Rival Libyan leaders and diplomats from more than 20 countries meeting Tuesday in Paris agreed in principle the strife-torn North African state should hold elections later this year.
The summit was French President Emmanuel Macron's second effort to bring peace to Libya.
Macron hailed the declaration, saying it was a turning point in efforts to bring about a settlement in Libya. “We now have clear commitments for the country, an approved calendar for parliamentary and presidential elections,” he said.
The head of a U.N.-backed "unity" government in Tripoli Fayez al-Sarraj, 75-year-old Khalifa Haftar, whose military forces dominate the country's east, along with the speaker of a parliament based in the eastern town of Tobruk declared the fractured country should hold presidential and legislative elections on December 10, according to French officials.
Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, tweeted confirmation: “Positive that all #Libya parties present at #Paris conference agreed timeline leading to elections in December. Let us hope, and help them in keeping this important commitment.”
Some analysts and rights organizations are accusing Macron of impatience and say conditions in war-scarred Libya are not conducive for a free and fair vote. They worry that trying to hold elections this year could trigger more violence in the country that has staggered from crisis to crisis since the 2011 NATO-backed popular ouster of Libyan autocrat Moammar Gadhafi.
The challenge was underlined Tuesday when a group of 13 military councils and brigades in western Libya issued a statement saying Macron’s Paris initiative doesn’t represent them. They declared their opposition to “foreign interference,” saying the initiative would end up “normalizing military rule" - a reference to Gen. Haftar, a rogue general who broke with Gadhafi years before his ouster and whose forces have been accused of major rights abuses.
President Macron has pushed hard for France to act as a key interlocutor in a bid to coax Libya’s many factions to end turmoil, one complicated not only by the many Libyan factions involved,but also by the competing interests of Middle Eastern neighbors and European powers, which back opposing sides.
Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have backed the French drive for elections, but France’s European neighbors and the Unites States have been more skeptical, and behind-the-scenes have been pushing for an agreement on a constitution first.
In Paris, diplomats Tuesday attempted to establish what should come first with a timetable laid out for a “constitutional basis” for elections being agreed to in mid-September. That prompted Libyan commentator Mohamed Eljarh to question whether elections would in fact take place this year. “There will be no elections before the end of 2018 because there will be no agreement on this constitutional rule,” he tweeted.
Islamic State militants last month claimed responsibility for an attack on Libya’s election commission in Tripoli that left more than a dozen civilians dead. That attack has prompted fears an election will act as a magnet for militant attacks.
Last year, Macron persuaded Haftar and Sarraj to hold a rare face-to-face encounter in the French capital, which drew criticism from Italian leaders, who say Macron risks making things worse rather than better, by trying to rush a political settlement.
The Italians argue they are closer to Libya, so they are the ones who are impacted the most by jihadist threats and migration from the country, which has been used as the departure point for hundreds of thousands of Africans trying to reach Europe.
Italian politicians say Macron seems eager to seize a greater Libya-role for himself at a time Italy is preoccupied by domestic political troubles.
“It's as if Macron wanted to make the most of this moment of absence by Italy on the Libyan dossier,” Italian newspaper La Repubblica wrote last week. Italian politicians fear the French government favors Haftar and are shaping the circumstances for the former Gadhafi general to become the key power player in Libya.
On the eve of Tuesday’s peace conference, Human Rights Watch issued a report critiquing the idea of holding elections this year, arguing Libya's rival authorities should, at the least, ensure conditions for candidates to campaign freely without undue risk of attacks. HRW said it is concerned there would be no independent audit of the voter registry and questioned whether polling stations can be sufficiently secured.
“The international community, but most of all Libyans, need to hear Libyan leaders pledge significant improvements to the rule of law, justice, and accountability — including for their own abusive forces — before organizing elections,” said HRW's Benedicte Jeannerod.
The International Crisis Group, another NGO with considerable Libya experience, has also expressed alarm. “Much more work remains to be done for a peace-building effort in Libya to succeed,” it said.
“In Libya as in other peace processes, a delicate balance has to be struck between pushing parties to settle and letting them take ownership,” tweeted Jean-Marie Guehenno, a senior advisor to the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.