Sahara in Libya-Sahara desert

Thomas O. Falk

Ten years after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya is still in a profound, open process of transformation. While progress has been made, Libya’s stability is fragile, and numerous questions remain unanswered.

After a decade of recurring civil wars, Libya, unlike Syria, is now on a stabilization course and has made considerable progress over the past year. Recent political developments in the country bring hope of a brighter future, though the months and years to come will be crucial in determining Libya’s path forward.

On June 23, at the invitation of Germany and in coordination with the United Nations, representatives from six countries – including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – and international organizations met for the second Berlin Conference on Libya.

Part of the agenda was the evaluation of the progress made since the first Conference on Libya in January 2020, as well as the upcoming elections and the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries.

Progress in the Making

A year ago, the current status quo would have been considered inconceivable. Although there have also been setbacks since the first meeting — the UN arms embargo, in particular, is still not being complied with sufficiently— numerous advances have been made since then.

For instance, on October 23, 2020, the conflicting parties agreed on a ceasefire that continues to this day. Moreover, the political dialogue process initiated by the UN Assistance Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) in November 2020 made it possible to announce national parliamentary and presidential elections for December 24, 2021, Libya’s 70th Independence Day.

These elections will be facilitated by a three-member Presidential Council, which the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) elected in Geneva earlier this year. It is headed by Mohamed al-Menfi, as Chairman, and Abdulhamid Dabeiba as Prime Minister of the National Unity Government (GNU).

The promising developments since the last meeting was a foundation the second Berlin Libya Conference, on June 23, aimed to build upon. Unlike in 2020, this year’s conference was attended at the level of foreign ministers and primarily pursued two goals:

First, the interim unity government, led by Prime Minister Dabeiba, was reminded of its commitment to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on December 24.

Second, an acceleration of the agreed-upon withdrawal of all foreign mercenaries and fighters from Libya.

Foreign Powers Still a Problem

The latter was already part of the Berlin Agreement in January 2020 and has received little attention since then. Although Turkey and Russia agreed to the withdrawal at that time, thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries have remained in the country.

In addition to Syrian militias acting on behalf of Turkey, Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group as well as fighters from Sudan and Chad – financed by the United Arab Emirates and supporting Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s interests – are still present.

However, during a meeting between Dabeiba and Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan in Ankara on April 12, the Turkish government was able to renew the agreement it had previously made with the Government of National Accord (GNA), with the GNU.

According to the accord, Turkish soldiers are in the country at the invitation of the recognized Libyan government – officially for the purpose of training Libyan soldiers.

Turkey’s role in Libya thus continues to be particularly worrisome. For instance, the EU’s observer mission, Operation IRINI, which patrols off the coast of Libya, has repeatedly been refused inspection of Turkish ships in recent months.

[Turkey Looks to Capitalize on Its Role in Post-War Libya]

Pivotal Developments

Meanwhile, a significant and symbolic result of the conference was the participation of Prime Minister Dabeiba and Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush for the first time.

While in 2020, Libyan responsibility for resolving the conflict was only proclaimed in writing, the active participation and involvement of the Libyan government in the consultations is a critical step in ensuring Libyan ownership of the process.

The participation of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the conference is also an important signal, as it underscores the greater involvement of the US in Libya since Biden took office.

Moreover, the US’ request to deal more intensively with the Libya portfolio is underpinned by the recent appointment of the US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, as US Special Envoy for Libya. The position had been vacant since 2016.

Another important achievement is GNU Prime Minister Dabeiba’s commitment to holding elections on December 24. Though he will have to be measured against this promise.

It is clear that the aim is to hold parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously, yet questions regarding their modus operandi persist.

For weeks now, the inner-Libyan discussion has mainly centered on whether the Libyan presidency should be determined by direct or indirect elections in the future. While there is a clear preference for a direct presidential election in Libya, there are also fears that a strong, directly elected president could weaken the parliament.

More than 100 new political parties and movements have already registered. The foremost candidates are positioning themselves for the presidential election. Prime Minister Dabeiba himself is unlikely to run in the December elections.

Recently, there have been heightened fears that adherence to this desired election date could be jeopardized by the uncertain constitutional basis and open questions of the electoral law.

This represents one of the current core problems, since neither the LPDF nor the House of Representatives could agree on a final draft.

UNSMIL negotiated for five days with the LPDF in Geneva at the end of June to find a solution to these constitutional questions. It was originally established that the legal basis for holding elections would have been decided by July. However, with an initial agreement still missing, time is of the essence.

A Declaration of Intent

It is noteworthy that the 58-point final communiqué of the second Berlin Libya Conference does not go beyond a declaration of intent.

Moreover, whether the withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya will take place by the time of the elections remains questionable at the moment. Turkey’s written objection in the final declaration suggests that there still seem to be conflicting interpretations of the definition of foreign interventions.

Questions also linger in other parts of the country: Khalifa Haftar does not seem to have given up his ambitions entirely in eastern Libya; the reunification of all state institutions has not yet been completed, and the influence of militias, especially in eastern Libya, is even now considerable.

This makes it all the more important for the international community to keep an eye on all developments in Libya, to insist that the Berlin process be complied with, and that free and fair elections be held at the end of the year.

With that being said, progress has evidently been made. It will now be pivotal to turn good intentions into viable results, and the upcoming election will mark the first real test for Libya’s future.

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Thomas O. Falk is a London based freelance journalist, political analyst and commentator who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East. He has worked for Al Jazeera, The New Arab, il Giornale, and others.

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