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Opinion

A litmus test for Libya

kamala harris-macron

With the corresponding international backing agreed at the Paris Conference, Libya should hold its first free, regular, inclusive and credible presidential and legislative elections on 24 December. The elections should thus put an end, or at least represent more than a temporary truce, to the polarisation of the country, which is divided into two parts, in turn subdivided into zones where the law of the strongest of the new warlords still reigns.  

Libya's return to a certain degree of normality is essential to defuse one of the hotbeds of instability shaking the Mediterranean. Hence the determination of French President Emmanuel Macron to bring together in the French capital all those who are playing their various trump cards in the area. Everyone from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her possible successor as the EU's political leader, Italy's Mario Draghi, to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi, and of course Libya's Mohamed Al-Manfi, President of the Presidential Council, and Prime Minister Adbel Hamid Dbeibah. And so on, up to thirty countries interested in bringing Libya out of the morass it has been suffering since the overthrow and assassination of Muammar al-Gaddafi.  

In this concert of leading voices, however, two of the most important and involved were missing: those of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Deputy Minister Sedat Önal, respectively. 

Russia and Turkey are major players in Libya. The former openly and even shamelessly supports Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of Cyrenaica and a leading candidate in the elections. The latter relies on the services of the Russian security and logistics services company Wagner, whose mercenaries are filling the most important posts in the presidential circle in countries such as Mali and the Central African Republic, while Haftar is said to have some 300 Wagner agents at his exclusive service. Of course, the Kremlin, through the mouth of its diplomatic chief Sergei Lavrov, denies any dependence on Wagner. Aligned with Russia's support for Haftar are mainly the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. 

Turkey, for its part, maintains its support for the unity government in Tripoli through a military contingent and the informal cover of a network of agents, mostly Syrians won to the Turkish cause. In this scenario of alleged backing, espionage and mutant loyalties, agents from Sudan and Chad are also active, countries that are also very much affected by whatever happens in Libya. In such a scenario, the EU is supposed to want and work neutrally for a lasting solution arbitrated by Libya's own political forces.  

Dangerous graveyard of military scrap metal

The country, which has become a graveyard of military equipment, including low-intensity nuclear material, has fallen prey to the looting of this military scrap by all kinds of gangs, including, of course, the most radical jihadist militants, and has consequently become an uncontrolled base for operations to progressively occupy areas of the Sahel.  

It is the danger of this drift that has led Macron to take the initiative, in principle with the backing of the entire international community represented in Paris for the future elections as a starting point towards stabilisation. To this end, the Turks and Russians should first withdraw their military and mercenary forces, which they accuse of further polarising a very fragmented country.  

Apart from the inescapable Haftar, it remains to be seen which other candidates will run and, crucially, whether they will accept the outcome of the ballot box in advance. Failure to do so would raise the well-founded suspicion that, should they lose, they would return to the mountain of the taifas dominated by the warlords. 

Despite his denials, another candidate who should be unavoidable is Abdel Hamid Dbeibah, the current prime minister of the government of national unity and transition. Saadi al-Islam Gaddafi, the smart son of the lynched Libyan leader, is also threatening to run in the elections. His presence, and above all the result he obtains, will be the measure of Libyans' hypothetical nostalgia for the dictator's regime or the desire to turn the page in one of the Mediterranean countries with the greatest potential.