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Christian Graeff: "The has-beens are now out of the game in Libya"

Special series "Towards a new Libya?" Part 3 of 6

Written by Interview by Frédéric Dubessy on Friday, April 9th 2021 à 10:37 | Read 340 times

LIBYA. In an exclusive interview granted to, Christian Graeff, French ambassador to Libya from 1982 to 1985, gives a less than optimistic assessment of the future of this country, which has been torn apart by its divisions for ten years. The ninety-seven year old diplomat however gives the keys to avoid a "Syrianization" of Libya.

Christian Graeff at the end of May 1988 at the Elysée Palace (photo: Christian Graeff's personal archives)
Christian Graeff at the end of May 1988 at the Elysée Palace (photo: Christian Graeff's personal archives) What has marked you the most during your position as ambassador in Libya?

Christian Graeff: I personally knew Muammar Gaddafi well, who affectionately called me "cousin" (ould el ham in Arabic). He is one of the most extraordinary personalities I have met in my diplomatic life. The son of a Bedouin, he became the great leader of revolutionary Libya, and for more than forty years he ensured a political stability without equivalent in the Arab world. This emulator of Gamal Abd El Nasser had like him an exceptional empathy for his people. His revolution consisted essentially in fighting against the traditional patriarchy south of the Mediterranean (and even sometimes in the north) and in "liberating" Libyan women to make them full-fledged actors in the political, economic and military life of the country.

The man was certainly not of an easy character and we "scratched each other" many times, especially about his claim to exercise a kind of protectorate over northern Chad. But, in the end, I had convinced him that there was no military solution in Chad, only a political one. When I left Tripoli - somewhat abruptly, because Mitterrand had asked me to spend a fourth year in Libya, but Roland Dumas had me appointed ambassador to Beirut a fortnight later, with the obligation to join my new post within 24 hours!  -I had a very long meeting with Gaddafi. It was a frank and direct conversation, during which I reproached him for not having been able to put the Libyans to work and for having preferred to bring two million immigrant workers to Libya to keep the economy going. That said, we have remained good friends.

"Haftar is a born traitor"

Does it take a strong person, like Gaddafi was, to keep Libya from falling into chaos again? Who could fill that role? Are Fayez al-Sarraj, Khalifa Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi now out of the picture?

C.G.: My feeling is that all the has-beens are now out of the game. Of course, everyone will try their luck to take over. But, after almost ten years of chaos and fratricidal struggles, the Libyan people - 183 Arab tribes - will be opposed to old figures returning to the scene. The problem, then, is who could do it. The latest information we have received is not encouraging. The appointment of Mr. Dbeibah in Geneva on February 5, under the aegis of the UN, has already been torpedoed by rumors of "arrangements" between him and Libya's two major sponsors: Russia and Turkey. The truth is that the foreign forces (Wagner battalions, Turks acting through Syrians) must be driven out of Libyan territory very quickly. This is a sine qua non condition to avoid the "Syrianization" of Libya.

What do you think of the actions of the Government of National Accord and Khalifa Haftar over the past five years?

C.G.: Like all observers, I have noticed that relations between the UN-backed government in Tripoli and the self-proclaimed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi have been consistently poor. There were two powers, each of which had its external supporters. The Libyan east and west vied for pre-eminence, before fighting each other when Haftar launched his 2019 offensive on Tripolitania - a failed offensive, following the intervention of Turkish-Syrian military elements. By the way, Haftar is a born traitor: after betraying his master Gaddafi, he betrayed the Americans who had given him the mission to physically eliminate the Guide of the Revolution. For me, the support given to Marshal Haftar by the French executive (at the instigation of our special services) is not one of the most glorious pages of our diplomatic action in recent years. 

"The return to peace stumbles on the loss of independence of Libya"

Do you think that the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum will succeed in leading to free national elections before the end of the year?

C.G.: I am a temperamental optimist, but I am not optimistic about the success of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum and the holding of free national elections before the end of the year. Why is this so? Because Libya today is a disorganized, disjointed country, whose three "provinces" are each under very strong external pressure. This is clear, as I said, from Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. As for Fezzan, it is largely prey to the action of Islamist groups of the E.I. (Editor's note: Islamic State) movement, which maintain a sort of desert guerrilla warfare over a territory the size of France, and which are in close contact with those we are fighting in the framework of Operation Berkane.

What are the stumbling blocks to a united Libya? How can the East and the West be reconciled?

C.G.: As far as I am concerned, the return of peace to Libya is nothing less than the loss of independence of this country. From symposiums to international conferences, we have been witnessing for the last five years an auction of this unfortunate Libya which has fallen under the control of uncontrolled militias. It should be noted that the situation is much more dangerous for the European Union than for the United States of America. Indeed, Tripolitania but also the East of Libya have fallen under the control of the new "slave traders". Let's not forget that hundreds, even thousands, of Africans perish every year in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to disembark on makeshift boats in the south of Italy or Spain. In this respect, the practice of the EU member states has remained very weak: each one plays at whoever is best not to take its share of the burden that African immigration represents for these two countries. In our troubled world, the drowning of migrants has become a real humanitarian disaster.

"It is up to the Europeans to qualify in the economic competition"

Which powers will benefit from a return to the international concert of Libya? Is France disqualified for having created the chaos and then played a troubled role with Haftar?

C.G.: As I mentioned earlier, Russia on the one hand and Turkey on the other will try to influence the country's new institutions when the day comes. In my view, President Joe Biden should make a clear statement as to whether or not he intends to support Europe. The pretext for such a cover-up could be access to Libya's oil and gas resources, even though oil revenues have declined sharply in Libya since the death of Gaddafi. But this hypothesis seems to me to have little chance of becoming reality. It is therefore up to the Europeans - first and foremost Italy, Spain and France - to qualify for the competition that will open up one day, when the Libyan economy is back on its feet.  
The Libyan economy is based on hydrocarbons, is a diversification desirable, possible? Which sectors should be favored?

C.G.: Today, Libya's hydrocarbon exports have fallen to a quarter of what they were in 2011 when Gaddafi died. Of course, once peace returns, the oil and gas industry will be able to rebound and for many years to come, its place in the economy will undoubtedly remain predominant. Moreover, it should be remembered that thanks to the gigantic work of creating the Great Man-Made River, Muammar Gaddafi's revolutionary Libya had begun to develop an agricultural production likely to lead it to self-sufficiency (in wheat, fruit, vegetables). What remains today of this immense irrigation program? Personally, I do not know. But the proof was made in the past that the tribes, which were essentially pastoral, could develop a flourishing agriculture.

Christian Graeff does not believe in elections by the end of the year in Libya (photo: Christian Graeff personal archives)
Christian Graeff does not believe in elections by the end of the year in Libya (photo: Christian Graeff personal archives)
After graduating from the Ecole Nationale de la France d'Outre-Mer (National School of Overseas France) with a degree in Law from the Faculty of Bordeaux (1947), Christian Graeff began his career as an administrator for France overseas in Djeeda, Chad (French Equatorial Africa) for eight years (1948-1956).

He continued as secretary and counselor of the embassy in Morocco, Lebanon and Syria.

Christian Graeff became Ambassador of France to Libya (1982-1985), to Lebanon (1985-1987) and to the Islamic Republic of Iran (1988-1991).

After retirement, he held various positions in the public and private sectors, such as Advisor to the Chairman of the Total Group for strategic international affairs (1991-1992) in Paris, Dean of the Superior Council of the Judiciary for three terms (1991 to 1998), President of the INGO BIPP-AIX/CREJMO that he created in Aix-en-Provence (2006 to 2014).
At the same time, Christian Graeff is President of the Association of International Peace Brigades which he founded in January 2007.


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