French president convenes talks between heads of rival factions in attempt to increase conflict-ravaged country’s political stability
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is to convene face-to-face talks in Europe between the leaders of the rival Libyan factions in an attempt to bring peace and political stability to the country.
A stable Libya is a precondition for ending the flow of refugees through the Mediterranean that has upended Italian politics and has the potential to undermine support for the European Union.
The two competing leaders, Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed government of National Accord based in Tripoli, and Khalifa Haftar, head of the so-called Libyan National Army that controls large tracts of territory to the east, have been unable to agree a new power sharing compromise to reunite the country.
The meeting on Tuesday will be the first between the two leaders since they first met for aborted talks in the United Arab Emirates in May. Those talks initially appeared to come close to an agreement, only for both sides to step back from signing any joint document.
Previous talks set for Cairo did not go ahead because Haftar refused to meet Sarraj. There has been little sign of the US administration under Donald Trump taking any direct role in Libya’s future, leaving Europe, especially Italy, largely responsible.
Macron’s decision to become so involved is risky given the repeated diplomatic failures in Libya, but the French president, fresh from meetings in Paris with Trump and Vladimir Putin, has shown a willingness to raise France’s international diplomatic profile and believes the two sides can be reconciled.
The French president will be joined by the new UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. The long-delayed appointment of Salamé gives a natural moment for the international community to step up its efforts to find a peace settlement.
Macron has said French involvement in efforts to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 was a mistake, and has shown a greater willingness to give a role to Haftar than the previous French socialist administration. Haftar’s forces were last month instrumental in liberating the coastal city of Benghazi from Islamists, but some of his commanders have been shown on social media operating brutal mass executions.
Some negotiators are anxious to prevent Haftar, a polarising figure, building on his Benghazi success by trying to take Tripoli. He said last month he could take the capital by December.
Serraj has proposed parliamentary and presidential elections in 2018, but the absence of a functioning parliament makes it difficult to draft electoral law in time.
In a short statement before the talks Macron said the challenge was to create a stable state capable of responding to the fundamental needs of the Libyan people, as well as the creation of a regular united army under the control of a civil power. He said these developments were necessary to control Libyan territory and its frontiers so as to defeat smuggling networks and see a return to normality.
Finding a settlement is made more complex by the presence of outside regional actors. The UAE and Egypt support Haftar and the Tobruk-based government, while Turkey, Sudan and Qatar support other factions in western Libya.
The single bright spot is the success of the Libyan National Oil Corporation in raising production at the beginning of July to more than 1m barrels a day, the highest figure since June 2013. Oil receipts are vital to controlling Libya’s spiralling national debt.