By Tarek El-Tablawy
A French-led effort to reunify fractured Libya failed to consult powerful local forces and risks achieving little beyond boosting the legitimacy of a renegade general who has recently racked up significant battlefield gains.
On paper, the step taken by Libya’s rival leaders on Tuesday — guided by French President Emmanuel Macron and a United Nations envoy — was their boldest yet toward resolving Libya’s six-year crisis. After talks at a country mansion outside Paris, UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and eastern military strongman Khalifa Haftar agreed to — but didn’t sign — a text calling for a ceasefire, combining the North African crude producer’s divided state oil company and holding elections “as soon as possible.”
Yet the accord will struggle to survive the transition from French chateau to Libya’s fiercely contested politics, according to analysts including Riccardo Fabiani at Eurasia Group.
“All we have is a very good photo op, which Macron and Haftar exploited very well,” said Fabiani, senior analyst for the Middle East and North Africa. The agreement accorded Haftar a “veneer of respect” on the international arena — a major achievement for a leader whose authority has so far been backed largely by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President — and former military chief — Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. It was, though, reached without input from regional officials, or myriad militias and political parties whose cooperation will be needed to make it stick, he said.
As it unfolded just across the Mediterranean Sea, Libya’s descent into chaos since the uprising that toppled Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 fueled the two most severe cross-border challenges facing many European leaders — the flow of poor migrants desperate to build better lives and the opportunist movement of Islamic State extremists. Macron’s initiative comes after abortive attempts by Italy, the former colonizing power, to forge a peace.
While a UN-mediated peace deal was meant to unite Libya, Serraj has struggled to expand his influence outside the capital since arriving in Tripoli in March 2016. Haftar’s Libyan National Army controls large parts of the country from its base in the east, this month capturing the key city of Benghazi after years of fighting with Islamist militias and earlier Islamic State jihadists.
“There is a political legitimacy that’s in the hands of Prime Minister Al-Serraj and a military legitimacy that’s held by General Haftar,” Macron said as the deal was announced. “They have decided to work together on a political process, on a security process, and for a unified economy that will benefit the Libyan people.”
In an interview broadcast late Wednesday on France 24 television, Haftar said Libya’s people were the source of his authority, adding that he was “fully convinced” the French talks would open new avenues as long as parties followed “through on their commitments.”
Serraj and Haftar met in Abu Dhabi in May for the first time since early last year. Initially hailed as a breakthrough, analysts said later the meeting was fruitless. Each side issued its own communique after the meeting, and battlefield developments in the south of Libya soon eroded any goodwill.
With his military dominance now cemented, Haftar appears to have gone further in the talks at the Chateau de la Celle than he did in Abu Dhabi in a search for political recognition from European countries, according to an aide to Macron.
Even so, it’s unlikely to “breach the political stalemate” that has endured in Libya for years, said Oded Berkowitz, senior analyst for the Middle East and North Africa with geopolitical risk consultancy Max Security in Israel. Haftar controls the main oil fields and ports, and his prominence now shows there’s international recognition that Haftar “has to be involved in any political settlement,” he said. He’s now a “force to be reckoned with.”
French officials said the goal of Tuesday’s meeting was to define general guidelines that would help the UN’s Special Representative to Libya, Ghassan Salame, reach an agreement leading to elections next year. Macron saluted earlier efforts of countries such as Italy, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and the U.A.E. to seek a solution and said they’d all been involved in the preparations for the talks in France.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, in an interview with the newspaper La Stampa published on Tuesday, had voiced his country’s irritation at Macron’s initiative. Italy sees former colony Libya as part of its sphere of influence.
Both European nations have been actively seeking a unified Libya, where disorder has led to weapons flowing to Islamic militants in former French colonies in West Africa, such as Mali and Chad, and has aided human traffickers using Libyan beaches to ship migrants toward Italian shores.
“The Libyan people need this peace, and the Mediterranean deserves this peace,” Macron said. “We are directly affected.”
In his own interview with France 24, Serraj said it was too early for him to decide whether or not to contest any election held under the plan. But while acknowledging there was much to do, he stressed real achievements. Haftar had agreed a ballot was the only way to solve the crisis and that the military must fall “under a civilian executive authority,” he said.
“The ball is in Haftar’s court,” according to Berkowitz, who added that the military leader stood to gain the most from the declaration in France.
— With assistance by Salma El Wardany, Ahmed Feteha, and Gregory Viscusi
Tarek El-Tablawy – Bloomberg North Africa Bureau Chief.