Libya’s rival leaders, including general Khalifa Haftar and Prime Minister Sarraj, met in Paris on May 29th to end the political and military standoff that have plagued the country since the revolution that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi. The initiative was the idea of French President Emmanuel Macron and was overseen by representatives from 20 countries – including Libya’s neighbours, regional and European powers, and the United States. After a round of difficult talks, the leaders agreed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 10. The agreement is a milestone in the splintered North African nation. Nontheless, critics point out that the prospect of elections could spark more violence.
The talks in Paris followed a string of other peace initiatives by the international community to end the civil war in the country. Several rounds of talks between the Tripoli based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk based Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) have failed to deliver results.
Several factors have complicated the reconciliation between the two main political actors in the country. The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by the charismatic general Khalifa Haftar has played an important role. Formally LNA and Haftar are with the HoR, but in reality the army is a third political actor. Analysts have often described Haftar as the potential next Gadhafi.
This situation has been further complicated by the fact that the international community has been divided on who’s the legitimate governing entity in the country. While the Western powers support the United Nations endorsed GNA in Tripoli, Russia and Egypt still support the HoR. Without international consensus on which actors should be involved in the process, peace talks have been sluggish.
Getting Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the GNA, General Khalifa Haftar of the LNA and President Aguila Saleh Issa of the HoR to the negotiation table together with 20 regional and global powers was therefore itself already an achievement. The talks in Paris were nonetheless difficult as evident by a draft agreement that circulated in the press. Initially Macron had hoped that the Libyans would sign a declaration that would call for the immediate unification of the central authority, phasing out of parallel governments and institutions and the creation of a national army.
In the end no official declaration was signed. Instead the rival leaders released a joint statement calling for the creation of a constitutional base in preparation for elections that will be held on December 10 for both parliament and the presidency.
Even though all parties expressed their commitment “to work constructively with the United Nations to hold credible and peaceful elections”, large obstacles still block the road for real reconciliation. Most important is the fact that the two rivalling factions don’t recognise one another’s authority.
The French-led peace initiative was praised by several international actors. The United Nations called it a “significant and welcome step forward” in the Libyan transition towards a stable and democratic government. European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini stated that although there is still a long road ahead, the spirit of Paris shows the intent for change.
Nonetheless was the summit critically received by several organizations. In Libya itself, several brigades and city councils associated with the GNA, expressed their concern with the foreign-led talks. Citing the failure of the international community as reason not to negotiate in Paris. The conflict resolving NGO International Crisis Group warned that the Paris conference might unintentionally undermine the UN-led peace process. “French organisers should avoid imposing too rigid a framework”.
The lawless nature of the country has concerned observers for several years. There is currently no legal framework in which a government operates. A new constitution has been drafted, but many courts in Libya have ruled against it. Without a framework it is questionable if elections would lead to any form of government. “The biggest risk to holding an election today is that any result will lead to an all-out armed confrontation on a scale we have not yet seen,” according to a BBC analyst. Human Rights Watch has also repeatedly warned the UN that pressing for elections could lead to more instability.