On the 18thNovember, a conference to discuss the future of Libya was held in Palermo, Italy. The previous conference had been in May, held in Paris by the French President Emmanuel Macron. Elections this December in Libya – a vaunted outcome of the Paris summit – have officially been ruled out by the UN Special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame. This is hardly surprising since the country still lacks electoral law, not to mention violent militia infighting that would likely prevent safe elections. Instead, Salame has claimed that Libya will host a National Conference in early 2019, with elections projected for the spring. He blamed both sides of Libya’s political divide – the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the East – for trying to postpone a vote while over 80% of Libyans support elections.
Indeed, Libya is still a severely divided country. Rifts between the European powers played out on Libyan soil only postpone an already agonisingly slow UN-led peace process. Italy supports the internationally recognised GNA headed by Fayez al-Sarraj while France (along with Russia, Egypt and the UAE) supports General Haftar in the East, who presides over the HOR. Both are ineffectual rulers. While Prime Minister Sarraj of the GNA has very little influence outside of Tripoli, General Haftar is a law unto himself.
Despite feigned benevolence from the international community, the majority of the powers involved are driven primarily by self-interest. Libya needs fresh political parties its people can get behind, not incompetent governments imposed by the UN or undemocratic war lords. Unfortunately, however, no other Libyan representatives from alternative political parties were invited to Palermo. Many of Libya’s key political factions were excluded, and by key factions we do not just mean the Muslim Brotherhood or the warlord people smugglers. There are plenty of genuine Libyan factions that deserve to be included. If different political parties or blocs are not included in these mediated dialogues, then there is a very little chance that Libya will haul itself out from this political stalemate.
Financial motives of international powers are also hard to separate from the political situation. While the Libyan energy market has thus far been dominated by the Italian energy company ENI (the gas pipeline conveniently lies in the west of the country), the French energy company Total has recently began to expand its shares in the market. Libyan oil is cheap and can easily be exported to Europe, ensuring that vested interests are always attempting to influence Libya’s domestic agenda.
The headlines surrounding the Palmero conference indicated where international attention was truly focused. As the first political initiative of the new right wing populist government of Giuseppe Conti, all eyes were on the presence – or absence – of world leaders at the event. Already on its first day former Italian PM Matteo Renzi deemed the Conference a ‘resounding flop’ as it became evident that the likes of Macron, Trump and Putin were no-shows.
This kind of politicised rhetoric is unhelpful, and draws attention away from the real issues faced by Libya. The GNA has almost no control in the West and relies heavily on militia support. The south of Libya is caught up in fighting between Tuareg and Toubou militias. General Haftar is tightening his iron grip in the east, having seized oil ports from the National Oil Corporation in the summer. Civilians live in a climate of fear and lack basic commodities.
There is a fine line between the necessity for genuine international attention on problems faced by Libya and self-serving intervention by greater powers. Perhaps next year’s National Conference in Libya will be more inclusive of Libyans themselves, rather than just providing an opportunity for others to show off their diplomatic stature. The international community – as a unified whole – must support and empower the Libyan people. A solution for peace will not be possible without their total involvement.
Photo above: Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord.