Middle East

Italy's Libya talks lay bare deep divisions

Italy's Libya talks this week laid bare deep divisions between the key power brokers, threatening attempts to resolve the country's ongoing crisis, analysts say.

Head of the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, pictured centre, was among the top Libyan invitees
Head of the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, pictured centre, was among the top Libyan invitees (AFP)

Italy's Libya talks this week laid bare deep divisions between the key power brokers, threatening attempts to resolve the country's ongoing crisis, analysts say.

Two days of meetings in the Sicilian capital Palermo saw some delegates refuse to sit side by side, while a meeting held on the sidelines sparked a diplomatic spat.

"The dynamics between the four Libyan delegations attending the Palermo conference regrettably show that the rifts are still very deep," said Claudia Gazzini, a Libya analyst at International Crisis Group.

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar showed up, only to snub the main conference and organise separate talks with international leaders.

Such a move was "a slap in the face to the Libyan politicians at the conference", said Gazzini.

Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) holds much of eastern Libya, held a meeting with representatives of Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, France and Russia.

One of his main rivals, UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, also attended the "informal talks", but Qatar and Turkey were not invited.

Their exclusion prompted Ankara to pull out of the main conference in protest.

LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari later accused Turkey and Qatar of travelling to Palermo "to protect the interests of the terrorist groups which they are supporting in Libya".

Khaled Saleh el-Kuafi, a professor at the University of Benghazi, said the outcome "illustrated the extent of the crisis, the divisions in Libya and the fragility of the situation".

Haftar "succeeded in being the star of the conference" by refusing to meet some of his rivals and sidelining Turkey and Qatar," he added.

Rivalry within Europe

The Palermo talks followed a Paris meeting at which Libyan leaders agreed to prepare for elections this December. Such a timeline was widely viewed as unrealistic, however, and preparations for polls have now been pushed back to 2019.

For Khaled al-Montasser, a professor at the University of Tripoli, international meetings cannot succeed "while the international parties are putting the Libyans under pressure and while they put forward solutions to the crisis which suit themselves and them alone".

It should be up to the Libyans, he said, to "agree on the subjects that they must discuss".

But, as Montasser noted, the Libyan leaders themselves are "not ready to accept each other and to tolerate differences of opinion".

Just as in May, the top Libyan invitees to Palermo were Haftar, Sarraj, who heads the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, the eastern parliament's speaker Aguila Salah and Khaled al-Mechri, speaker of a Tripoli-based upper chamber.

But the Italy talks were not really focused on improving relations between the rivals, according to Libyan analyst Emad Badi.

It was instead "an attempt by Italy to both react to the French initiative and to reposition itself as a power broker", he said.

Despite the conference being viewed as a failure by numerous analysts, some have underlined the importance of meetings organised by the United Nations a few hours before the formal talks opened.

Those discussions focused on economic and security issues in Libya, where residents have seen their currency's value plummet and endured years of violence.

Weeks of clashes in September between rival militias in the capital Tripoli killed at least 117 people and wounded more than 400, prompting Sarraj's government to introduce reforms.

The UN's Libya envoy, Ghassan Salame, this week welcomed the participants' backing for the new measures and their "unanimous support" for a national conference early next year.

The 2019 talks are intended to give Libyans a chance to spell out their vision for the future, with elections slated for a few months later.

However, "numerous Libyans are still not certain of the format and aims of that conference," said Crisis Group's Gazzini.