By Dr. Mustafa Fetouri
The Palermo conference on Libya went ahead as scheduled — 12/13 November — with all of the local protagonists present, along with many regional and international players.
Italy finally had its show, just like the French did in Paris in May, and everybody is happy; or are they?
A MEMO article, on 8 November, predicted that Palermo will neither produce any tangible results that would alleviate the misery of ordinary Libyans, nor bring peace and stability among the factions.
The gathering failed to deliver any breakthrough in terms of practical steps to tackle the conflict in Libya other than the usual handshakes between different Libyan parties represented there. It reaffirmed the commitment of the participants to support the UN plan for the country which is yet to bear fruit.
From the start, the meeting was overshadowed by speculation about the presence of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and whether he would attend or not. A lot of Italian political manoeuvring went on to ensure his participation given his crucial role, particularly in eastern Libya.
Until the last minute it was not clear if Haftar would attend personally or send his senior political advisor, Fadel Al-Deeb. However, the senior officer duly appeared at the opening reception hosted by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Of course, Haftar could not have stayed away as that would have made it look as if he does not support peace efforts and a political settlement in Libya. Italy also knew that without him, the political show it wanted to stage would be far less glamorous.
Sources behind the scenes spoke of Haftar’s anger that both Qatar and Turkey were invited. He accuses both countries of supporting his arch rivals, including Daesh, Al-Qaeda and the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier this year he defeated the first two and went on to effectively ban the Brotherhood in eastern Libya where he is in full control.
Regionally, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, were both present, as was Algeria’s Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia; Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay also took part.
From further afield, Russia’s Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev was there as well as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini.
Under pressure from Russia and Egypt, Haftar showed up briefly because he rejected the presence of Khaled Al-Mashri, the head of Libya’s State Council in western Libya. Al-Mashri is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood hated by the Field Marshal.
Although Turkey and Qatar attended the opening session on 12 November, they were excluded from the most important meeting on the following day which discussed Libya’s security within the Mediterranean region.
This prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to order Oktay to walk out. Before leaving, Vice President Oktay warned that any meeting on security that excludes Turkey “would prove to be counterproductive for the solution” of Libya’s problems.
Neither Qatar nor Turkey liked the fact that Haftar was present, although the Italians behind the conference believed, apparently, that security matters only concern major international powers plus Libya’s immediate Mediterranean neighbours.
This could have serious consequences for Libya, since Doha and Ankara still have loyal armed militias in western Libya capable of upsetting any security arrangements that they do not like.
In fact, immediately after Palermo there were brief skirmishes south of Tripoli between rival militias. Commentators attributed them to Turkey’s exclusion from the conference’s most important session.
While the final statement issued out of Palermo stressed a political solution and endorsed the roadmap put forward by the UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame, it also reiterated what was agreed in the Paris meeting in May apart from delaying elections to spring 2019 instead of next month.
The presence of Foreign Minister Le Drian could be interpreted as Italy saying that its competition with France over the lead role in the Libyan political process is over, and that both countries will accommodate each other.
No new ideas were agreed in Palermo but it was agreed implicitly that the political and military status quo in Libya will be maintained until election time.
To this end, sources revealed that Khalifa Haftar said jokingly to Fayez Al-Sarraj, “There is no point in changing the horse while crossing the river.” This implies that he will not challenge Al-Sarraj as de facto Prime Minister until the election campaign.
The Palermo conference received the blessing of the US in a long statement issued by the State Department. Washington again expressed its support for Salame’s roadmap, thanked Italy for organising the meeting and expressed the need for a political settlement in Libya.
It is notable that the Governor of the Central Bank of Libya, Saddek El-Kaber, and the head of the National Oil Corporation, Mustafa Sanallah, also took part in fringe meetings intended to discuss economic issues. However, according to sources close to the meeting attended by Sanallah, it lacked a “clear agenda and goal and no particular issue was discussed.”
In Libya itself, Palermo received lots of negative media coverage; local commentators did not see any benefit for the country coming out of such gatherings. TV talk shows and social media focused on the fact that meetings held outside Libya fuel the conflict because they are another way of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
Libyans in general are very sensitive about foreigners meddling in their affairs and blame them for fuelling disputes between local factions.
In the end, Italy had its political show and regional and international worthies had their time in the spotlight, as happened in France in May, but has Libya gained anything from Palermo?
The reality is that nobody is likely to ask such a question.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He is a recipient of the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize.