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Macron hosts world powers to push for stability, ensure elections in Libya

French President Emmanuel Macron hosts leaders and diplomats in Paris for an international conference on Friday aimed at ensuring Libya sticks to a plan to hold elections in December and turn a new page in its history.

The hydrocarbon-rich North African country has been mired in civil war since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in a 2011 uprising, with the bloodshed drawing in competing Libya factions and Islamist groups, as well as regional powers.

Libya’s election targeted for December 24 was set through a UN-backed roadmap adopted last year, which also established an interim unity government to take over from rival administrations in east and west that had been warring for years.

There are also fears over whether the various factions will recognise the results of the polls, which could mark a turning point for a country that has become a major departure point for migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean for Europe.

Key players attending the meeting will include US Vice President Kamala Harris, who is on a visit to France aimed at improving ties, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one of Paris’s closest allies in the Middle East.

A French presidential official told reporters at a briefing ahead of the meeting that while the elections were close at hand, the situation remained fragile. There were some actors ready to seize on any ambiguities to advance their own interests, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“They are obviously waiting to ambush and try to derail the electoral process,” the official said.

A final communique may warn potential spoilers that they could face sanctions, diplomats said.

Almost 30 countries and organisations will be in Paris, including Libya’s neighbours, and countries that have been split over the conflict.

Turkish, Russian leaders absent 

Despite Paris initially aiming to have the Turkish and Russian heads of state attending, both Ankara and Moscow have sent lower level representatives, perhaps demonstrating the complications with removing foreign forces.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a rare visit to Western Europe amid rising tensions, is representing Moscow. 

Turkey is only sending its deputy foreign minister, Sedat Onal.

Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group are entrenched alongside the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), which was supported in the war by Moscow, along with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

The former Tripoli government had support from Turkish regular forces in Libya as advisers, and from allied Syrian fighters, the Turkish government has said.

Diplomats have said Turkey was unlikely to act before there were departures from the east.

French officials have been at pains to present the conference as an international effort, co-presided by France, Germany, Italy, the United Nations and Libya itself.

But it represents the latest foray into high-stakes international diplomacy by Macron, who is expected to seek re-election in April and whose country also takes on the EU presidency in January.

In May 2018, a year into his term in office, Macron also convened the key Libyan leaders for a conference in Paris where they agreed to hold elections that year.

Since then, France has faced accusations that it favoured the secular Moscow-educated Haftar in the conflict against the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Despite French weapons being found on a base used by pro-Haftar forces in 2019, Paris has rejected the claims.

Speculations over candidates, poll schedules

Earlier this week, Libya opened registration for election candidates, with speculation mounting over possible presidential bids by eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar and Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, both deeply divisive figures.

The scheduling also remains unclear – presidential and parliamentary elections were both slated for December 24.

In early October, parliament then pushed back the legislative elections until January, though world powers and the UN want them held simultaneously.

Libya will be represented by Mohamed al-Menfi, the head of the transitional presidential council that carries out head-of-state functions ahead of the elections, as well as Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah.

Local media have reported that Dbeibah will be accompanied by foreign minister Najla al-Mangoush, despite her suspension by the presidential council in a move that highlighted tensions between the premier and the presidential council.

A prominent regional absentee is Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was invited by Paris but is staying away after taking umbrage at comments by Macron criticising his country’s “political-military system”.

The dispute prompted a rare expression of contrition from the Élysée, which said it “regretted” the misunderstandings caused by the remarks.

Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra welcomed the response as “respectful” and confirmed that Algerian officials would attend the conference although not Tebboune himself.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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