The meeting convened by French President Emmanuel Macron to find common ground on a solution to Libya’s crisis may prove to be a platform to relaunch a political process, or it may be a road to nowhere. The efforts of Ghassan Salamé, who officially took up his post last week as the UN’s new special representative for Libya, will have a significant say in determining which.
Salamé chaired the Paris meeting, and has extensive experience of the UN system, having worked with the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq and as a senior adviser to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. His experience of the fractious Lebanese political scene, as minister of culture, is also likely to be instructive.
With only six weeks until the UN general assembly, Salamé will look to bring leadership to an uncoordinated diplomatic process and establish a road map towards a political settlement that can accommodate divisions among both Libyan and international stakeholders.
Following the inauguration of President Donald Trump and the politicking over the appointment of a new special envoy, a distinct vacuum emerged in Western diplomatic efforts towards Libya at a time when the contest on the ground was ramping up. There was no open dialogue between East and West. But this has since changed.
Prior to the Paris meeting, the UAE-brokered meeting between General Khalifa Hafter, the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), and Fayez al-Serraj, the prime minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), on 2 May was their first in over a year. Other key players have also begun to talk: the speaker of the eastern-based House of Representatives, Ageela Saleh, met with the president of the Tripoli-based GNA State Council, Abdulrahman Sewehli, in April, and delegations from the two bodies reportedly met in The Hague in July to open a dialogue.
There is also, ostensibly, broad agreement over the need for national elections. Prior to his trip to Paris, Serraj announced his intentions to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in March 2018. Hafter, Saleh, and many in the House of Representatives have previously supported the need for elections. And, in Paris, the joint communiqué between Hafter and Serraj said that elections should be held ‘as soon as possible’.
The distance between talk and negotiation
The willingness of rival actors to talk is a necessary precursor to negotiation, and gives Salamé something to work with. But there is as yet little substance to such talks. In particular, the polarization and security situation on the ground make the administration of a free and fair election all but impossible, to say nothing of the legal and constitutional hurdles. In fact, another disputed poll may create more problems than it solves, as it is likely to create yet another contested body and further undermine the legitimacy of governing institutions.
Some seasoned observers have argued out that the Paris meeting was significant only in that it provided significant international legitimacy to Hafter, and that the absence of other actors is detrimental to the political process as a whole. These criticisms have some merit: a Hafter–Serraj compact would not be enough to bring Libya’s conflict to an end.
Yet there is broad acceptance – among the international community at least – that Hafter must be accommodated in a revised LPA, and the general’s growing gains on the ground make him impossible to ignore. It is thus difficult to see a sustainable solution without Hafter’s agreement. Whether Hafter is willing to negotiate may be another question. He sees Serraj as weak and beholden to militias, and he is right. Hafter has shown little indication of compromise.
While there was no communiqué released following the May meeting between Hafter and Serraj, the leaked reports from pro-Hafter media of a supposed agreement made the general’s demands clear: he seeks agreement to be allowed to run in elections, to serve in a presidency council of three members (along with Serraj and Saleh) and to retain command control of the armed forces. Salamé will seek to convince Hafter that control of the army or a position in the presidency council is an either/or proposition, but the general will take some convincing.
As it stands, Serraj could never agree to Hafter’s terms, not least because they could not be countenanced by the constellation of groups that support him. Indeed, an attack at the LNA-held Brak al-Shati airbase two weeks after the May meeting – which left at least 96 LNA soldiers dead, some allegedly shot execution-style in the back of the head – by a coalition of forces from the city of Misrata is a reminder to Serraj that he must take care in negotiating over his supporters’ interests.
Salamé now faces a race against time to reach out to key Libyan stakeholders in the House of Representatives and State Council, but also far beyond, ahead of the meeting of the UN general assembly in mid-September. Momentum will be crucial and Salamé’s grace period will be extremely short. He will have to contend as well with an international community that has lacked commitment and cohesion.
Italy, which has been at the forefront of Western policy towards Libya, publicly complained that it was not notified over plans for the Macron meeting, and it appears that many in the French foreign ministry working on the Libya file were similarly unaware. There remains little indication that it is part of a coordinated approach.
So getting the international community and myriad of Libyan actors to participate in a coherent UN-led process remains an uphill task. To be successful, Salamé must start by ensuring that the Paris meeting is the start of a political process rather than simply a photo opportunity for Emmanuel Macron.
Tim Eaton, Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.