Libya Summit Ends With Little More Than Pledge to Meet Again

(Bloomberg) -- Libya’s competing powers agreed to attend a national conference early next year, a United Nations envoy said, after talks in Italy that appeared to make little substantial progress in bridging divisions that have plagued their country for seven years.

Stabilizing the oil-exporting North African nation is a priority for European governments. The chaos that has engulfed Libya made it a favored transit point for migrants determined to travel to Europe, where they have fed rising populism. Insecurity has also enabled jihadists fleeing Syria and other conflicts to establish strongholds just across the Mediterranean.

The UN, though, has struggled to rally rival politicians based in Libya’s west and east behind its blueprint for a new political framework meant to prepare the ground for elections that it now hopes to hold in 2019. Italy’s gathering in Sicily, a landing ground for some migrants, was conceived partly as an effort to inject new momentum into that process.

At a press conference in Palermo on Tuesday, the UN’s Ghassan Salame said he had seen some encouraging signs for a major Libya conference the organization wants to hold in the “first weeks of next year.”

“I saw unanimous support in the international community but I also got a clear commitment from the Libyans present here that they will attend,” he said at the end of the two-day gathering. Previous international efforts to end the conflict have come to naught.

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Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who controls most of Libya’s east, dispelled doubts that he would attend the meeting by showing up in the Sicilian capital on Monday night. He skipped the main events and went home early, but took part in an informal meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, and Fayez al-Sarraj, head of Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli.

According to an Italian diplomat who was present, Haftar told Sarraj in extended talks on the sidelines of the session that he should remain in office until new elections. Turkey -- another conduit for migrants headed for Europe -- was excluded from the gathering of leaders, and pulled its delegation out.

Since a NATO-backed war ended Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year rule in 2011, Libya has been carved up among militias that have often swung behind one of the rival administrations. Infighting has repeatedly interrupted oil shipments, thwarting efforts to revive the economy.

Much of the country’s oil wealth is siphoned off to armed groups and their loyalists, while Libyans line up for hours outside banks to obtain paltry quantities. The dinar has weakened on the black market, fueling inflation that has impoverished wage-earners. Smugglers of people, weapons and dollars, meanwhile, are getting rich.

Salame envisages holding the national conference to agree on a political framework to enable elections in the first half of 2019. Libyans have signaled their backing for a ballot but a credible vote will be hard to organize amid the country’s fragmentation.

In May, Libya’s power centers agreed during a summit organized by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris to hold elections by December. The date was deemed ambitious by Libya observers at the time, and as clashes closed Tripoli airport and Islamic State attacked the electoral commission and National Oil Corporation, it became unachievable.

There have though since been minor breakthroughs. After much delay, the eastern-based House of Representatives loyal to Haftar this month endorsed a plan to reshape the UN-backed governing council, as set out by Salame.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.