Rival Libyan leaders vying for influence in the fractured, war-scarred country met in Paris on Tuesday for a major peace conference seen as a risky French-backed push for a political settlement in the country.
Many analysts are sceptical that the initiative, which brings together four senior figures representing Libya‘s factions as well as neighbouring countries and regional powers, will achieve any significant progress.
Years of mediation by the United Nations, as well as former colonial power Italy, have failed to bring stability to the north African nation which descended into chaos after the ousting of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
“The period that we are in… requires decisions,” Macron said as he welcomed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, to the presidential palace on Tuesday morning.
Macron stressed there was a “desire for reconciliation while leaving a sovereign people to decide for themselves”.
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His remarks pointed to the main focus of the meeting: agreeing a political roadmap which will commit all parties to parliamentary and presidential elections this year — an approach not favoured by everyone.
“I believe that elections are a big risk in a country armed like Libya,” Federica Saini Fasanotti, an analyst with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, told AFP.
There is also disagreement over what should come first: voting for a new constitution, or presidential and parliamentary elections.
“While the Italians, Turkish, Qataris and to a large extent the Americans believe the constitution comes before elections, on the other side, the French, Egyptians and Emiratis want elections first,” Mohamed Eljarh, from the Libya Outlook consulting firm said.
Also, despite French efforts to convene all the leading players from the oil-rich country, militias from the city of Misrata have boycotted proceedings, leaving western Libya under-represented at the talks.
Big guest list
The Libyan invitees include Prime Minister Sarraj from the Tripoli government in the west, as well as 75-year-old military strongman Khalifa Haftar, whose rival Libyan National Army dominates the country‘s east.
They arrived on Tuesday morning along with Aguila Saleh Issa, the parliament speaker based in the eastern city of Tobruk who opposes the UN-backed administration, as well as Khalid Al-Mishri, newly-elected head of the High Council of State.
“We‘re hoping for a commitment from Libyan leaders to a way out of the crisis,” a French presidential aide said on condition of anonymity.
Representatives from around 20 countries involved in the Libya crisis have also been invited — an acknowledgement that the problems can only be resolved if regional powers agree on a common roadmap.
These include Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates which have backed Haftar and the rival administration in Tobruk not the UN-recognised government based in the capital Tripoli.
Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as neighbours Algeria and Tunisia and west African leaders from Niger and Congo will also attend.
European leaders see stabilising Libya as key to tackling jihadist threats and migration from the country, which has become the main departure point for hundreds of thousands of Africans trying to reach Europe.
Macron threw himself into finding a solution shortly after his election in May 2017, inviting Sarraj and Haftar to Paris in July — a move that irked former colonial power Italy, which was blindsided by his diplomacy.
Stabilising Libya is also complicated by diverging interests among Middle Eastern countries, which have sometimes backed opposing sides in the fighting, as well as the competition between Europeans.
Macron is suspected by some in Italy of organising the conference at a time when France‘s southern neighbour, which has major oil interests in Libya, is embroiled in a deep political crisis.
“It‘s as if Macron wanted to make the most of this moment of absence by Italy on the Libyan dossier,” Italian newspaper La Repubblica wrote last week, citing diplomatic sources.
France is also suspected by some rivals within Libya of favouring Haftar, a military strongman who has fought Islamist militias and who was recently treated in a Parisian hospital for an undisclosed ailment.
“There is clear apprehension among many in western Libya that the French initiative is an attempt to reinforce the position of Khalifa Haftar as the key power broker in Libya,” Eljarh from Libya Outlook added.
The International Crisis Group, an NGO that studies conflict zones, also voiced caution about the French conference.
“Much more work remains to be done for a peace-building effort in Libya to succeed,” it said on Monday. “For this reason, Crisis Group believes that France should not request that its four Libyan guests sign an accord.”