Bleak outlook for Libya's coming Sirte summit after Tunis meeting cancelled

Observers say there is no political will for reconciliation among Libya's political actors, who are benefiting from the turmoil

Tripoli residents mark the 13th anniversary of the uprising that toppled longtime strongman Muammar Qaddafi, on February 17. AFP
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Uncertainty surrounds a planned peace summit, aimed at helping to bring to an end the civil unrest in Libya.

Scheduled for April, the Sirte National Reconciliation Summit is backed by the UN and the African Union.

But experts doubt it will produce any effective outcomes, saying that personal interests are standing in the way of peace in Libya.

Othman Ben Sassi, a political analyst and former member of Libya’s disbanded post-2011 National Transitional Council, said that Libyans had lost faith in the reconciliation process.

"Talks have just turned into a mere routine," he told The National from Tripoli.

The aim of this political elite is not true state building but maximising personal gains
Othman Ben Sassi, member of Libya’s National Transitional Council

"People have lost their trust in the entire political elite."

Mr Ben Sassi spoke after the abrupt cancellation of another reconciliation meeting, which had been expected on Wednesday and Thursday in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

More than 100 politicians from Libya's House of Representatives and High Council of State had been expected to take part.

No official explanation has been given for the cancellation, with local reports citing "lack of appropriate permissions" to hold the meeting.

Since the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s regime by rebels – backed by western air strikes – in 2011, Libya has been rocked by unrest.

The country remains divided because of a continuing rivalry between two governments, one based in the west in Tripoli and another in the east in Benghazi, and different armed factions’ attempts to seize control of the oil-rich North African state.

Elections were expected to take place in 2021, before those fell through due to disagreements about the electoral law and who should be allowed to stand in the polls.

The UN and other regional powers such as the African Union have since been attempting to find common ground for the political actors, in the hope elections could take place in the near future.

Observers say there is no political will for reconciliation among Libya's political actors, with some benefiting from the turmoil.

"The aim of this [ruling] political elite is not true state-building, but it is rather about maximising personal gains," Mr Ben Sassi said.

Latest figures from the Finance Ministry of the Tripoli-based National Unity Government show that about $3 million was allocated as salaries for both its legislative and executive bodies, in the first nine months of 2023.

While government officials' salaries continued to rise in recent years, the average public sector salary remains around $240, according to salary tracker Bdex.

North Africa expert and senior fellow at the John Hopkins University Foreign Policy Institute, Hafed Al Ghwell, told The National that a comprehensive national reconciliation in Libya is not possible as long as the country remains reliant on an inherently-flawed leadership structure.

"They [politicians] do not have a political agenda and all they are doing is fight over money," he said.

Long-lasting peace

As the reconciliation process continues to encounter difficulties, Libyans are calling for free and fair elections.

For Tripoli resident Sara Elwheshi, 26, a chance to have a say in her country’s political future is all she wants.

“Since 2011 we have been suffering from a crisis that has affected, in one way or another, societal conditions and caused a tragic decline in public services such as education and health," she told The National.

Ms Elwheshi believes that the only resolution to the country’s stalemate is a comprehensive political reconciliation.

“Elections are an essential part of the democratic process and the Libyan people have the right to determine its political future,” Ms Elwheshi said.

Libyans say long-delayed parliamentary elections could be the breakthrough their country needs to mitigate its current crisis.

The longer it takes, however, the riskier it becomes for Libyans who are already bearing the brunt of the political instability.

“People are living in a volcano zone, we might keep going on with our lives for years but that volcano will still be there and could erupt at any given moment,” Mr Ben Sassi said.

In a UN Security Council meeting earlier this month, the UN's envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, emphasised the need for Libyan politicians to put aside personal differences and interests and move towards elections.

“Key Libyan institutional stakeholders appear unwilling to resolve the outstanding politically contested issues that would clear the path to the long-awaited elections in Libya,” he told the Security Council.

Despite the stagnation of the current status quo, Libyans continue to believe that a successful peace process will eventually unfold.

“There is always hope, even if the steps falter and we face some complications, improving the situation is neither far away nor impossible,” Ms Elwheshi said.

Mohamed Al Menfi, chairman of Libya's Presidential Council said in January that he was hopeful the Sirte summit would bring about a comprehensive and inclusive reconciliation, as well as determine the most adequate mechanisms for such process.

However, both Tripoli and Benghazi have not been transparent about the kind of mechanisms they want to unify the country's divided political system.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 8:56 AM