of the UN process before, is agreeing to big, lofty principles of holding elections with absolutely no framework for actually implementing them,” Smith said.
She concluded that the difficulties in Libya also stem from divisions within the international community, particularly among France and Italy, which now have different stances on Libya and have relations with different political actors.
Smith added that France maintains close relations with Haftar in the east. And the French push for elections seems to be benefiting him. Whereas Italy—governed by a recently elected far-right government—is much closer to the Government of National Accord in Tripoli and other political entities in the area.
A spokesperson for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told The Media Line that in fact, Italy, the U.S., Great Britain and Germany were consulted prior to the Paris meeting, and had representatives present.
“All efforts of the international community are going in the same direction. The commitments decided by the Libyan parties and France and the U.N. only facilitated this meeting because the four leaders have difficulty communicating due to their opposing views,” the spokesperson said.
In addition to European nations, Macron invited political leaders from countries such as Qatar, UAE and Turkey to the Paris summit.
Terek Megresi, a Libyan political analyst at the ECFR, explained to The Media Line that Libya has become an arena for regional states that are competing for their own interests.
“Qatar played a big role in the resolution itself in 2011 by helping with armed transfers and providing funds to rebel groups, but they now have their own domestic problems to deal with,” Megresi said. “The UAE and Egypt have a similar vision for Libya’s future and support Haftar. Algeria maintains a heavily militarized border with Libya, which is very costly exercise for them, so they want to see stability in the country.”
Megresi explained that while Turkey is not directly involved, it has become a refuge for those who have been persecuted or are afraid to operate in their country.
Lastly, he noted that the U.S. has withdrawn from Libya, but has recently played a role in organizing a series of negotiations between the banks in the country and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to map out concrete steps toward resolving the country’s financial problems.
Given the possibility of elections this year, Smith said that Haftar is trying to consolidate his military power. There have also been reported hostilities and tensions among militias operating inside and outside of Tripoli.
“Everyone is kind of panicking because no one knows how elections will happen, who will run them, or what power those elected will have, so this early push to elections is having a detrimental effect on Libyan political stability.”
“Some citizens are really fed up and want to see any sort of progress and therefore support the French initiative because it is pushing for elections,” Megresi said. “Others are wary that the French are throwing their support behind Haftar. They see this whole election campaign as a rouse to bring him to Tripoli and into a position of power.”
Eaton worries that the French have miscalculated their move. “There should be agreement among the international actors over this approach, otherwise, it’s going to be very difficult to see how this could end in any way that is constructive to kicking Libya out of this damaging state.”
Nola Z. Valente is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.