Palermo, Italy – Libya’s rival factions and key international players will meet in the Italian city of Palermo on Monday amid United Nations-led efforts to re-ignite a stalled political process and set the stage for general elections.
The talks will be attended by leaders from the rival Tripoli and Tobruk-based parliaments, including Fayez al-Serraj, head of the UN-backed government in the capital, and renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who controls the eastern part of the country.
“Libyans are sick and tired of military adventurism and petty political manoeuvres,” Salame told Security Council in New York on Thursday.
“The time has come to give a wider and more representative group of Libyans the opportunity to meet on Libyan soil, with no external interference, in order to devise a clear path out of the present impasse,” he added, referring to the upcoming national conference.
Since then, the country has been deeply fragmented along tribal and ethnic lines and caught up in a spiral of violence at the hands of rival militias.
In Palermo, Salame will seek international support for his plan, aware that conflicting agendas within the international community have only exacerbated internal rifts between tribes and militias.
The summit will offer an opportunity to discuss the UN plan in more detail, as well as address other key issues for Libya’s stabilisation, including the creation of a state-controlled police force and the redistribution of oil wealth.
“The meeting in Palermo is considered a ‘service’ conference in support of the UN plan,” said Arturo Varvelli, an analyst at the Institute for the International Political Studies in Milan and a Libya specialist.
“It means the UN retakes control of the stabilisation process in Libya, setting a more realistic timeframe for elections.”
The new UN plan shelves a French initiative to hold the ballot on December 10, which drew criticism for its hastiness and for excluding from the process a broader spectrum of Libyan actors.
“The Italians will try to broaden the platform that was absent in Paris,” said Varvelli, referring to talks held in the French capital in May.
“Minority groups, tribal leaders, militias that contributed to fight ISIS [also known as ISIL], should be included in a pacification process,” he added.
Monday’s conference will also prove an opportunity for Conte to retake the lead of the negotiations after the Libyan factions failed to honour the commitments made in the Paris meeting.
The Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR), which Salame described as “largely sterile”, failed to produce both an electoral law and a legislation to hold a referendum on a provisional constitution.
Italy and France have been seeking to lead the pacification process in Libya, with both pursuing a different agenda. But they are not the only ones with a stake in the oil-rich country – other regional players are also trying to influence Libyan politics, including Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Italy, Libya’s former colonial power, supports al-Ferraj’s Government of National Accord and has invested heavily on the UN-backed authorities to stem the flow of thousands of undocumented migrants arriving from the Libyan shores.
France, while officially supporting the UN plans, has engaged in a successful campaign over time to legitimise the role of Haftar, head of the self-styled Libyan National Army and an enemy of the Tripoli authorities. Along with Russia, the UAE and Egypt, who consider Haftar a buffer against the advance of Islamist-leaning forces, France has provided him with financial, military and intelligence support.
“France looks at General Haftar as a strong army man, capable of containing the expansion of terrorist groups and maybe securing the southern borders,” said Anne Giudicelli, a former French diplomat and head of consultancy firm Terrorisc.
“France is concerned with the security of the broader Sahel region and its stability. Libya’s open borders have turned the country in a safe haven for terrorist and criminal groups,” she said.
A total collapse of state institutions and public services in the south has left the region and its population prey of criminal gangs and armed groups that have been operating with total impunity.
Salame said the upcoming national conference, which is proposed to be held in the first weeks of 2019, will draw on the contributions of thousands of Libyans who participated in 77 preparatory meetings across the country last spring. Their recommendations will set the framework for the electoral process.
However, members of the rival institutions in Tripoli and Tobruk, who stand accused of dragging on the status-quo for their own interests, fear that their grip on power will be lost if new polls take place, according to the UN envoy.
“To both Houses, elections are a threat that must be resisted at all costs,” said Salame, pointing the finger at the two rival parliamentary bodies.
“But to the citizens, elections are means of liberation from the ineffective and increasingly illegitimate authorities.”
According to recent polls, 80 percent of Libyans insist on having elections, said the envoy.
“Palermo will probably offer a more credible timeframe for the elections. However, I strongly doubt they will occur even in 2019,” said Jalel Harchaoui, geopolitics lecturer at Versailles University in Paris.
“All the main actors in Palermo have no interest in changing the status quo in Libya. Containment is the main objective, they fear elections may bring more turmoil.”
Meanwhile, the security and economic conditions in the country, especially in the Tripoli area, remain dire. Spiralling prices of basic goods and fuel, widespread violence, human rights violations, attacks and pillaging of institutional facilities at the hands of militias have devastated the population.
The deepening of the economic crisis has also exacerbated relations between the Tripoli-based government and the east of the country, from where Haftar has often threatened a major assault on the capital. In July, discontent over the redistribution of the oil wealth caused a standoff over control of the oil terminals in the oil crescent, and a resumption of violent confrontations among militias in Tripoli.
A UN-brokered ceasefire and the intervention of the international community imposing a freeze on the sale of oil from the crescent helped avoid a rupture between the two regions, eventually prompting al-Serraj to pass a series of economic and security measures to contain the crisis.
Al-Serraj also announced a new security plan for Tripoli, with the aim of regaining control of key installations currently in the hands of militias, including the capital’s port, Mitiga airport and a number of official buildings.