Germany has yet to set a specific date for the international conference on Libya that it plans to host in Berlin. It was supposed to have been held this month, but media reports suggest it may be deferred to November. Preparatory to this conference, Cairo has been hosting meetings of members of the Libyan House of Representatives based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The second such meeting was held this week to discuss the current situation in Libya as well as parliamentary reform.
The Berlin conference falls in the framework of the plan outlined by Ghassan Salame, UN envoy and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), in his briefing to the UN Security Council on 29 July. The plan called for a ceasefire to hostilities in the vicinity of the capital to be followed by a conference of international and regional stakeholders in Libya that would set the stage for a third phase: a national conference of key local players in order to develop a new roadmap for the future.
Salame hopes that the Berlin conference will yield a consensus among international and regional powers concerned with the Libyan crisis on how to achieve a durable ceasefire, end the proxy war over Tripoli, enforce UN Security Council resolutions banning the provision of weapons to Libya, and effectively back his efforts to restart the political process that was interrupted by the outbreak of current hostilities in April. He also hopes that the UN Security Council will pass a resolution supporting the outcomes of the Berlin conference and calling for a ceasefire.
In addition to the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China), the international conference will be attended by the foreign ministers of Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Italy and Germany. Qatar has not been invited on the grounds that “it is not intervening in Libya directly”, a diplomatic source told Al-Ahram Weekly.
According to statements by the UN special representative for Libya, the Berlin agenda will focus, firstly, on bridging the differences between regional and international powers over Libya in order to put an end to outside meddling in Libya’s domestic crisis. Effectively, this means creating maps of foreign spheres influence preparatory to producing understandings between the outside parties. The way Libya’s internal crisis will be managed locally will therefore be contingent the results of these understandings, according to observers.
Germany’s main problem as it prepares for the conference is how to bring together to the same table representatives of regional powers that are on opposing sides in the Libyan crisis. The challenge is formidable given how heavily these powers have invested in their respective Libyan clients.
In the 45th general session of the Tripoli-based High Council of State on 8 October, Speaker Khaled Al-Mishri said that the upcoming Berlin conference did not have the conventional format of the Paris and Palermo conferences on Libya. Rather, it consisted of “a multiplicity of rounds that have already begun some time ago”. He furnished no further details, but he may have been alluding to the unpublicised meetings Berlin hosted recently of representatives of the participant countries in the framework of preparations for the conference.
Certainly, the Berlin conference faces tougher challenges than its predecessors— the Paris conferences in 2017 and 2018, the Palermo conference in 2018 and the Abu Dhabi conference in February this year — because of the increasing complexities of the situation since the outbreak of the current conflict and the more hawkish positions on the part of both local and international players.
These attitudes have been manifested in concrete terms. In his last briefing to the Security Council on 4 September, Salame noted 40 separate cases in which countries breached the UN arms embargo to Libya in order to send arms, “from weapons to ammunition, vehicles, military equipment, paramilitary equipment and spare parts”, to their allies on the ground.
In addition, Libyan parties have adopted more intransigent stances towards their adversaries. Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and his allies in Tripoli, Misrata and Al-Zawiya has reiterated on numerous occasions their demands for the exclusion of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar from all future political talks and for the withdrawal of his forces from around the capital in advance of any talks.
Haftar and Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh have indicated on a number of occasions that they are ready to talk but remain adamant on sustaining the military operation that aims to gain control over the capital and expel militia groups that they say hold government institutions in Tripoli at gunpoint. There can be no political solution until this threat has been eliminated, they say.
Sharpening polarisations between all players in the Libyan crisis combined with the declining priority of the Libyan question on the international agenda due to the escalating crises in Yemen, Iraq and Syria may work to delay the adoption of the UN Security Council ceasefire resolution that Salame has been hoping for. In accordance with such a resolution, the UN would send an observer mission to monitor the ceasefire, as it has in Yemen. Despite this possible setback, as well as his frustration at ongoing violations of the UN arms embargo, Salame and UN Deputy Representative for Political Affairs in Libya Stephanie Williams continue with their peace-making efforts through successive rounds of meetings and consultations with diverse parties in western and eastern Libya.
Egypt, too, has sustained its efforts to promote a solution to the Libyan crisis. House Representative Al-Salheen Abdelnabi Al-Gheithi said that the second round of Cairo meetings aim to end current division within the House. He stressed that the meeting would not broach the question of a ceasefire or the shape of a new government. Rather, participants will try to formulate a vision for achieving political reform.
Speaking in a telephone interview with the Libya National Spirit channel, which was broadcast from Jordan Saturday, Al-Gheithi said that participants in the Cairo meetings have major inviolable red lines. The most important is their support for the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its general command. In his opinion, the Libyan crisis can only be resolved militarily, “because all dialogues, discussions and conferences have gone nowhere. The House of Representatives seeks to revive the nation and this cannot happen without the armed forces and the necessary support for it.”
Al-Gheithi is sceptical about the purposes of the Berlin conference. Its results would be unacceptable if they are the product of a scheme against parliament and the LNA general command, he said. “There is not a single Libyan party’s participation in the Berlin conference; neither the parliament nor the general command. We will never accept and never allow a solution to be imposed on us from abroad if has not won the approval of parliament. If they want to install a de facto government in Tripoli, then the division of the country will continue.”
Al-Gheithi called for an intra-Libya dialogue free of foreign mandates in order to end current divisions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.