Libya's rival leaders meet in latest effort to end political standoff

UN says talks are aimed at finding a compromise to hold presidential and parliamentary elections as soon as possible

Centre, left to right, Speaker of Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, UN Special Adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams and President of Libya's High State Council of State Khaled Al Mishri. AFP
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Two senior Libyan officials began two days of talks on Tuesday on constitutional arrangements for elections, the latest UN effort to bridge gaps between the country’s rivals.

Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the country’s east-based parliament, and Khaled Al Meshri, head of the High Council of State based in Tripoli, met at the UN headquarters in Geneva, AP reported.

The UN said the talks will focus on a draft constitutional framework for elections after Libya’s rival factions failed to reach an agreement in their last round of talks in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.

Stephanie Williams, the UN special adviser on Libya, said they would discuss “timelines, modalities and milestones to guarantee a clear path to the holding of national elections as soon possible”.

“It is now the time to make a final and courageous effort to ensure that this historic compromise takes place, for the sake of Libya, the Libyan people and the credibility of its institutions,” she said.

The criteria for a presidential candidacy was a contentious point in the talks, Libyan media reported.

The Tripoli-based council insisted on banning military figures from running for the country’s top post — apparently a move directed at Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are loyal to the east-based administration.

Mr Haftar had announced his bid in elections scheduled for last December but the vote was not held because of myriad issues, including disputed hopefuls who had announced bids and disputes about election laws.

There are growing tensions, and sporadic clashes between rival militias have erupted in Tripoli.

Living conditions have also deteriorated, mainly because of fuel shortages in the oil-rich nation. Tribal leaders have shut down many oil plants, including the country’s largest field.

The blockade was largely meant to cut off state revenue to the incumbent Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has refused to step down although the vote was not held in December.

Mr Dbeibah and another candidate prime minister, Fathi Bashagha, appointed by the east-based parliament to lead a transitional government, are claiming power.

The rivalry has sparked fears the oil-rich country could slide back to fighting after tentative steps towards unity last year.

Libya has been wrecked by conflict since a Nato-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

The country was then for years split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by different militias and foreign governments.

'Reality' of Libyan politics

Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Libya said on Tuesday that it could be possible to hold national elections without resolving the standoff between the two rival governments and that a mechanism to oversee spending could help with governance for an interim period.

The ambassador, Richard Norland, told Reuters in an interview that while he was optimistic that Geneva talks this week could resolve the impasse, there were ways to move forward without a single Libyan government.

Factions that dominated different parts of the country could separately lead those areas towards a national election.

"The reality of the Libyan political scene is that no single actor can produce an outcome. The only formula that's going to work is for the key actors to get together and negotiate a compromise," he said.

The US  Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tripoli, Libya June 28, 2022. Reuters

He said that if this week's Geneva talks between Libya's two legislative bodies on a constitutional basis for elections did not produce a deal, he expected further negotiations that would build on areas already agreed.

The US is pushing efforts to reduce conflict by ensuring fair, transparent spending of Libya's oil revenue until an elected government can take office.

The US and international partners have held meetings with Libyan figures to work out agreements on spending priorities, transparency, funding allocations and oversight of how money is used, he said.

"It's essentially a committee and you want the right people and the right organisations," he said, including from state auditing bodies, the parliament, finance ministry and others.

He said there had been buy-in from eastern and western factions to the idea, and that it would require broad involvement so that "the various political strands in the country feel their interests are being addressed", he said.

Economic disputes have amplified this year as the political crisis has accelerated. Besides the oil blockade in the east, the eastern branch of the central bank indicated on Tuesday it could start printing its own money as the process of reunifying the bank hits problems.

A mechanism to resolve financial disputes over oil revenue is key to reunifying the central banks, he said.

"This mechanism could provide a short-term pseudo-governmental function until elections take place so the sooner that happens the better for all Libyans," the American ambassador added.

Updated: June 29, 2022, 8:16 AM