Macron brings Libyan rivals together, ruffles feathers
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.”