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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Libyan rivals agree to Dec. 10 elections despite unrest

Libya Chief of Staff, Marshall Khalifa Haftar, President of the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk Aguila Saleh Issa Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj and President of Libya High Council Khaled Mechri, from left to right, attend an International Conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace with representatives of twenty countries, including Libya's neighbors, regional and Western powers and international organizations in Paris, France, Tuesday May 29, 2018. (Etienne Laurent / Associated Press)
By Sylvie Corbet and Elaine Ganley Associated Press

PARIS – Rival Libyan leaders meeting in Paris on Tuesday tentatively agreed on a roadmap leading to parliamentary and presidential elections on Dec. 10, but the plan faces major obstacles in the North African country, where rival authorities rely on an array of unruly militias.

In an early sign of trouble, the Libyan leaders declined to sign a closing declaration outlining their commitments, which include laying the groundwork for the vote with new electoral laws and establishing a “constitutional basis” by mid-September.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the conference, nevertheless lauded the eight-point declaration as a “crucial step” toward stabilizing the country, which was plunged into chaos after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Moammar Gadhafi.

“It’s the first time these Libyan leaders accepted to work together and approved a joint declaration,” Macron said at the close of the brief conference, which brought together rivals from Libya’s west and east and representatives of some 20 countries. “Now we have clear commitments for the country, an approved calendar” for elections, he said.

The talks brought together Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, head of Libya’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, and Gen. Khalifa Hifter, whose forces dominate eastern Libya.

The conference aimed to forge a political roadmap that would restore order in Libya, where lawlessness has fed Islamic militancy, human trafficking and instability in the wider region. Moving toward parliamentary and presidential elections by the end of 2018 was a key goal.

Sarraj said there was lingering disagreement over the setting of a “constitutional basis” for the vote, which the declaration said should be done by Sept. 16. He said the two sides had not agreed on whether this entails amendments to the country’s current laws or the drafting of a new constitution.

A French diplomatic official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the accord, raised the possibility of a delay of the elections if the Libyans decide to proceed with a constitutional referendum.

Macron brought Sarraj and Hifter together for a conference last July, producing a 10-point joint declaration that was the first of its kind between the rivals. It, too, looked toward elections and a cease-fire. That accord changed little on the ground in Libya, however, and critics dismissed the conference as a photo opportunity.

The U.N. envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, said Tuesday’s agreement was a step forward.

“This is a historic meeting. We do not speak in place of the Libyans. It’s the Libyans who agree all together in our presence. This is crucial,” Salame said.

In the eight-point declaration that closed the conference, the Libyan leaders committed to accepting electoral results and ensuring funds and “strong security arrangements” for the voting. They also commit to work on “phasing out parallel government and institutions” and on “the unifying of the Libyan Central Bank and other institutions.”

The language was tinkered with to appease both sides, with “phasing out” used in place of “dissolve” in the point concerning the parallel governments, according to the French diplomatic official.

Libya is split between rival governments in the east and west. Representatives of Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which have backed Hifter and the administration in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk, attended Tuesday’s conference.

The agreement said little about what could prove to be the biggest challenge to holding elections and reuniting the country – an array of Islamist, tribal and other militias that hold real power on the ground.

“Of course there are Libyans who are opposed to this political process, others who are for a `status quo’ because they have an interest in it, others who are for disorder and instability. So we must not close our eyes,” an official at the French presidency said ahead of the conference. The official insisted, however, that “they are a minority.”

France is trying to play peacemaker in a country where years of efforts by the United Nations and former colonial power Italy have failed to bring stability.

The International Crisis Group, an NGO on conflict resolution, warned that the Paris conference might unintentionally undermine the U.N.-led peace process.

The group said in a statement Monday that “French organizers should avoid imposing too rigid a framework.” It called for “a broader declaration of principles on political, security and economic steps that would help stabilize and unite the divided country.”

Libya slid into chaos after the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed Gadhafi in 2011. France was at the forefront of the NATO airstrikes, carried out along with the United States and others.

Elections were held shortly after Gadhafi’s demise, but failed to bring stability. In the years since, Libya has emerged as a major conduit for African migrants hoping to reach Europe.