This week Berlin hosted a round of meetings to prepare for a conference on Libya that Germany is seeking to host early next month. The Berlin conference will convene at the summit level, bringing together leading international and regional players.
Egypt was present at this week’s preparatory meetings which came back to back with a heads of government meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week in New York.
The New York meeting was co-hosted by France and Italy. Paris and Rome have been at odds over how to manage the oil- and-gas-rich country practically since the end of the four-decade rule of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
“I guess this new rapprochement between France and Italy is in fact the underlining theme of the latest international approach to Libya,” said a Western diplomat.
Since the end of Gaddafi’s rule Paris and Rome have supported opposing Libyan powers. Rome has backed Fayez Al-Sarraj, the head of the internationally recognised Libyan government, while France favoured Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.
According to Arab, including Egyptian, and Western diplomats, the last six months have convinced both Rome and Paris that neither Al-Sarraj nor Haftar are viable future leaders of Libya. The same diplomats argue the same applies to regional players, including Turkey — Ankara had stood firmly behind Al-Sarraj — Egypt and the UAE.
But hostility between Turkey and Egypt is unlikely to be fixed in a way that allows the kind of cooperation we are now seeing between France and Italy. In New York last week international consultations on Libya had to be split in two to allow for the participation of both Egyptian and Turkish delegations.
In the last few months Haftar failed to take Tripoli, despite significant support from regional powers. Though he remains in control of the eastern part of the country, Libyan political sources say he is unlikely to be able to expand further.
Meanwhile, as one source put it, Al-Sarraj has been “weakened by his failure to control the militias in the western part of the country.
“True, the militias have kept Haftar out of Tripoli but in the meantime they have been battling between themselves and Al-Sarraj has no control over them”.
Haftar and Al-Sarraj have repeatedly refused appeals they enter into dialogue and rejected initiatives proposed by the UN Envoy on Libya Ghassan Salamé.
The failure of both figures to score either political or military victories has led, says a Libyan source, to them becoming “discredited not only in the eyes of many Libyans, but also among their own supporters.
“Libya is now waiting for something new to happen to end the havoc we have been living through for years.”
The “something new”, according to Arab and Western diplomats, is likely to be a fresh diplomatic initiative that Salamé will propose in Berlin.
Salamé was assigned head of the UN Special Mission on Libya in the summer of 2017. For two years he has battled to execute a working plan that would allow Libya to hold legislative elections and convene a constitution-drafting committee. His plans have been consistently undermined by the continued state of civil war in Libya and the lack of political will on the part of international and regional players.
Informed sources say Salamé is now ready to move beyond the text of the plan he tried to implement and, with the support of Germany, offer a new diplomatic approach. They say both Al-Sarraj and Haftar will be allowed to fade into the background, to be replaced by political figures with more credibility.
An Egyptian government source said that as far as Cairo is concerned there are clear lines that would have to be included in any initiative before Egypt signs up. Haftar, he added, is not necessarily one of them, or “not for long anyway”.
Egypt is not “obsessed with Haftar” said the source.
“What is important to Egypt is that Libya has a real army run by a national figure who is not in thrall to any of the militias taking hold of the west of the country.” And the army should include representatives from across Libya, with no area excluded.
In the preparatory meetings ahead of the Berlin summit on Libya Egypt will also stress “there has to be a role for the elected members of the House of Representatives [HOR].”
The HOR was formed in 2014 though for the last two years its 120 members have not convened in full.
Earlier this year, in the wake of Haftar’s failure to take hold of Tripoli, Cairo tried to reassemble the HOR in an effort to “get elected Libyan figures to propose a way forward for the country”.
Egypt hosted a meeting of 80 HOR members, including some opposed to Haftar. The meeting issued a communiqué underlining the role of the HOR in deciding the future of the country, and insisting militias could have no say in the process.
The Egyptian delegation to the preparatory meetings will also stress any future political process must ensure a fair distribution of Libya’s wealth, and all militias should be dismantled.
Nobody is expecting a quick fix from the Berlin conference. Rather, diplomatic sources from several of the participating countries say the Berlin conference could bring about an end to the war by proxy that some powers have been playing in Libya, and this could open up the space for a serious political process.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: A new deal for Libya?