Finally, the United Nations' special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame announced the dates and venue for his long-awaited Libyan National Conference (LNC). It is now scheduled to take place from 14-16 April in the Libyan south-western town of Ghadames. A historical town which once was a tourist attraction in stable and peaceful Libya.
Salame first presented the LNC as part of a three-step roadmap and had it endorsed by the UN Security Council in September 2017. The roadmap aimed first at amending the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) signed in Morocco in December 2015, second to organising an inter Libyan dialogue to reconcile Libyans and encourage them to find a solution to their country's problem. And finally to organising both legislative and presidential elections based on a new constitution and a new election law.
After six rounds of negotiations, the UN gave up in the summer of 2018 on amending the LPA because the parliament and Higher Council of State, the two main protagonists, refused to compromise. Elections did not take place, as originally hoped, in the spring of last year. Even the draft constitution is still up in the air as it faces legal challenges before it is put into referendum to be adopted. At one point everything seemed like it was collapsing around Salame!
Ghassan Salame was left with no option but to play his last card; organising the LNC which he announced in a press conference in Tripoli on 20 March right after briefing the Security Council and getting its backing.
Now the stage is set for LNC to take place in less than three weeks but logistical and legal questions remain unanswered.
But what is this conference and how successful will it be? Simply said the meeting, sometimes referred to as a Forum (Multaqa in Arabic), is an inclusive Libyan meeting tasked with bringing together the widest possible Libyan social, political, tribal and civic representatives to discuss, for two days, and recommend ways to get out of the division and conflict. Libya has been plunged in chaos and conflict since NATO helped rebels topple the late Gaddafi regime in October 2011 after a bloody eight-month war.
Salame said between 120 and 150 individuals would take part in the Forum, without disclosing how the participants would be chosen. Based on the prevailing political and military situation on the ground it is easy to guess who will take part.
Representatives of the current centres of power in the country, both legal and otherwise, will surely be invited. This means the national army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, now controlling nearly two-thirds of Libya, is going to be invited and representatives of the eastern-based parliament in Tripoli; the Government of National Accord, and some representatives of the militias allied to it are surely on the list of invitees. Tribal and civil society leaders will also be included.
The hope is that such a mix would produce a broad document, in the form of recommendations, supported by the "majority of Libyans" to constitute a new roadmap ending with elections. An agreement which as the backing of a large swathe of society.
Many have questioned whether the two-day conference is long enough for such a consensus to be reached. While others have pointed out that Ghadames, which is over 600 kilometres from Tripoli, has insufficient infrastructure to accommodate the number of representatives arriving and support the meeting.
The UN envoy has however been carrying work in preparation for the Forum; the consultation phase was outsourced to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue; a Swiss think-tank with long experience in conflict zones from Sri Lanka to Mali. The centre held some 77 meetings across Libya in the spring and summer of 2018 and received hundreds of messages and recommendations from Libyans inside the country and abroad. All contributions were produced in a summarised 80 pages document. The LNC's discussions will be based on this document.
This gives a huge boost to the process making it an exclusively Libyan affair. Many politicians, academics, activists and tribal leaders have been blaming the failure to reach a political settlement in Libya on foreign interferences.
While the LNC is not expected to produce a government nor will it work as a legislative, replacing the current parliament, some MPs are suspicious that it could end up being a de facto parliament. Salame was clear in his press conference about this particular point when he said: "[The conference] is not another institution but a conference and will not add new institutions to existing ones." Hopefully an effort to re-assure current holders of political position that they will only be challenged through the ballot boxes.
If successful, the LNC is expected to bring about national reconciliation, set election dates, guarantee election results and recommend the way forward for the elected government. Most importantly it is expected to provide a safety net for the coming elections.
The most recent similar conference, helped by the UN, is the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan which approved Hamid Karazi as president along with his cabinet in 2002 and worked as guarantor of elections in the country.
However, the LNC is not supposed to re-produce the Afghan model, as that will mean infringing on the elected parliament's duties, except in the sense of reaching the broadest consensus among Libyans about the solution they envision for their country.
According to Salame: "The main aim is that LNC is to agree on elections," which has been the demand of the overwhelming majority of Libyans according to the UN envoy.
"The conference will succeed," he stressed. "The broad consensus of Libyan opinions will make it difficult for any country or countries to intervene." Furthermore, such "broad consensus will get the support of the international community," Salame said.
Will the LNC succeed in rescuing Libya where the many previous meetings and conferences failed? I personally believe it will not!
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.