Pity Libyans for the pageantry of their international summits. Over the years, at palaces, resorts, and hotels across several continents, the country’s factional leaders have met, shepherded by earnest-looking Western ministers and heads of state. Action plans are laid out and deadlines set. The participants emerge with verbal promises of consensus, a photo op, sometimes even a hug. Meanwhile, back in Libya citizens languish under warring militias, economic misery, and aloof elites. Invariably, after each summit, vows pronounced in remote locales disintegrate on contact with these more proximate realities.

Frederic Wehrey
Wehrey specializes in post-conflict transitions, armed groups, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
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On November 12–13, Italy’s populist government played host to the latest such event, this time in the city of Palermo, Sicily. The meeting occurred in the shadow of intense Italian rivalry with France over Libya. Last May, at a largely unilateral summit in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron had obtained from four Libyan leaders a verbal commitment to hold general elections by December of this year—a deadline that the UN quietly shelved earlier this month as untenable. Palermo was meant as Italian revenge. By forging a new local and international consensus on Libya, a successful summit would have bolstered Italy’s claim to being the most relevant and credible Western power broker in the embattled North African country.

This is not what happened, as no clear message emerged from Palermo. The Libyan participants—most crucially Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who heads the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli; and his rival, the military leader Field Marshal Khalifa Hafar, who rules the so-called Tobruk government in the country’s east—emerged with yet another UN-backed pledge to hold an election, now slated to take place by June 2019. Libyan delegates held side working groups on security and the economy. But beyond this, the summit produced no breakthrough agreement. 

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This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.