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Berlin conference: A step toward peace in Libya?

June 22, 2021

Germany and the United Nations are set to host another round of Libya peace talks. New Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah is set to attend, but there are questions about how much of a say Libyans will have in decisions.

Fighters of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) fire their guns in the air
Will the cease-fire with the the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (seen here) of strongman Khalifa Haftar hold? Image: Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

Diplomats taking part in an international conference on Libya this week in Berlin are aiming to take stock of the war-torn country's political progress, prepare for a national election set for December, and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries.

The majority of the attendees — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — as well as Italy, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the EU and the UN already met at the first international conference on Libya, also hosted by Germany, in January 2020.

However, this time they'll be joined by members of the newly-formed Libyan transitional Government of National Unity (GNA) under Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who is set to attend. 

Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah will not be in Berlin this week
Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah will send diplomats to the Berlin conferenceImage: Hazem Ahmed/AP Photo/picture alliance

What has changed in Libya?

Libya's political situation has changed significantly since the first Berlin peace conference in early 2020. A truce between the Tripoli-based GNA and the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Khalifa Haftar last August became a formal cease-fire in October. This paved the way for the UN-led formation of an interim government under Dbeibah.

The new interim government, elected in February, will run the country until polls on December 24, when Libyans are due to freely elect the next administration.

Until then, the Tripoli-based government has the responsibility to prepare the elections, focus on unifying Libya's divided institutions and security forces, and to kick-start reconstruction efforts in the war-torn country.

Map of Libya showing the allies of the East and the West.
The EU has a major interest in stabilizing Libya, in an effort to stem migration via the Mediterranean Sea

To understand the challenge faced by the interim government, it's important to highlight that Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east are symbolic for the domestic division of the oil-rich country. 

Dbeibah's government had replaced the two previous rival administrations — one based in the east and another in the west — that were ruling Libya since 2014. 

The Tripoli-and GNA-allied countries are Turkey and Qatar, while in Benghazi the Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Khalifa Haftar rule with their allies Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. 

However, despite the continuous fight for power, a military solution between the warring GNA and LNA was never accomplished, but ongoing fights left the country torn apart and war-ridden. 

France backs withdrawal of foreign mercenaries

While many other aspects on the ground have changed since January 2020, two significant results of the last Berlin Libya summit that were urged by both the EU and the UN have still to be implemented. These are the upholding of an arms embargo and the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries. 

According to recent numbers by the UN, more than 20,000 foreign mercenaries and military personnel are still in Libya. They include fighters from Turkey, Russia, Sudan and Chad. So far, there doesn't seem much interest in relocating fighters to their home countries, or in keeping the arms embargo. 

The brokered arms embargo had only lasted a few days. The embargo was limited to transports via the Mediterranean Sea. Experts believe that this was directly linked to migration to Europe — embargo-observing ships would be responsible for refugees in danger. Transports from neighboring countries, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Sudan or Egypt were excluded.

A third tricky problem has been solved only in the lead up to the Berlin conference: France and the EU's conflicting positions on Libya. "The significant problem was that France was fighting with militias and mercenaries on the side of eastern Libya and the rest of the EU was fighting on the other side. This was a schizophrenic situation that can only be explained by French postcolonial expansionist interests in North Africa," Andreas Dittmann, geographer at the University of Giessen north of Frankfurt, told DW.

However, the situation has changed and, as of this month, the EU now "speaks with one voice and also acts jointly in Libyan matters," Dittmann added.

French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly denied the accusation of secretly supporting Haftar's forces. To prove his alignment with the EU position, which supports the Tripoli-based government, he met the Libyan prime minister in Paris for bilateral talks in June. "We must put an end to all foreign interference, which involves the withdrawal of all foreign mercenaries' forces on Libyan soil: The Russians, the Turkish, the Syrian mercenaries and all the others," said Macron at the time.

And as early as in March this year, France reopened their embassy in Tripoli after seven years — a clear signal of support for the GNA. Macron highlighted that France "owed a debt to Libya and the Libyans for a decade of disorder."

In 2011, French forces had helped to overthrow strongman Moammar Gadhafi, which led to a decade of civil war and chaos.  

Libyan voices unlikely to prevail

Sami Hamdi, managing director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company in London, said he believes that Libya is not yet stable and independent enough for its politicians to form their own agenda. 

"To put it quite shortly, what we need is an international accord over what Libya is supposed to be within the context of the international community, and not in the context of the Libyans," he said.

Hamdi believes that "despite the attendance of the transitional government, it is rather obvious that whatever emerges from this conference will be uniquely an international decision, that each of the international powers will be expected to impress upon their proxies." 

Elections or no elections?

Leading up to Wednesday's conference in Berlin, Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas reacted to rumors that the transitional government may decide not to hold the election slated for December — somewhat problematic, since the topic is one of the main pillars of the conference.

But on Monday, Germany's foreign minister told the newspaper Die Welt that he had addressed this in a conversation with Dbeibah. "He assured me that they are working very intensively on the preparation of the elections," said Maas.

"We understand that, after everything that has happened in Libya in the past, it is not that easy to organize elections. But difficult as it may be, I don't get the impression from my Libyan interlocutors that they want to postpone or even cancel the elections any longer." 


Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.