A string of Western politicians have visited Libya in recent weeks, the latest being French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian, who arrived Monday in Tripoli for talks with the strife-torn county’s rival politicians and militia leaders.
With the warlord Khalifa Haftar consolidating his position in the eastern part of the oil-producing nation and Fayez al-Seraj strengthening his internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west, European diplomats say a fragile balance of power is beginning to emerge between two of the chief rivals for power.
And that’s increasing, they argue, the opportunities for sealing a breakthrough agreement reconciling the two halves of Libya. But no one is discounting the chances that all could go awry. The fractured country has had many false starts since the ouster of strongman Moamar Gadhafi in 2011 and there are multiple armed, tribal and regional players who have to agree to any deal making for it to be sustainable.
Much will depend on the U.N. envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, who replaced Martin Kobler in June. He has first-hand experience with fractious politics, having served as a Cabinet minister in Beirut, but he faces a daunting task in trying to give coherence to a U.N.-led peace process that’s been muddied by unilateral initiatives launched by others.
The French increasingly have been driving the search for a resolution to the Libya crisis. But Italy has complained of poorly coordinated initiatives by French President Emmanuel Macron, who the Italians see as impulsive and fear is boosting the political sway of General Haftar.
A former Gadhafi-era officer before he broke with the Libyan dictator, Haftar is meant to be the military commander of the GNA’s main rival, the government established by the last elected legislature. But he is an independent player, frequently ignoring instructions from the so-called Tobruk government.
The Italians recognize Haftar, who’s backed by Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and has some Russian contacts, has to be part of any political deal, but they fear he’s a strongman-in-the-waiting. That view is shared by the powerful militias in the town of Misrata, who are key political and military players who have so far supported the GNA.
Both Paris and Rome are desperate to curb the migrant influx into Europe of mainly sub-Saharan Africans, nearly all of whom are coming via Libya, and a prerequisite is to establish a functioning nationwide authority in Tripoli with security agencies willing to impose order and able to take down the trafficking syndicates that are bolstered by powerful town-based armed militias.
Tim Eaton of the British research organization Chatham House said last month, “Momentum will be crucial and Salamé’s grace period will be extremely short... He must move quickly to bring together the country’s competing powers and a divided international community.”
Le Drian’s goal in Libya was to give further impetus to the so-called Paris deal, engineered in July by Macron. Meeting in the French capital, only the second time they had met, Seraj and Haftar shook hands on a cease-fire and early elections. They agreed to strive for a negotiated political settlement based on the U.N.-mediated 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, which was signed without much popular support and without acceptance by the country’s major armed groups.
But within hours, Haftar cast doubt on what he shook on, saying he had no interest in elections and claiming the GNA is controlled by terrorists.
Haftar labels opponents routinely as Islamists and jihadists, “The cease-fire is just with moderate parties and youths who have some misdemeanors. We’re in contact with them,” he told France24 Arabic. “I do not care about elections. I care about the future of Libya as a stable and civil state.”
Libyan Prime Minister Seraj said at a press conference with Le Drian in the Libyan capital Monday that he remained committed to the Paris deal. He focused on the importance of holding early elections, saying, “We have waited a year-and-a-half and nothing has been achieved except for more confrontations, despite the country’s economic and security crises, so I propose the road map for the people go through the ballot boxes.”
Some analysts and international election advisers who worked on previous Libyan elections are highly skeptical about running early elections, saying they would likely deepen the country’s divisions rather than help repair them.
A former U.N. election adviser said the best part of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement was to establish power sharing between key stakeholders, and building stability on that. "An election is designed to give one party, or a coalition of parties, power and the campaigning for it would likely prove highly divisive,” she added.