By Patrick Wintour
French president aims to bring factions together to prevent disruption to proposed ballot.
Emmanuel Macron is planning to stage an international summit on Libya next week to push for presidential elections in the country to be held this year, and to secure commitments from key Libyan political players that they will not to seek to disrupt the process.
Reports in Libya’s state media say Macron’s emissary has sent invitations to Gen Khalifa Haftar, the dominant military figure in the east of the country, Fayez al-Sarraj, the president of the UN-recognised government of national accord based in Tripoli, the president of the house of representatives, Aqila Saleh, and Khalid Al-Meshri, the chair of the state consultative council.
The aim, according to documents leaked in Egypt, is to bring the warring factions together to agree to reopen registration for the elections for a further 30 days, back a referendum on a new constitution before or after the presidential elections, unify the Libyan central bank, and to ensure that the parties recognise they will be subject to international sanctions if they seek to disrupt a UN-verified electoral process
The groups would also agree to hold a politically inclusive national conference either inside or outside Libya in a bid to foster reconciliation after what has been constant chaos since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011.
Formal invitations to Macron’s summit have not been sent out or confirmed by Paris, but foreign embassies have been made aware of the plan for a French mediation meeting set for 29 May.
A call for elections this year does not have universal support, with the former Libyan leader Mahmoud Jibril warning a premature move could lead to the country’s partition.
Jibril, who led the National Transitional Council during the uprising that toppled Gaddafi after more than four decades in power, said a UN-endorsed target of holding national polls by the end of the year was unrealistic. He told Reuters: “The country is still not ready. More unity is needed, more consensus is needed. To go for elections when the country is so divided – we are exposing the country to real partition.”
At the UN this week, Russia also urged caution, saying it was concerned elections without a constitution would mean there was no legal basis for the work of national authorities after the elections. “If the parties do not agree in advance on their modalities, then the entire system of state administration in Libya may be incapacitated,” it warned.
Macron brought together key political leaders last year in a move that was privately criticised by the Italians and British as an ad hoc initiative.
But France is understood to be so frustrated by the slow political progress that Macron would like to force an agreement on the terms for holding parliamentary and presidential elections this year.
The elections would be a test of whether the authoritarian Haftar has appeal that extends beyond Libya’s east. His often brutal anti-Islamist forces, backed by the UAE, are currently besieging the coastal town of Derna.
A group of young, technocratic Libyan businessmen are drawing up an economic recovery plan to swing into action if a political breakthrough is reached.
The French move comes as Italy, normally a dominant player in Libyan diplomacy, faces the distraction of forming a coalition government.
At a UN security council session this week the UN’s Libya special envoy, Ghassan Salamé, admitted he had been unable to forge agreement on a revised Libyan political accord. But he said elections should still go ahead.
Due to Russian objections, the UN was unable to press ahead with plans to impose UN sanctions on six Libyans believed to be involved in trafficking migrants.
The US ambassador, Nikki Haley, said evidence against the six people, who were not identified, was clear and “failing to move forward with the designations would be a travesty in the face of so much global outrage over these abuses”.
Salamé said Libya had to address the flow of trafficked people and goods through its borders as well as the issues of subsidies and “the severe mismatch between the official and black-market exchange rate”.
“These facets provide opportunities for those few who sit at the heart of Libya’s political stalemate, plundering the nation’s coffers, resisting any actions which might challenge their predatory economy,” Salamé said. “It is this perverse economic model which must be shattered if the political process is to meaningfully progress.”
Patrick Wintour – Diplomatic editor