Foreign Minister Maas reopened the German representation in Tripoli after seven years. But it is questionable whether the peace process and the planned elections are on the right track.
It is an appointment that should radiate confidence and energy – a trip that will come in handy for Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) after all the criticism of his crisis management in Afghanistan. On Thursday he flew unannounced to Tripoli to reopen the German embassy in Libya , which had been closed for security reasons since July 2014, and to meet the transitional government.
“Two years ago we went through a civil war here in Libya,” said Maas. Today, however, they talked about “how elections can be held”. This shows that “the efforts of the international community, the United Nations, but also, in particular, the German commitment have paid off.”
The reopening of the embassy is “the most visible sign of confidence” in the peace process in Libya and of support so that “the elections can take place on December 24th”.
In fact, the ceasefire is between the warlord Khalifa Haftar from Benghazi, who largely controls the east of the country, and his opponents in the west, whose centers are the capital Tripoli and Misrata.
There is also a transitional government under Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah and a Presidential Council, which are at least publicly committed to the goal of holding the elections. Like the demand for the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries, this is anchored in a UN Security Council resolution that Russia allowed through.
All of this is also thanks to German diplomacy, the starting point of which was the Berlin conference initiated by Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) in February 2020. She had been convinced that Germany, as a neutral mediator, could help settle the conflict in Libya – and thus also stabilize the neighboring countries of the Sahel zone.
Militarily there is a stalemate between the camps
However, it is questionable whether elections on the planned date in Libya are still realistic. And whether they would help to overcome the division in the country – or to rekindle the still smoldering conflicts. The “political standstill in Libya”, which the UN special envoy Jan Kubiš warned about in July, has solidified over the summer. Time is running out now.
“However, there is still no legal basis for the elections because neither parliament nor the UN-moderated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum could agree on this issue,” says the internationally recognized Libya expert from the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin, Wolfram Lacher.
An electoral law, which should actually have been in place on July 1, would have to determine the division and weighting of the constituencies – which is highly controversial in Libya and at the same time could determine whether the vote in the country is recognized as legitimate.
“The questions of whether presidential elections should take place and, if so, who can run for them,” says Lacher – are not the least important of the unsolved problems with regard to the warlord Khalifa Haftar and his unbroken striving to usurp power.
Or Saif al-Gaddafi, eldest son of the dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, who was killed in 2011, and who flirted with the idea of standing for election in an interview with the New York Times Magazine.
It is true that none of the Libyan parties to the conflict are strong enough to force a decision to be taken without the assistance of their foreign supporters.
Turkey’s intervention had repulsed Haftar’s major offensive, supported by the United Arab Emirates and Russia, to capture Tripoli in mid-2020. Since then, there has been a military stalemate.
At the same time, however, an important reason for the blockade is “that many of the powerful actors do not see any advantage in elections, but rather want to continue the current situation or even believe they can benefit from a new crisis,” says Lacher.
In June Maas held a conference of foreign ministers in Berlin to make progress with the withdrawal of foreign soldiers and mercenaries. The Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui from the Global Initiative in Geneva estimates the number at still 15,000 to 18,000.
The process is “not going at the speed we would have liked,” said Maas and announced that he would be putting pressure on the UN General Assembly. That is what it will need: The UN reports that foreign forces and mercenaries are operating in Libya on both sides “without any noticeable decline in their activities“.
The German embassy resides in a former five-star hotel
There have been meetings of a joint military commission since Dbeibah took office. The reopening of the coastal road that connects east and west was celebrated as a success. However, nothing is progressing in the establishment of uniform military command structures.
“This is mainly due to Haftar’s unbroken claim to have sole control over the military,” says SWP expert Lacher. Haftar has declared that he does not recognize the unity government and the Presidential Council as commander-in-chief, and even prevented Dbeibah from visiting Benghazi.
For sustainable stability, Libya now needs “political institutions that have emerged from national elections,” said Maas in Tripoli. But Lacher thinks it is questionable whether the conflicts can be resolved through elections.
“It is by no means said that they will lead to overcoming the crisis, ie to the establishment of uniform political structures, a common army and a single central bank for all of Libya.”
It is just as conceivable that, depending on the outcome, they exacerbate the conflicts again. The increasing polarization in the country in recent months “gives rise to fears of such a development“.
While Maas unveiled the German embassy sign on a previous five-star hotel in Tripoli, protesters blocked the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and el-Sider. A week ago, rival militias in Tripoli saw the heaviest fighting in more than a year.
The hopes that Maas associates with the opening of the embassy will probably only be considered fulfilled when a German foreign minister can travel to Tripoli again with advance notice.
Paul-Anton Krüger – Reporter in the Politics department with a focus on the Middle East and international security, previously deputy head of the Foreign Policy department and correspondent for large parts of the Arab world and Iran based in Cairo.