Palermo conference off to an inauspicious start – November 12

Monday, 14th September, 2020

Amid speculation and conflicting reports over the head of the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) participation, Khalifa Haftar, the Palermo conference got off to a shaky start. Some analysts have suggested rumours over Haftar’s participation have reinforced his position as a critical figure in Libya’s future political roadmap. Overall, the most likely outcome from Palermo will be a renewed commitment to hold elections in 2019 and support to UN efforts, including an amended version of the UN Action Plan and economic reforms. Beyond political rhetoric, commitments, and statements, it would appear too early to assess Palermo’s ramifications. There is mounting evidence to suggest success in achieving breakthroughs will very much depend on what happens post-Palermo.

The NOC warned of a potential closure of the Zawiya refinery in response to a deteriorating security situation. The NOC noted the most recent security incident occurred on 10 Oct when unidentified gunmen attacked the refinery and security personnel. Meanwhile, operators of the Wafa, Abu Attifel, and Al Feel oil fields staged protests on 12 Oct, demanding salary increases. There appears to be no direct threat to production.

The head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Ghassan Salame, is expected, however, to continue strongly advocating a National Conference to be held in Jan 2019 and renewed commitment to elections, as declared in a 08 Nov statement to the UN Security Council (UNSC). Speaking on the sidelines of the Conference, Salame clearly laid his political framework for Libya by dismissing plans to hold elections by Dec 2018, focusing instead on the National Conference where Libyans would decide whether elections, will be presidential or parliamentary. If everything goes according to Salame’s plan, elections would reportedly be held between “late March and late June”.

While the Conference would fall short of guaranteeing immediate solutions to longstanding issues, there are positive aspects that could bear fruit in the medium to long term, provided there is follow-through postPalermo. With multiple smaller meetings on economic issues and security in Tripoli, Palermo would appear to be have a tactical element that was missing in the May 2018 Paris Summit. By design, Palermo’s most positive aspect would be its acknowledgement of the importance of solving economic and security issues, beyond the political dimension.

As of 12 Nov, the latest reports suggest Haftar arrived in Palermo, though it remains unclear whether he will attend a separate security-focused meeting with foreign leaders of multiple countries, including Russia and Egypt. Although multiple analysts speculated that ambiguity over Haftar’s possible presence would cast doubts over Palermo’s success, there is reason to believe this only emphasizes the reality on the ground, namely Haftar’s exclusive focus on security, a position he is unlikely to compromise on. As a result, and regardless of its aftermath, the Palermo Conference could reinvigorate the Cairo military unification talks. Meanwhile, with expected discussions over Tripoli’s new security arrangements, Palermo would also underline the new configuration that has gradually taken shape in Libya after the Aug 2018 Tripoli clashes with an emphasis on the role played by the newly-appointed Government of National Accord (GNA) Minister of Interior, Fathi Bashagha.

Nonetheless, other analysts have noted that skepticism is warranted, arguing that a potential failure to unify institutions and/or hold elections post-Palermo will ultimately attest to the necessity for federalism in Libya. This would be a pragmatically justified stance given the multiple obstacles ahead, including a pending audit of the Tripoli-based Central Bank of Libya (CBL), described as an important step towards the unification of Libyan central banks.

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