By Sam Hamad
The Libya conference set up in Palermo Italy was a non-starter. It managed to achieve little more than showing that the European powers involved in Libya are a massive part of the rut that the country is stuck in.
The Palermo conference held by Italian prime minister Giueseppe Conte with the stated purpose of forging a new path for the unification of Libya’s various warring factions and a new timetable for elections was a complete diplomatic failure. In fact, was set up for failure.
It might be a mark of the plausibility of this entire endeavor that on the second day, the presence of some of the key players at the summit was still undetermined, while Trump and Putin barely acknowledged its existence, let alone attended it. Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay withdrew from the conference on the last day.
Khalifa Haftar—the warlord who controls much of the east of the country and who started this phase of the war when, backed by Sisi’s Egypt and the UAE, launched ‘Operation Dignity’ against the allegedly Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated General National Congress (GNC)—seems to have only turned up in Palermo to make a point of not formally attending the conference.
The warlord refuses to sit down with representatives of Qatar, who he claims fund his ‘Islamist’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ enemies.
Though one could write an entire book simply outlining the different actors involved in Libya’s low-level civil war, there are two main quasi-governmental forces vying for hegemony over the country:
(a) the House of Representatives (HoR), based in Tobruk and backed by Haftar’s ‘Libyan National Army’, and
(b) the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj and formed out of the UN Security Council-brokered Libyan Political Agreement.
In addition to this, there are the various remnants of the GNC, most recently known as the ‘National Salvation Government’ – these forces have mostly switched allegiance to the GNA, while their former allies have remained part of more extreme fighting forces.
Though counter-revolutionaries and conservatives in the West have decided to forsake a proper understanding of the dynamics within Libya to opt for absurd narratives of ‘NATO-backed jihadi chaos’ engulfing the country, the reality is that what we’re witnessing in Libya is not unusual after the fall of a 42-year-old tyranny.
The true complication, as ever, is geopolitics and not outside intervention per se, but intervention from forces that put their own narrow interests above those of the Libyan people.
And this is the true nature of the Palermo summit.
Earlier this year, President Macron of France blindsided Italy by holding a summit in Paris where the warring factions agreed ‘in principle’ to hold ‘credible and peaceful’ elections by December 10. But, as ever, all was not as it seemed.
Macron’s purpose was to ensure that Haftar, who only has the legitimacy of a well-funded warlord, was elevated to the same level or above the UN-backed GNA. Though the GNA would have to agree ‘in principle’ to elections, it could not recognise Haftar as long as he continues to make a point of not recognising and waging war against the GNA.
Palermo should thus firstly be seen as Italy’s attempt, in a throwback to the days where European powers would squabble over colonies (and the dark irony of France and Italy, two forces with genocidal imperialist histories in North Africa, vying for diplomatic power over Libya will not be lost on Libyans), to wrestle back the status of the main European power broker from France.
Whether the different powers agree to hold an election—even with a more realistic timetable of 2019 and not December as previously agreed to—or whether they agree to meet yet again, little will change on the ground as long as Khalifa Haftar is given power above and beyond the GNA.
France under Macron has done more than any other European power to aid Haftar in his counter-revolutionary crusade, providing him with military advisers and weaponry.
In Haftar, France sees a cheap and easy ally against the diminished but ever-present threat of the Islamic State (Daesh) in Libya, while it also finds a willing ally in its pursuit of the ruthless ‘Fortress Europe’ anti-immigration and anti-refugee policy.
Macron’s administration has through their support for Haftar seemingly fully taken up the cause of the Saudi and UAE’s counter-revolutionary drive to rid the region of democratic Islamism, as epitomised by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Europe’s ulterior motives undermines the process
In much of the analysis of the events leading up to the Palermo summit, one thing scarcely noted is the GNA’s refusal to accept Europe’s plan to create ‘assessment camps’ for refugees and migrants in Libya, something heavily pushed for by the so-called progressive Macron.
This policy is part of Europe’s desire to further utilise regional tyrannies to police the walls of Fortress Europe, but with the GNA unwilling to allow these camps to be set up in Libya, France has doubled down on its support for Haftar, who would be more compliant to Europe’s anti-migrant proclivities, much like his senior ally Sisi.
The pressure for Libya to accept the European plan for these quasi-concentration camps for migrants has been echoed by Italy’s neo-fascist linked interior minister Matteo Salvini.
Again, we see how Europe’s attempts to foster ‘reconciliation’ are heavily conditioned and thus effectively undermined by their own narrow self-interest.
The tragedy in Libya is precisely not that the revolution failed. The revolution, inasmuch as Gaddafi and his tyrannical Jamahiriya were overthrown, was successful.
The tragedy in Libya is that what stunts its progress is a combination of the ‘organic’ instability that inevitably follows any revolution, along with the exacerbation of this instability by wider counter-revolutionary forces like the UAE, Saudi and Sisi’s Egypt, as well as their European allies who can only see Libya through the narrow and contradictory lens of anti-migrant politics and intra-European neo-colonialist squabbling.
Instead of pleading with the warlord Haftar to join the table, European powers would be better suited in bolstering the GNA and dislodging Haftar and the politics of sabotage, counter-revolution and tyranny that he represents.
Haftar’s power lies in his military strength – if there was such a thing as an honest broker for Libyan reconciliation in Europe, they would attempt to undermine Haftar’s military strength.
Providing resources for the various GNA-affiliated militias to centralise as a potential national army is one way to do that, while placing an arms embargo on Haftar’s forces – but so far, the opposite is happening, with much of Haftar’s weaponry coming through Europe.
Unification between Tripoli and Tobruk is a necessity, but Haftar is a law unto himself and even though his forces are loyal to the HoR, it’s clear his autocratic attitudes are stopping even the pragmatists in the east from working towards meaningful and lasting reconciliation.
This can be most acutely glimpsed by the appraisal given by Ghassan Salame, the UN Special Envoy to Libya, of Haftar’s allies in the HoR as ‘wanting elections to be resisted at all costs’.
Palermo was a particularly vague and haphazard epitome of Europe’s success in only making matters worse in Libya.
Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer based in Edinburgh.