Macron brings Libyan rivals together, ruffles feathers

Sunday 30/07/2017
Embracing a strongman. French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, near Paris, on July 25. (AFP)

Tunis- French President Emmanuel Macron outflanked North African countries and Eu­ropean powers competing to mediate an end to Lib­ya’s 6-year-old conflict and became the first Western leader to nudge Libya’s two key players into a politi­cal agreement.
Macron, who has worked since his election three months ago to re-es­tablish France as Europe’s main dip­lomatic power, offered Libya’s resur­gent military chief Khalifa Haftar a European stage to bolster his profile and sign a ten-point accord with his rival, UN-backed government leader Fayez al-Sarraj.
While Sarraj has been a regular guest of European leaders since his return from exile as the leader of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in March 2016, Haftar’s offi­cial visits have mostly been limited to Arab countries sharing his opposi­tion to Islamists.
Haftar’s agreement with Sarraj in Paris on July 25 allowed him to enjoy the European limelight for the first time since he launched his Karama (Dignity) battle in 2014 to crush Is­lamists, whom he labelled terrorists.
Haftar’s trip to France came 20 days after he declared that the Lib­yan National Army (LNA) had de­feated radical Islamists in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, following three years of battles that left the town in ruins and claimed the lives of 5,000 LNA soldiers.
Analysts in the Maghreb said Ma­cron’s move to embrace Haftar, a hard-line anti-Islamist who had pre­viously been ostracised by Western powers for what they deemed a lack of democratic credentials, under­lined France’s return to an old diplo­matic strategy in the Maghreb based on mistrust of Islamists.
Such a diplomatic shift would put France on the same path as several Arab powers, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia, but could pit it against other re­gional powers, such as Algeria and Italy. The two Mediterranean coun­tries have invested a lot in Libya and would likely resent being outfoxed by Paris in a terrain they see as key for their security as well as diplo­matic and economic interests.
Analysts linked France’s change of heart in Libya to the role of Jean- Yves Le Drian, a former French de­fence minister who was appointed by Macron to head a newly created Europe and Foreign Ministry.
Le Drian is thought to be heeding the advice of France’s military intel­ligence agencies, which are said to prioritise stability over democratic experiments.
France’s chief diplomat has re­peatedly argued that stability in Libya is key to the Sahel region, where France had deployed a costly military mission — its largest in the world since 2013 — with no clear ho­rizon for an exit.
He and other French officials wor­ry that Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists, who were uprooted from Sirte last December, and other radical Islam­ists could exploit the power vacuum in Libya, analysts said. As a result, they see a need to bring Haftar and Sarraj together.
“When we scout the landscape for genuine and trustworthy leaders we find only two people: Sarraj and Haftar, who enjoy popular support, influence and recognition at home and abroad,” argued Libyan political writer Said Ramadane.
“Libyans hope France will work to reconcile the two.”
Libyan analysts said Macron’s em­brace of Haftar embodies Western powers’ desire to get out of the Arab quandary they fell into after betting on resurgent Islamists to compro­mise and embrace stability and de­mocracy in the Arab world.
“Arab powers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE foiled the Islamist strategy aimed at dominating the region and France backed the Arab anti-Islamists,” said Libyan political scientist Salim Nasser. “The West is struggling to restore stability to the region. [It wants] the region to be more stable rather than more demo­cratic.”
Prodded by Macron, Sarraj and Haftar committed to a conditional ceasefire and to work towards or­ganising elections next year.
“There is political legitimacy. That is in the hands of Mr al-Sarraj. There is military legitimacy, that of com­mander Haftar. They have decided to act together. This is a powerful act,” Macron said after the two Lib­yan leaders shook hands, smiling, in front of cameras.
The accord is similar to the agree­ment reached in Abu Dhabi on May 2, when Sarraj and Haftar met for the first time in 16 months. It also replicates a nine-point road map unveiled by Sarraj on July 15 that includes elections next March and a ceasefire.
North African and Western gov­ernments pushed for Haftar to be included in the country’s political reconciliation after Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government failed to unify the state and build a national army and police.
The stalemate persisted as Haf­tar ignored Sarraj’s government and Sarraj insisted on barring Haf­tar from assuming the role of com­mander of the future national army.
Macron’s initiative has reportedly angered Italy, which had taken the lead in efforts to bring peace to its former colony and borne the brunt of waves of African migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya.
If Macron fails to receive coopera­tion from Libya’s neighbours, Italy and other Arab powers involved in the Libyan crisis, France’s mediation efforts could end up like many previ­ous attempts to resolve the crisis.
“With this mediation, France seeks to make Libyans and others forget its past wrongs and diplo­matic mistakes,” said Sara Belhadj, a Paris-based Algerian security expert on Libya.
“However, it is unlikely that this meeting could lead to tangible pro­gress on the ground quickly because of the nature of the antagonists in the crisis. The GNA in Tripoli re­mains challenged by the parliament in the east and it is struggling to uni­fy various forces behind it.”