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emmanuel macron

Emmanuel Macron

Libya continues to be a non-State. The internationally recognized President Fayez al Sarraj does not control Tripoli. The so called commander of the Libyan National Army in Benghazi, Khalifa Haftar, also has a number of issues controlling Cyrenaica: he can’t get rid of the Islamic State in Derna and has recently lost the control of a number of oil fields and oil terminals.

The country is ruled by gangs and militias, including foreign entities with fighters from Darfour, Chad and Palestine that also act as mercenaries. The main sources of income Libyans rely on are oil smuggling and human trafficking.

Libya’s sovereignty is under the influence of foreign State-actors: UAE, Saudi Arabia, France and Egypt in Cyrenaica, Turkey and Qatar in Tripolitania. While the French has special forces boots on the ground, the US bombs terrorists with its drones from time to time.

In light of these circumstances, when French Presidente Emmanuel Macron organized a UN sponsored Conference on Libya in Paris on May 29, 2018 to seek a “common political path” for an end to the conflict he fueled the political narcissism that derives from French grandeur. Macron wanted to show that France could play a role in Libyan affairs, just like his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had done in arranging for the international military intervention that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

The French initiative was favored by the absence of a government in Rome and gave Paris the opportunity to try to influence Libyan politics without one of the countries that are more involved in the peace process: Italy. Furthermore, French arrogance went as far as alienating other important actors, such as the UK, the USA and Russia. Macron decided to favor his own national interests over a multilateral approach to the crisis.

But the attempt was ill-conceived. While inviting to Paris the biggest political and military actors in the country, the French underestimated the absence of those armed groups and militias who often wield more power than those who attended the meeting.

Selective diplomacy

The May summit was similar to other previous meetings on Libya, and especially the one that took place in Paris in July 2017. Both cases lacked an adequate political and diplomatic preparation to the event. And both lacked method.

Macron’s initiative overlapped with what the UN Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, had been attempting throughout 2017: peace between the warring parties and elections to give Libya a new political framework. But with too many cooks, the soup risked getting xxxxed.

Despite the presence of Libyan PM Fayez al Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar, this wasn’t enough to bring forth a reconciliation process. The only outcome of the Paris meeting was to downgrade the legitimacy of the National Accord government, that was forced to negotiate with a peer that never recognized its legitimacy.

The negotiations brought around the table about 20 countries and international organizations with the aim of “facilitating” the talks. But this had more to do with form, than with substance. Once again the French grandeur played a role.

It made sense to invite Libya’s neighbors, the countries that have played some role in the conflict (Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) and some regional and international organizations (EU, Arab League, African Union, UN). But it is difficult to understand why Congo or the Netherlands were invited to attend.

Those who did not attend are even more relevant: the United States and Russia. Their shadow could not obfuscate the role of France and its President.

fayez al-sarraj

Fayez al-Sarraj

Militias on the counter-attack

There was an immediate reaction to the summit. 13 militias announced they did would not recognize the outcome of the Paris conference and denounced foreign interference in Libyan affairs. They stated they were willing to sit around a table and negotiate. But not in Paris.

They focused their hostility towards Khalifa Haftar, whom they believe wants to take over power and not share it via a reconciliation process. The man who participated in the coup that brought Gaddafi to power in 1969 is still attached to the habits of the old regime.

This is why labelling the Paris conference a “success” is ephemeral. And so is thinking that the country will vote in December. This is just wishful thinking and not an action plan. There was no planning on who would organize the vote, criteria on who could participate or not, which political parties would be allowed or excluded and, above all, which entity would guarantee the vote’s regularity against fraud and its security. There was a hint about some sort of international supervision on the elections. But then again: Who? How?

By calling for a vote by the end of 2018, Emmanuel Macron forgot about an insignificant detail for the future of Libya: its Constitutional framework. No one has drafted one just yet. And no one has voted in a referendum to accept or reject the new Constitution. And will Libya see a central government or a federal system? Who knows.

Forcing an election could bring upon a new polarization and lead to a renewed conflict between winners and losers in the vote. What if a contender rejects his defeat?

The chances of holding a vote in Libya after 7 years of civil war is not just unlikely. It is impossible. And the road map to elections is already behind schedule. A new electoral law had to be approved by all parties involved by September 16, 2018 and the vote had to be held on December 10. But there is no chance this will happen without some form of national reconciliation.

Libya is currently divided in two. And then there are several grey areas, no man’s lands ruled by militias or criminal gangs that run those territories as they wish. Hence, the issue is not finding a power sharing agreement between Fayez al Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar. But rather understanding how a government plans to extend its authority in those areas that are not under its control.

If the domestic Libyan scenario is an intricate mess, so is the international one. Superpowers and regional actors want to have a say on Libya’s future. Will they find a compromise?

Khalifa Belqasim Haftar

Khalifa Belquasim Haftar

Missing in action

France decided they wanted to go all-in on a deal between Sarraj and Haftar. But they totally forgot about the rest. While French political narcissism was satisfied, there were no practical results. The lack of inclusivity of all Libyan political actors played a decisive role in the failure of the conference.

Furthermore, the host’s credibility as a super partes negotiator was never put in doubt. The French had none since they have clearly supported Khalifa Haftar – he was even in a hospital in Paris in April for a series of health problems – and they could not suddenly turn into a neutral mediator.

The balance of power in Libya nowadays is not dictated by political or social consensus, but by weapons. This is the only good argument in a country of 5 million flooded by over 20 million firearms and assault weapons. And the only way out of such a conflict is to call the guys with the guns to the table. And this was not done in Paris. Having Sarraj and Haftar was simply not enough.

The Libyans watch political developments with the typical apathy of a people that has been used to totalitarian regimes and to a lack of democratic rules. Seven years of conflict have consolidated a series of economic powerhouses, often profiting from illegal traffics, that will be hard to dismantle.

A document with 13 good wishes was signed – despite the fact that its text had been readied prior to the conference – including the unification of the Libyan Central Bank, the elimination of political duplicates and the formation of a unified army. Most of the points were cut and paste from the 2015 Skhirat agreement. And the Paris document could, and probably will, share a similar path to failure.

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