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Is France paving the way to Haftar's return in Libya? Open in fullscreen

Guma El-Gamaty

Is France paving the way to Haftar's return in Libya?

France's new PM hosted a meeting between Serraj (head of the GNA) Khalifa Haftar [AFP]

Date of publication: 3 August, 2017

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Comment: To Italy's dismay, France has taken a leading role in Libya. But suspicions persist over whether President Macron is capable of being an honest broker, writes Guma Gamaty.
Historically, Libya was not part of France's geopolitical sphere of influence as it was not one of those northern and western African countries that were colonised by France for long periods of time.

There has been almost no French cultural influence in Libya in comparison to other North African countries, and Libyans generally do not speak the French language.

However, just after the Second World War, France did administer the southern Libyan region of Fezzan, adjacent to the French former colonies of Chad and Niger, for about eight years until Libya was declared an independent country in December 1951.

Yet, after the outbreak of the Libyan revolution in February 2011, former French president Sarkozy took a surprisingly leading international role by starting the military intervention campaign in Libya, just hours after the UN Security council resolution 1973 was approved to allow air strikes to protect Libyan civilians.

Sarkozy's swift military air intervention in Benghazi had saved the city from a potential major massacre by Gaddafi's substantial military force that reached the western gates of the city.

France, six years on and with a newly elected president Macron, may be attempting to take the lead again, although diplomatically this time, by making an effort to broker a deal that could help clear the political impasse in Libya.

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On Tuesday 27 July, President Macron hosted a meeting in Paris between Fayes Serraj, head of the Government of National Accord (GNA), and Khalifa Haftar. The one day meeting produced a ten point plan described as a breakthrough agreement between the two men.

Serraj and Haftar signed the 10-point statement in which they committed to a ceasefire and to hold national elections "as soon as possible" with the goal of holding them in spring of 2018.

The meeting, which was also attended by the newly appointed UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, was seen as a diplomatic success for the new French president. 

However, much doubt has also arisen concerning the motives and the feasibility of making this agreement work. Even before the meeting convened, the French move had angered Italy, which saw France as trying to dominate and take ownership of resolving the Libyan conflict.

The consternation in Italy stems from the fact that it sees Libya as its own diplomatic preserve and natural sphere of influence due to its colonial past in the country, its proximity across the Mediterranean and large current oil and gas interests. It's also worth remembering the huge issue of migration across the sea to Italy, that often begins on Libyan shores.

Italy clearly wants any political deal in Libya to result in a strong central government in Tripoli that makes tackling unregulated migration a top priority.

In 2016 some 180,000 migrants made the dangerous journey from Libya across the sea to Italy and almost 95,000 have already done so in 2017. Italian politicians see the sudden increased French political engagement with Libya, at the highest level, as side-lining Italy and possibly compromising its interests.

Read more: Is France ready to stand up to Trump on Iran?

France however, sees tackling extremist Islamists and the threat of terrorism as the main priority in Libya, rather than migration, which does not affect France as directly as it does Italy. 

It is also worth remembering that France carries more political clout than Italy in the international arena; being one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and much stronger economically and militarily. France may well be in a better position to promote and implement a political solution in Libya.

Last April, in a visit to Washington, Italy's PM Gentiloni was reported to have urged US president Trump to play a major role in stabilising Libya, seeking close cooperation between the US and Italy that would mean a leading role for Italy in Libya.

The US president was believed to be reluctant and effectively gave Gentiloni the cold shoulder over the idea. Meanwhile, Trump and the new French president Macron have met at least twice in the last few weeks, including an official visit by Trump to France, where Libya was believed to have been part of their discussions.

Trump and the new French president Macron have met at least twice in the last few weeks

There is a fear within Italian circles and some others that an understanding has been forged between Trump and Macron whereby the US will allow France to play the major role in resolving the Libyan conflict.

Suspicions linger over the real motives behind France's desired new role in Libya and whether it can be seen as an honest broker, given its known military and logistical support for Haftar and its close ties with both major Arab sponsors of Haftar, the UAE and Egypt.

The foreign minister in the new Macron government is Jean-Yves Le Drian who was believed to be the architect behind France leaning more towards Haftar, whilst in his previous position as defence minister under the former government of president Hollande.

France admitted last year that three of its soldiers died in military action near Benghazi in the east of Libya, supposedly in an "intelligence-gathering mission" but their involvement clearly pointed to assisting Haftar.

Le Drian was quoted recently as saying that he believed Libya was a "failed state" and that Haftar should be part of the solution and given a role in a future Libyan government. 

Read more: Why is Libya still in crisis long after the death of Gaddafi?

A key point in the Paris agreement calls for holding both parliamentary and presidential elections in Libya by Spring 2018. Yet it is not clear who will call for these elections and provide the constitutional and legislative basis for them to take place.

Realistically, it is almost impossible to hold elections in Libya in a free and secure environment without the agreement and cooperation of all major political and military sides in the Libyan conflict. As a result, any agreement that would stand some chance of success must be inclusive of all key players and not just based on meetings between Serraj and Haftar. 

Coming just a few months after a similar summit between the two men in Abu Dhabi, the Paris meeting has certainly given Haftar a degree of international and military legitimacy.

The Paris meeting has certainly given Haftar a degree of international and military legitimacy

Many see the meeting as a step towards promoting Haftar's takeover in Libya, possibly through a quick rushed election while he is enjoying a wave of rising popularity.

This could be closer to the UAE, Egypt and France's true agenda, and there is a suspicion that France - liaising especially with the UAE - is seeking to dictate a solution that aligns with its own interests.

France's latest initiative therefore, could be seen as an attempt to pave the way to Haftar's rise in power, perceiving him as the potential ally which could best serve French interests in Libya, and in the wider North and West Africa region. 

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 


Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab

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