UN plans national conference and elections for Libya

If the conference does take place, there is the question of whether the HoR and its president would act on a call for elections.
Sunday 11/11/2018
UN special envoy Ghassan Salame speaks during a meeting in Tripoli, Libya. (Reuters)
Critical juncture. UN special envoy Ghassan Salame speaks during a meeting in Tripoli, Libya. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The only way to solve Libya’s political divisions is a national conference, UN special envoy Ghassan Salame has decided.

Three days before the Palermo meeting organised by the Italian government to try to find a way forward for Libya, he told the UN Security Council that there would be a national conference in the first weeks of 2019. He also announced that the electoral process formally setting the date for parliamentary and presidential elections must start next spring.

The timing of the announcement was designed to pre-empt the Palermo conference. There was no requirement for a Security Council briefing from him at this time. Those sessions are usually every four months and the most recent was in September. Salame’s statements effectively hijacked the Palermo meeting, resetting its agenda.

Salame was widely rumoured to be deeply unhappy with the Italian move, seeing it as an attempt to take over UN efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis and, in doing so, undermining and complicating them.

For the same reason, he was said to have been upset at French President Emmanuel Macron’s conference last May at which the four Libyan key players — Presidency Council leader Fayez al-Sarraj, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, House of Representatives President Ageela Saleh and State Council President Khalid al-Mishri — agreed to elections in December 2018. Salame, however, could not publicly criticise the French move because he supported elections, even if the announced date appeared premature.

A grand conference was Salame’s idea when he became UN special envoy in June 2017. However, amid deepening divisions and chaos in Libya, it was pushed to the back burner, almost impossible to organise, let alone find an acceptable and neutral location in the country as a venue.

That has changed, Salame said; conditions “are more propitious.”

The national conference’s objective is, as a gathering representing the Libyan people, to force the country’s political leaders to act responsibly.

The contempt for them in Salame’s Security Council briefing was unmistakable, in particular for the House of Representatives (HoR), Libya’s parliament. He has been critical of it before but this time he accused it of deliberately wasting time over the constitutional referendum, elections and related issues with delays and postponements. It had failed to uphold its responsibilities, Salame said. It and the State Council were determined to prevent elections “at all costs,” he charged.

Salame even appeared to question the HoR’s legitimacy: “The body calling itself Libya’s sole legislature is largely sterile,” he said.

In contrast, opinion polling showed that 80% of Libyans asked said they wanted elections, he said. They were “sick and tired of military adventurism and petty political manoeuvres,” he said

Other calls in the briefing included the need to extend security arrangements in Tripoli, for economic reform, ensuring prisoners held illegally are freed, support for the Egypt-led moves to reunite the Libyan armed forces, for international backing in the training of professional security forces, which Salame said he hoped would be agreed at Palermo, and for an end to the destructive lawlessness in southern Libya.

Whether Salame’s unbridled condemnation will shame Libya’s political elites into positive action remains to be seen. Countless promises have been broken, ignored or so delayed as to be meaningless.

It is not clear that new security arrangements in Tripoli or economic reform, actively supported by Salame and the UN Support Mission in Libya, add up to anything substantial. For all the encouraging talk of militias having withdrawn from some positions in Tripoli and being prepared to pull out of others, the head of the main militia, the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade, Haithem Tajouri, remains the most powerful person in the city, arguably more powerful than Sarraj.

Economic reform has been limited to an effective devaluation of the Libyan dinar (so that the government has more dinars to spend for its oil dollars), trying to unite the competing western and eastern central banks and ensuring there is cash in the banks for the public to withdraw. These are monetary and banking reforms. There is nothing about fundamental economic reforms that can move Libya from the mismanaged, centralised, socialist economy of the Qaddafi era to a mixed economy in which the private sector can play a full part.

Nevertheless, Salame has decided that, whatever the problems, Libya’s divisions cannot be left in the hands of its current political leaders. The country, he said, was “caught in a futile and destructive cycle, fuelled by personal ambitions and the nation’s stolen wealth” and “fast becoming the tragedy of the lost opportunity.” Salame seems determined that a national conference and elections are the only way forward.

Making a conference happen and a success will not be easy. Choosing the right venue presents its own difficulties, with delegates refusing to go here or there because of who controls the place. More important, it will have to be actively supported by key individuals, notably Haftar. If he were opposed, few delegates from the east would turn up.

If the conference does take place, there is the question of whether the HoR and its president would act on a call for elections. As it stands, they would probably try to delay again, in which case outside pressure would probably be applied to make them comply.

Salame has one other major requirement for peace in Libya. He ended his briefing to the Security Council by saying the unity of the international community is crucial if there is to be progress in stabilising Libya. In other words, no more foreign initiatives and conferences — no repetition of Paris and Palermo — unless initiated by the United Nations.

Salame has said the same in previous briefings but this time he appears determined to make sure it does not happen again.