Paris, France, May 29 – Four Libyan leaders agreed Tuesday to hold elections on December 10 after a peace conference in Paris aimed at unifying the war-torn north African country.
The four men, who represent most but not all of Libya’s rival factions, also agreed to “accept the results of elections, and ensure appropriate funds and strong security arrangements are in place”.
The commitment to holding parliamentary and presidential polls this year came after four hours of talks in Paris where the leaders faced pressure to agree on a political roadmap to end seven years of conflict.
European leaders see stabilising Libya as key to tackling jihadist threats and migration from the fractured country, which has become a departure point for hundreds of thousands of Africans trying to reach Europe.
“I’m optimistic,” UN envoy Ghassan Salame told AFP at the end of the talks which he called “historic” because they had brought together the main Libyan protagonists as well as regional countries for the first time.
The Libyan invitees were Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, and 75-year-old military strongman Khalifa Haftar, whose rival Libyan National Army dominates the country’s east.
Also present were Aguila Saleh Issa, the parliament speaker based in the eastern city of Tobruk, and Khalid Al-Mishri, the newly-elected head of the High Council of State.
“There is no solution other than via you,” Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi told the Libyan leaders at the opening of the talks. “If things go badly, it’s your responsibility.”
– Implementation doubts –
Despite the French-led efforts to seek a political settlement, many analysts and diplomats were sceptical that a statement that was verbally agreed — but not signed — could lead to real change on the ground.
Some have voiced doubt whether the country, which is swamped by weapons and controlled by a patchwork of political groups and armed militias, will be able to hold credible elections.
“I believe that elections are a big risk in a country armed like Libya,” Federica Saini Fasanotti, an analyst with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, told AFP.
Other countries, including former colonial power Italy and some Gulf states, had also argued that Libya needed to agree on a new constitution before holding elections.
In a further complication, the main political and military representatives from the western city of Misrata boycotted proceedings after not being offered the same status as other invitees in Paris.
“There are some positive points in this agreement, which ultimately is not worth anything because it hasn’t been signed,” a senior military figure in the Misrata militia, Ibrahim Ben Rjab, told AFP.
Instead of signing the deal, the leaders in Paris gave their approval for a joint statement to be issued and later committed verbally to implementing it when explicitly asked to do so by Macron during a group photo.
“So we are all working on this common basis, bravo!” Macron told them.
Years of mediation by the United Nations, as well as Italy, have failed to bring stability to the nation which descended into chaos after the ousting of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
Previous peace agreements have come to nothing.
“It went well. Afterwards, it depends on the implementation,” one diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
– Regional competition –
Representatives from 20 countries including Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, attended the talks, as well as Libya’s neighbours Algeria and Tunisia.
Stabilising Libya has been complicated by diverging interests among Middle Eastern countries, which have sometimes backed opposing sides in the fighting, as well as the competition between Europeans.
Macron referred to foreign countries “pulling strings behind a curtain” but claimed that Tuesday’s agreement had put everyone on the same page.
Karim Bitar, an expert at the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) think-tank said France would “need to convince the Sunni powers in the Gulf to stop their proxy wars in Libya, which won’t be easy”.
He also said voiced scepticism about the elections as the way to unify the country, which currently operates with two parliaments, various armed forces and different central banks.
“Generally speaking the West sometimes tends to place too much emphasis on the ballot box and the voting slip,” he said, explaining that polls could sometimes be counter-productive.
Macron threw himself into finding a solution in Libya shortly after his election in May 2017, inviting Sarraj and Haftar to Paris in July — a move that irked Italy.
Some in Rome suspect Macron of organising the conference at a time when Italy, which has major oil interests in Libya, is embroiled in a deep political crisis.