Positive steps and fragile promises by Libyan leaders

by Imed Lamloum
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French President Emmanuel Macron, flanked by Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (2R) and UN Special Envoy for Libya, Lebanese Ghassan Salame (L) speaks during an International conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on May 29, 2018

The gathering of Libyan leaders in Paris this week marked a positive step for the violence-wracked country, but analysts warn the absence of key players could make the optimism short-lived.

The Tuesday meeting hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron brought together four leaders representing most -- but notably not all -- of Libya's rival factions.

Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, was at the table along with 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.

The leaders dispute each other's legitimacy and are entwined with numerous militias who are known to switch their allegiances.

Despite the stark differences, the four leaders agreed to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on December 10 and vowed to respect the results.

They also said they would work towards phasing out parallel institutions and unifying the Libyan Central Bank.

- Key players absent -

In a sign of the fragility of such promises, the Libyans verbally agreed on the proposals rather than formally signing a text.

Rachid Khechana, director of the Mediterranean Centre for Libyan Studies, said a signature on paper does not necessary mean action.

"Even if the declaration had been signed, we know how many (Libyan) politicians, in particular MPs, have failed to uphold their commitment," he said, citing a 2015 Libya deal agreed in Morocco which numerous signatories did not implement.

Khechana highlighted the absence in Paris of "groups and networks of great influence, including the tribal chiefs and the armed groups".

In western Libya, "some of these groups are more influential than the government," he added, in reference to the UN-backed Government of National Accord.

Federica Saini Fasanotti, from the Brookings Institution in Washington, agreed "the solution in Libya is strictly connected to the armed groups".

As long as the international community continues to negotiate with political leaders "who are not fully recognised on the ground... the situation in Libya won't be solved," she said.

The International Crisis Group drew on the absence of a delegation from the city of Misrata, home to the most powerful armed groups in western Libya.

- Election hurdles -

GNA deputy premier Ahmed Maiteeq, who represents Misrata, refused to attend the Paris meeting according to one of his advisers.

Ibrahim Ben Rjab, a senior military figure in the Misrata militia, told AFP the city had boycotted the meeting in protest at the presence of Haftar whom they accuse of wanting to establish a dictatorship.

While there are "some positive points" to come out of Paris, he said the agreement has no official status and "ultimately is not worth anything because it hasn't been signed".

Fathi Bashagha, a Misrata lawmaker, said that "the outcome of the Paris meeting is good," but the pledges "remain words and wishes on paper, in the absence of a clear mechanism for applying them".

Analysts remain sceptical that Libya will go to the polls in December, despite leaders in Paris agreeing to adopt the necessary laws by September 16.

"The legal framework for holding elections remains opaque," said Human Rights Watch.

Staging elections is "unrealistic from a strictly technical perspective," said Crisis Group.

"Neither the legal nor the constitutional framework is in place -- hurdles that may prove impossible to overcome within a short timeframe," the organisation added.

French President Emmanuel Macron, flanked by Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (2R) and UN Special Envoy for Libya, Lebanese Ghassan Salame (L) speaks during an International conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on May 29, 2018

Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army dominates the country's east, stands with his delegation on the steps of the Elysee Palace as they leave following the International conference on Libya in Paris on May 29, 2018