Libyan Factions Agree to Elections Despite Deep Divisions
Posted May 29, 2018 8:10 p.m. EDT
PARIS — The leaders of rival Libyan factions agreed Tuesday to work together on a legal framework for holding presidential and parliamentary elections in December, in a deal being pushed by France’s president to bring stability to Libya and stem the flow of migrants to Europe from its shores.
It was latest of numerous international efforts to find a political solution to the chaos plaguing Libya since the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. But analysts said the election timetable was extremely optimistic and that the agreement, as with previous efforts, risked being undermined by opposition from armed groups on the ground.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Libyan leaders will set election rules by mid-September, hold the vote on Dec. 10, and ensure that voters and candidates will be safe. The leaders also agreed to eventually streamline their parallel government structures and merge their armed forces and other security entities.
Power in Libya is divided between two rival governments, in the east and west of the country, and a plethora of armed groups that pledge allegiance to either administration, or none.
President Emmanuel Macron of France described the agreement as “historic” and essential to the “security and stability of the Libyan people.” The French president has tried to carve out a role for himself as a mediator in the Middle East and a proponent of multilateral agreements.
Getting the leaders in the same room was an achievement, analysts said, but translating that into concrete efforts to rein in armed groups and stabilize the country remains a daunting task.
In a sign of the difficulties ahead, none of the leaders in Paris signed Tuesday’s agreement. When asked about it, Macron said the leaders wanted to discuss it with their supporters back home. But then he cut through the diplomatic language to acknowledge a larger issue.
“You have here the presidents of institutions that do not recognize each other,” Macron said. “Each and every one denied the existence of the institutions that the others represented and their legitimacy. That is the difficulty of Libya’s current situation over the past months.”
The factional leaders in Paris included Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the United Nations-backed unity government in Tripoli; Gen. Khalifa Hifter, whose forces control much of the country’s east; Khalid Mishri, the newly elected head of the High Council of State, which is an advisory body to the Government of National Accord led by Sarraj; and Aguila Saleh Issa, the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.
U.N. officials — who have been working with a wider group on a plan to adopt a new constitution, call elections and bring stability — also participated in the Paris meeting, as did representatives of 20 countries, including Libya’s neighbors and regional and Western powers.
“Today’s meeting was inclusive,” said Dorothée Schmid, who leads the Middle East and North Africa section of the French Institute for International Relations. “France is backing the U.N. process, and that is progress,” she said, noting that when Macron began his effort on Libya last year, he was not working with other countries and organizations.
A report issued this week by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, pointed to the difficulties in bringing the Libyan factions together.
“Libya remains a fragmented polity with multiple potential spoilers,” it said. “These four individuals do not capture the ideological, tribal and political rifts that run through the country, and indeed have done much to deepen them.”
Claudia Gazzini, who studies Libya for the International Crisis Group, noted that the Libyan Constitution did not include the post of president, and that a new constitution had not yet been put to a referendum. So a Dec. 10 date for elections, she said, could be contentious.
“We will have to see what the constituencies say,” Gazzini said.
A faction from Misrata in western Libya declined an invitation to the Paris meeting, saying it was not being treated in the same way as other delegations.
France and other European countries want to stabilize Libya to stem the flow of migrants leaving Libya’s shores for Europe. Libyan seaports near Tripoli are just 180 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa. While the flow of migrants has slowed over the past couple of years, thousands still make it to Europe through dangerous smuggling networks.
The United States has taken a back-seat role in Libya’s political process in recent years, concentrating instead on counterterrorism operations against militants from the Islamic State and other extremist groups. In 2016 the United States conducted nearly 500 airstrikes on the coastal city of Sirte as part of a Libyan-led military operation that ousted the Islamic State from the city.
Under the Trump administration, the United States has carried out at least nine airstrikes on targets in the country’s lawless southern deserts.