Libya's Paris agreement is all well and good, but can it be implemented?

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and GNA prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj may have set aside their differences for a formal pact, but whether the situation on the ground will allow for the terms of the agreement to materialise remains to be seen

French president Emmanuel Macron, centre, put it nicely when he said that "political legitimacy lies with prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj (left), while military legitimacy lies with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar". 
Philippe Wojazer  / Reuters
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Libya’s two main rival leaders, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya, and Fayez Al Sarraj, prime minister of Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), appeared to have made progress last week after agreeing on a ceasefire and elections for next year during a meeting hosted by French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

This was the second time the two have met in a short span of time, the first being in Abu Dhabi in May. What is different this time, however, is that the two sides issued a formal communiqué summing up their agreement.

The Paris meeting could not have happened without intense collaboration with Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Rome. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian played a leading role in the talks thanks to the strong relations he forged with Field Marshal Haftar when he was defence minister under former president François Hollande. The meeting also garnered widespread public support back home, with the majority of Libyans hoping it would bring about some order and security to a country engulfed by chaos since the uprising and Nato intervention that ended the Gaddafi regime in 2011.

But what, in reality, does the Paris accord mean and can it be implemented? First, prime minister Al Sarraj and Field Marshal Haftar agreed to a ceasefire across Libya. In other words, both sides agreed to refraining from using force unless under extreme circumstance. The loose phrasing may leave both sides free to interpret what are legitimate instances. Indeed, what must be recalled is that after the Abu Dhabi meeting, nearly 140 people, half of them soldiers with the LNA, were killed in surprise attacks on an airbase in southern Libya despite both agreeing to a ceasefire at the time.

The attack was carried out by groups claiming to be part of the GNA’s forces, which Mr Al Sarraj denied, even going as far as to suspend his defence minister and his chief of armed forces.

Field Marshal Haftar is certainly capable of implementing a ceasefire since he is in full control of the LNA. He has demonstrated this in his years of combatting terror groups in eastern Libya, finally liberating Benghazi last month. By contrast, the GNA's loyalty base is not substantial and consists of mainly different armed groups, some of them only nominally under the GNA’s command.

Both rivals agreed that legislative and presidential elections would be organised in Libya as soon as possible and very likely by spring, but this appears to be a tricky point both logistically and legally. Several deals forged since 2011 have not been honoured and the absence of a definitive date for new elections will be considered a disappointment.

Legally, the country still does not have a constitution. After the constitutional assembly finishes drafting it, the document must be approved by parliament and then put into a referendum. Even then, laws governing elections and political parties remain controversial and widely criticised and as such, are unlikely to be accepted as a basis for the next election.

Logistically, having an entire country ready for election within months is no easy task. Libya is a huge country and large parts are not under government control. While Field Marshal Haftar can rein in much of eastern Libya, Derna in north-east Benghazi remains at the mercy of terror groups, including ISIL. At the same time, the GNA is not in full control of western Libya, including the capital, Tripoli.

This brings about the issue of security in a country awash with arms. How elections can ever take place in such an environment remains a big question.

Perhaps the biggest problem to arise from the Paris meeting, nonetheless, is that regardless of any such pact, the fact remains that the meeting was between two men who do not consider each other legitimate leaders.

The French president was putting it nicely when he said that "political legitimacy is with Mr Al Sarraj, while military legitimacy lies with Field Marshal Haftar", thereby essentially validating both politicians.

Field Marshal Haftar now enjoys the international recognition he has been looking for, not only as a commander of the LNA, but as an international negotiator. This is a big boost for him since it came from a major country like France, which enjoys veto powers.

After all, France played a leading role in the military intervention in Libya six years ago making it ­– at least morally – responsible for what became of the country.

If Field Marshal Haftar now wants to implement the deal, as he explicitly claimed in press interviews, he should be able to, at least in eastern Libya. The parliament backing him is likely to accept the deal, as he enjoys wide public support. How much Mr Al Sarraj can deliver, on the other hand, remains to be seen.

Whatever the outcome, the meeting in Paris reaffirmed that the Libyan Political Accord signed in December 2015 remains the basis for political settlement in the country. The accord requires some amendments to accommodate Field Marshal Haftar and the LNA. This should be the focus of United Nations envoy Ghassan Salame in the coming weeks.

Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and journalist