The Palermo Summit and the Case for Optimism
Pity Libyans for the pageantry of their international summits. Over the years, at palaces, resorts, and hotels across several continents, the country’s factional leaders have met, shepherded by earnest-looking Western ministers and heads of state.
Action plans are laid out and deadlines set. The participants emerge with verbal promises of consensus, a photo op, sometimes even a hug. Meanwhile, back in Libya citizens languish under warring militias, economic misery, and aloof elites. Invariably, after each summit, vows pronounced in remote locales disintegrate on contact with these more proximate realities.
On November 12–13, Italy’s populist government played host to the latest such event, this time in the city of Palermo, Sicily. The meeting occurred in the shadow of intense Italian rivalry with France over Libya.
Last May, at a largely unilateral summit in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron had obtained from four Libyan leaders a verbal commitment to hold general elections by December of this year—a deadline that the UN quietly shelved earlier this month as untenable. Palermo was meant as Italian revenge.
By forging a new local and international consensus on Libya, a successful summit would have bolstered Italy’s claim to being the most relevant and credible Western power broker in the embattled North African country.
This is not what happened, as no clear message emerged from Palermo.
The Libyan participants—most crucially Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who heads the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli; and his rival, the military leader Field Marshal Khalifa Hafar, who rules the so-called Tobruk government in the country’s east—emerged with yet another UN-backed pledge to hold an election, now slated to take place by June 2019.
Libyan delegates held side working groups on security and the economy. But beyond this, the summit produced no breakthrough agreement.
What Palermo did produce was a somewhat abstract roadmap to guide Libya toward free and fair elections.
Yet even if elections are successful, they won’t suffice to produce unity or lasting stability—it remains an open question, for instance, how the outcome can be peacefully enforced across a country split between rival governments.
The UN seems to be counting on an ambitious National Conference in January, which will include representatives from Libya’s opposing factions as well as mayors, tribal leaders, civil society, and ordinary citizens, to resolve all these issues.
But although the conference may indeed help, it could also engender further controversies and delay elections once again. And the unification of Libya’s economic and security institutions, currently divided between east and west, will require painstaking and difficult work.
Despite these obstacles, however, there have been encouraging developments in Libya over the past few months. These include progress reining in Tripoli’s militias, economic reforms by the GNA, and a weakening of Haftar’s national position.
Taken together, these developments offer, for the first time in years, reason for guarded optimism about Libya’s future. The international community must capitalize on this momentum while mitigating a number of looming risks.
POSITIVE CHANGES IN LIBYA
The Palermo conference took place under the lingering shadow of intense militia fighting in Tripoli, which left 115 dead over the summer. The clashes were predictable.
A clique of Tripoli militias had captured state institutions and economic resources, using their association with the GNA to secure fraudulent letters of credit from the Central Bank. This allowed them to swap Libyan dinars for dollars at the official exchange rate and then sell the dollars on the black market, while also exploiting the shortage of banknotes for profit.
In August, militias based in the capital’s periphery, which felt left out of the scam, used violence to disrupt the status quo. The clashes this summer were only the latest example of a pattern that has recurred since the fall of Tripoli to anti-Qaddafi rebels in 2011: militias compete for the capital’s assets, including airports, banks, ports, and fuel-smuggling networks.
This produces winners and losers in Tripoli and in two powerful neighboring towns, Zintan and Misrata. From time to time, the losers in this struggle launch attacks to shift the balance of power.
In late September, a UN-brokered ceasefire halted the latest round of fighting by getting the main armed actors in the greater Tripoli area to agree to new security arrangements, overseen by a “joint operations center” meant to protect citizens and property and pave the way for the replacement of militias with regular police.
(The model is meant to be replicated in other Libyan cities but faces enormous hurdles—previous militia “coordination” mechanisms have ended up entrenching militia power.)
To help implement these arrangements, the GNA appointed a new interior minister, the Misratan businessman Fathi Bashagha.
Despite supporting a Misratan attack on Tripoli in 2014 known as the Libyan Dawn, Bashagha has a reputation for pragmatism and efficiency.
He is also a known quantity to Western governments, especially on military and counterterrorism matters: he interfaced with Western ground advisors during the 2011 revolution and again in 2016, during the Misratan-led campaign against the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Sirte.
He has also proven more amenable than other Misratan elites to compromise with eastern Libya and its foreign backers, such as Egypt, whose officials he held peace talks with in July 2017.
Bashagha alone cannot guarantee lasting peace in Tripoli, but there have been some positive signs since the start of his tenure. Breaking with typical cronyist practice, he has made his new security appointments without favor to his fellow Misratans.
He has also set up a human rights section in the Interior Ministry; called for the withdrawal of heavy weapons outside Tripoli; and emphasized the need for vetting and training regular police forces while disbanding militias.
The persistence of entrenched militia interests in the capital—all too apparent from the fighting in mid-November—could quash the best of his aspirations, but at least Western countries now have a credible partner in training and assisting Libya’s police.
The GNA has also made some headway on economic reforms, which, had they been implemented earlier, could have staved off the fighting in Tripoli.
Under UN pressure, the GNA and the Central Bank governor have agreed on exchange rate reform (to include a 183 percent fee on dinar-to-dollar conversion), greater access to hard currency for citizens, and some small reductions in fuel subsidies.
These actions have slightly curtailed the militias’ ability to steal from the public treasury, especially by means of fraudulent letters of credit.
More important, such measures are alleviating humanitarian suffering: the price of commodities has gone down as the dinar has strengthened against the dollar.
By making the dinar officially cheaper and by ensuring a larger supply of dollars at that new rate, the GNA effectively caused the dinar to appreciate in the black market.
Still, many additional measures must be taken, including a full-blown devaluation of the dinar; an independent audit of both the Central Bank in Tripoli and its challenger in Bayda; a tangible plan to depoliticize and unify Libya’s financial institutions; and a decentralization of the latter to allow an equitable distribution of Libya’s oil wealth to municipalities.
The UN must also help Libya transition to an electronic banking system.
The political and economic progress in the west raises another of Libya’s perennial questions: that of Haftar and his aspirations for national power.
By changing his mind about attending Palermo several times over, Haftar managed to cast himself as an indispensable powerbroker, if not a savior of his country. Yet the limits of his military and political influence have come increasingly into view as conditions on the ground have changed.
For years, Haftar waged military campaigns against Islamist militants in the east—in Benghazi from 2014 to 2017 and then in Derna earlier this autumn. But these campaigns have come to an end, leaving Haftar without a new “battle” to fortify his identity as a security figure and unify the increasingly fractious coalition of tribes, towns, economic interests and Salafists that back him.
Over the summer, Haftar recaptured central Libya’s oil facilities from the militia leader Ibrahim Jadhran, then blocked exports from the internationally recognized National Oil Company while demanding the ability to sell directly to the international market from his base in the east.
He quickly gave in after Washington expressed its disapproval. More recently, he has positioned himself as fighting the growing anarchy in southwestern Libya, but this remains a logistically and militarily difficult task.
All in all, the events of the past half-year have steadily eroded any notion that Haftar is the only leader strong enough to unify the country. At Palermo, the septuagenarian general seemed to recognize this when he expressed his interest in seeing Serraj staying in his post until elections.
Indeed, if the GNA is revamped into a slimmed-down transitional government with a brand-new prime minister at its helm— and manages to be more functional and less corrupt—Haftar could lose his last hope of becoming a national leader.
Paradoxically, a rush into early elections next year, before the groundwork for success has been fully laid, may be the military commander’s best chance for realizing his national ambitions.
BUILDING ON PALERMO
Despite periodic clashes and a deepening de facto partition of Libya, the above developments reveal a country that has become more stable and more difficult for spoilers to disrupt.
In order to take advantage of this fragile trend and help promote lasting peace in Libya, the various foreign powers with sway in the country must display collective pragmatism now, before the situation deteriorates.
Unfortunately, many countries at Palermo seemed uninterested in such a course and remained wedded to their preferred Libyan faction’s exclusivist instincts. This has allowed these rival Libyan actors to carry on seeking maximal victory without fear of being constrained by their external backers.
Put differently, part of the divisiveness fueling the Libyan conflict has roots abroad. The historical rivalry between Paris and Rome over Libya—France has supported Haftar while Italy has backed the GNA—has recently been amplified by the liberal-vs.-populist chasm within the EU, which pits Macron against the right-wing government in Italy.
Even more consequential is the bitter rift between the pro-GNA coalition of Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which support Haftar, on the other (although the UAE has increasingly engaged pro-GNA figures in Tripoli).
These exogenous dynamics added noise to the summit and deflected attention from broader structural problems that still remain in Libya, among them the question of how to hold free and fair national elections in which neither candidates nor voters feel at risk.
The announcement at Palermo that general elections should take place by June 2019 implied that the French plan from May was still in progress, just with a few months’ delay. Yet Paris’ push for rapid elections met resistance from the first, and the obstacles remain.
Namely, eastern Libyan factions remain determined to manipulate any attempt to adopt a constitution ahead of national elections. The only opportunity to resolve this impasse is at the UN’s National Conference early next year.
Meanwhile, there is still a risk that the violence that engulfed Tripoli in the final weeks of summer could resume. The UN, France, and Italy consulted several armed-group leaders during the lead up to the Palermo event but did not bring the most polarized adversaries together around one table.
On the day after the peace conference, two militias behind much of the violence in August took the international airport in southern Tripoli by force. The incident was a reminder that the leaders of armed groups, who wield far more power on the ground than political elites, must be part of the negotiating process, without sacrificing accountability and justice.
There have been some positive international efforts to rebuild Libya’s military and security establishments. In recent weeks, Italy and several other states offered security-forces training programs to Tripoli authorities. But in order for these programs to succeed, Libyans must reach a political consensus about the ultimate structure of the country’s security sector and the steps that will be necessary to build it.
Outside assistance should focus on broader structural reforms, not just on training soldiers and small units. Last year, Egypt launched a top-down attempt to reunify Libya’s scattered military structures by mediating an entente between Haftar’s mostly eastern-based coalition and other groups led by professional army officers, some of them aligned with the GNA.
The effort stalled in the spring, and when Cairo tried to revive it in October, some western-based officers objected on the basis of Egypt’s partiality toward Haftar. The UN could inject more neutrality—and thus momentum—into this project by taking an active role in it.
AN OPENING FOR THE UNITED STATES
The Palermo summit certainly was not the smooth success that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had in mind. Yet the recommendations it produced are not doomed to fail.
For the first time since 2011, progress is being made along three parallel and mutually reinforcing tracks: economic, security, and political. To that end, the UN mission, whose formal mandate has been mainly political, is more actively guiding Libya’s economic reform and is especially present in the security realm.
More overtly than before, it is seeking to isolate rejectionist armed actors—most notably the Misratan militia chief Salah Badi, who was the target of recent UN sanctions—while engaging with more moderate and pragmatic groups.
As the UN takes on this new, ambitious role of security architect, member states must help it succeed while ceasing their own unilateral outreach to armed groups.
Because European and Middle Eastern rivalries carry on fueling the Libyan crisis, the United States should also consider playing a more assertive role.
Realistically, Washington is the only actor capable of deterring external interference. The firm, public engagement of a cabinet-level official, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, could go a long way toward forging a regional consensus, particularly between Egypt, the Gulf states, and Turkey.
The Pentagon in particular can make a difference, by taking on a greater role in talks on Libyan army unification and in offering assistance, especially in ministerial-level reform and training, once a political compact is reached.
Engagement in Libya would serve a major U.S. foreign policy objective: fostering lasting political unity in Libya would go a long way toward preventing the resurgence of ISIS.
Although ousted from its Libyan territorial bases in 2016 and 2017, the group has conducted more than a dozen attacks in Libya this year, some against institutions vital for the country’s recovery, such as the state oil company and electoral commission.
And ISIS also appears to be regrouping and pooling its fighters—estimated at between 400 and 750, according to the United States Africa Command—into more capable cells.
Air strikes and assistance to Libyan counterterrorism forces (in effect, friendly Libyan militias) can help, but they are not enough. The most lasting and durable way to deny ISIS space in Libya is to build inclusive Libyan state institutions, bolster the economy, and, above all, end the country’s endemic political divide.
FREDERIC WEHREY is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018).
JALEL HARCHAOUI lectures in Geopolitics at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France.