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Italian-French competition over Libya pushing country toward more chaos

The last election Libya had was on June 25, 2014, when Libyans cast their votes to elect their representatives in the new House of Representatives after the interim General National Congress’ mandate expired. The hope was that elections would bring about stability and put an end to the violence that has plagued the North African country since its longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi was toppled with NATO help in October 2011.

In the 2014 election, most Libyans were frustrated and increasingly suspicious of the entire political process; only 630,000 voters cast their votes — less than half of eligible registered voters. The elections did not deliver peace nor end the violence. On the contrary, troubles increased and another war emerged when a coalition of Islamists refused to accept the election outcome and decided to take control of the country by force. They launched a military offensive dubbed Operation Dawn of Libya, which began July 13, 2014, and ended in August 2014, by taking full control of the capital, Tripoli, after destroying its international airport and inflicting huge damage to civilian and government properties.

Elections, it seems, do not always deliver what people wish for. But they seem to be the best idea the United Nations envoys can come up with. The current UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, is no exception. On May 29, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a summit in Paris bringing together all of Libya’s rivals, who agreed to the next elections proposed by Salame for Dec. 10 as the only way out of the mess in the country.

And again the French are the ones at the forefront, pushing once again for all Libyan parties to keep their promises to hold elections on the stated date. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Libya on July 23 to tour its three centers of power: Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi.

In Tripoli, he informed the Government of National Accord that France will contribute 100 million euros ($117 million) toward the election expenses, and elections should go ahead.

In Misrata, Le Drian wanted to make sure that its local council and its armed militia does not interrupt the agreed-upon elections since Misrata was not represented at the May Paris meeting.

In Benghazi, Le Drian met with Aqila Salah, the speaker of parliament, to make sure that parliament passes the required election law as previously agreed. The French official’s meeting with Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, intended to remind the strong military leader that elections must not be delayed for any reason and that the army should help in securing them.

But is Libya really suffering from lack of elections? At least France seems to believe this as a fact while it pursues its policy toward the country, partly because its rival, Italy, seems to believe otherwise. Notably, Italy was not invited to the May meeting hosted by France. Italy is the former colonial power in Libya (1911-1943) before the allies — including France — defeated it. That gave France dominance and control in Libya’s southern region, known as Fezzan.

In a previous meeting hosted by Macron between the Government of National Accord Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Hifter on July 24, 2017, Rome was angry at what it interpreted as the increasing snubbing by the new French president. An Italian diplomat at the time told Reuters, “Macron wants to be much more involved in Libya. That is fine, but he has brushed us away. We were not consulted.”

Italy has always taken the lead in the Libyan dossier, and almost all EU countries seem to accept that as a fact. Indeed, Italy’s historical ties to its former colony and its wide-ranging economic ties have always been the centerpiece in its policy toward its Mediterranean neighbors.

Le Drian and French Ambassador to Libya Brigitte Curmi did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for a comment on the matter.

In 2008, Italy and Libya signed a historic treaty ending the two countries’ long-running feud over the colonial period. The treaty set the stage for a new era in relations, which saw Italy accept responsibility of its brutal colonial occupation of Libya and agree to compensate it to the tune of $5 billion over a period of 25 years.

In return, Italy got a favored commercial partner status with the oil-rich country, among other benefits. Noteworthy is that Italy imports 25% of its oil and 10% of its gas needs from Libya. ENI, Italy’s giant energy company, has major stakes in Libya’s oil and gas industry. While France’s Total rivals ENI, publicly Paris seemed to let Rome lead the way on the Libyan issue — until recently, that is.

Italians still prefer to see elections in Libya delayed, calling on foreign powers not to intervene in deciding when such elections should take place. Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi said July 11, “It is the Libyan people and their broader institutions who will decide when the country should hold elections.”

Indeed, Libya can hardly conduct elections in a fair and peaceful manner at this stage. The lack of security is a major hurdle, particularly in the southern region where both the Government of National Accord and its Tobruk-based rival have little control and the region is rife with armed militias and criminal gangs, as it has been for the last seven years.

If the 2014 elections produced the most serious political division in Libya, any upcoming elections taking place amid the current security fluidity and political tense rivalry in the country could actually push it further into partition along regional lines. One important indicator of this emerged on July 19, when Fathi Majbri, a representative of the eastern region of Cyrenaica in the Government of National Accord, resigned and left Tripoli. The move came in protest against what he called “militia dominance” in the capital that is effectively paralyzing the Government of National Accord.

The French-Italian competition over dominance in Libya is clearly not helping the country but instead could further push it toward disintegration, in which case neither France nor Italy will win in the long run.


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