Tunisia engages in diplomatic push to end Libyan crisis
TUNIS - Tunisia has been lobbying Libya’s main political and military officials to agree to UN-backed elections in December to help end the country’s 7-year-old conflict.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui wrapped up a series of meetings July 16 with top Libyan leaders, including Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the country’s eastern strongman, and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Jhinaoui’s diplomatic push, which came during a lull in Libya’s violence, was aimed at keeping hopes alive for UN-backed elections by December, which top leaders, including Haftar and Sarraj, agreed to during a May 28 meeting in Paris. Other international organisations and countries, including Italy, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Libya’s neighbours, also attended.
Jhinaoui, speaking after his recent sessions with top Libyan leaders, said his mediation effort was part of a diplomatic push by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.
“As you know a meeting took place in Paris on May 29 ending with (the) Paris declaration to organise parliamentary and presidential elections in Libya before the end of this year,” Jhinaoui said. “We in Tunisia are pushing for the progress and success of this approach. We want the dates and deadlines to be designed by the Libyans themselves without the interference of foreigners.”
Tunisia, Algeria and Libya have been pushing for a solution to Libya’s crisis. Tunis, whose economy and stability are especially threatened by the conflict, has taken the lead role in the process.
However, Jhinaoui emphasised that Libyans, not foreign powers, should be the ones to decide how the country moves forward.
“It is crucial that the Libyans are in control of the political process and come together to advance a peaceful solution,” he said. “Tunisia sticks to the positive neutrality with various Libyan parties. Its positive neutrality is aimed at helping Libyans forge a Libyan solution between Libyans that brings Libyans into unity around a solution that enable Libyans to move their country out of its crisis.”
Jhinaoui spoke highly of Haftar, who recently consolidated power in the eastern city of Derna, saying Haftar had affirmed his commitment to a “political solution.”
“I found in the field-marshal a commitment to the political solution because of his nationalist conviction and beliefs and because of his role and that of the national army as unifying forces,” said Jhinaoui. “He said he is willing to unify the Libyans and he is committed and eager to accelerate the implementation of the electoral agenda in Libya.”
Jhinaoui said his encounter with Haftar “was an opportunity to congratulate him for his successes to win over terrorism in Derna and in the oil crescent recently when the national army seized back control of the area.”
“We talked about the terrorism issue and cooperation in fighting it. This is a danger that is threatening both Tunisia and Libya,” added Jhinaoui.
Despite Tunisia’s push for a political solution, experts say worsening conditions could increase instability and that elections would be hard to pull off by December.
UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame said that, while most Libyans are enthusiastic about going to the polls, “a handful of people defy this popular desire.”
“The few who benefit from the status quo will, if left unchecked, do whatever they can to hinder elections,” he said. “Unfortunately, they can do much, especially as they hold crucial and too often lucrative official positions… Without clear and strong messaging to those who would attempt to stall or disrupt these elections, the conditions will not be met.”
Jeffrey Stacey, a former US State Department official who worked under former US President Barack Obama, warned that worsening instability could cause Libya to become a “second Syria” in the Maghreb.
Jhinaoui’s talks with Haftar in Benghazi were preceded by meetings with Sarraj and other top officials in Tripoli, as well as meetings with rivals in the eastern city of Tobruk, which seats the internationally backed House of Representatives (parliament) headed by Aguila Saleh.
Jhinaoui is also to meet with French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian in Tunis for talks focused on Libya, local media reported.