Libyan leaders in Italy for fresh attempt to solve security crisis

Libya's key political players meet with global leaders in Sicily today in the latest bid to kickstart a long-stalled political process and trigger elections.

Libyan leaders in Italy for fresh attempt to solve security crisis
Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) and his Libyan counterpart Fayez al-Sarraj in Rome at their last meeting in October. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP

A summit in Palermo begins today, aimed at solving the political crisis in Libya, which has been unstable since dictator Moamer Kadhafi was deposed in 2011.

For Italy's government, a top priority is stemming the flow of migrants who exploit Libya's security vacuum in their quest to reach European shores, often via Italy. 

“The Palermo conference is a fundamental step in the goal of stabilising Libya and for the security of the entire Mediterranean,” Conte said last week.

At a summit in Paris in May, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and eastern Libya strongman Khalifa Haftar agreed to hold national polls on December 10, but that date has fallen by the wayside.

Acknowledging the chaotic political situation in Libya, the United Nations on Thursday conceded elections will not be viable before at least the spring of 2019.

A question mark hangs over Haftar's crucial presence at the talks in the Sicilian capital Palermo, with Rome on Sunday denying a Haftar official's statement that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had paid a lightning visit to his Benghazi headquarters amid reports he might not attend.

A source close to the Italian government could not confirm if the two had been in telephone contact.

“Haftar already succeeded in making the Palermo Conference about the importance of his role in any potential agreement in Libya going forward and reinforcing his position as the key actor in the Libyan crisis,” said Mohamed ElJarh, CEO of research and consulting firm Libya Outlook.

Competing agendas

But the Sicily summit risks being compromised not only by tensions between Libyan factions, but also the competing agendas of foreign powers, analysts say.

Just as in May, the key Libyan invitees are Haftar, the eastern parliament's speaker Aguila Salah, GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj and Khaled al-Mechri, speaker of a Tripoli-based upper chamber.

In an interview with AFP, Sarraj urged the international community on Thursday to find a “common vision” for the future of the chaos-hit North African nation.

The GNA says it will use the Palermo talks to lobby for security reforms that unify the army, a constitutionally rooted electoral process, economic reform and an end to “parallel institutions”. 

The US, Arab countries and European nations will all send representatives to the Tuesday talks, after a dinner set for Monday. Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is set to attend. 

UN envoy Ghassan Salame told the Security Council on Thursday that a national conference in early 2019 would be organised to provide “a platform” for Libyans to spell out their vision for the future.

But diplomatic wrangling between Italy and France hangs over this summit.

READ ALSO: France 'partly to blame' for Libya crisis, says Italian defence minister

In September, Italy's defence minister and parliamentary speaker both partly blamed France for Libya's security crisis, which continues to simmer some seven years after the NATO-backed uprising toppled Kadhafi.

The Italian swipes came as Tripoli was plagued by militia clashes that killed at least 117 people and wounded more than 400 between late August and late September.

Rome and Paris have for months been at loggerheads over Libya's election timetable. While France repeatedly endorsed the December date, Italy opposed it.

Italy has not been alone in pushing for elections to be delayed; the December 10 date was also viewed sceptically by Washington and Moscow.

One Italian diplomatic source said that no definitive poll date should be set at the summit and it is “not sure that there will be a final document” after the talks.

According to diplomats and analysts, Russia, France, Egypt and the UAE support Haftar, while Turkey and Qatar have thrown their weight behind rivals to the eastern strongman, especially Islamist groups.