Rare meeting between Libyan rivals reflects changed dynamic

Sunday 07/05/2017
New phase. Libya’s UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) poses with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Abu Dhabi, on May 2.(AP)

Tunis- The United Arab Emirates has succeeded in bring­ing together the heads of Libya’s rival camps in a remarkable confirmation of the shift of power and change of winds away from the Islamist resur­gence of the Arab region.
In a display of growing regional influence, the UAE nudged Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s eastern military commander and Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of its UN-backed government in Tripoli to backtrack from a political blind al­ley and meet May 2 in Abu Dhabi. It was the first such meeting in 16 months.
During the 2-hour meeting, the two leaders are said to have agreed to hold presidential and legislative elections no later than March 2018. Both sides are also said to have re­committed to the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) brokered by the United Nations in 2015.
A Twitter posting by Mattia Toal­do, a Libya researcher at the Europe­an Council on Foreign Relations, in­dicated the Abu Dhabi talks “could be the beginning of a new strategy by Haftar based on ‘integration’ in LPA & running in elections.”
Such a meeting would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Sarraj was widely seen in Libya as the head of a loose alliance domi­nated by Islamist groups and mili­tias and Haftar was perceived as an anti-Islamist military commander.
Libya’s powerful neighbours, Algeria and Egypt, as well as West­ern powers have for months been pushing the two men to meet and commit to a political solution to ending Libya’s conflict. However, Haftar spurned proposals to meet Sarraj. Even Egypt, which is one of the main backers of Haftar, failed to push the two men together.
Haftar’s high profile on the world stage highlights the sea change that has taken place in the region since the “Arab spring,” when Haftar’s Islamist opponents enjoyed the fa­vours of the US Obama administra­tion, which regarded Haftar as an indicator of the region returning to strongman rule.
However, since Donald Trump be­came US president and Russian in­volvement increased across the re­gion, Haftar’s forces have advanced in their campaign to free Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, from Is­lamists after years of assassinations and anarchy.
The United Arab Emirates voiced optimism that a political settlement could be reached in Libya after the meeting between Haftar and Sarraj and warned that foreign interfer­ence would derail the process to­wards ending the conflict.
European powers and Arab neigh­bours of Libya shared the Emirates’ assessment of the outcome of the meeting.
The meeting “brings opti­mism towards guaranteeing a political solution,” said the UAE Foreign Ministry.
It is an “important step to push forward the political process in Lib­ya,” it added, in a statement carried by the official WAM news agency.
“The international community has the responsibility to avoid creat­ing and amplifying divisions in Lib­ya and to work instead to encourage the Libyans to come together and cooperate,” the ministry said.