Germany and the United Nations are set to host an international conference on Libya on Wednesday aimed at unlocking the country’s stalled peace process.
Diplomats from nine states, including the UAE, US and Egypt will gather in Berlin together with Libya’s unity government leaders, amid concern about the presence of foreign forces in the country and delays in organising elections planned for December.
A notable success of the United Nations mediation process has been that a ceasefire it negotiated last October to pause a six-year civil war remains in force.
However, a key part of that agreement was an instruction for foreign forces to leave Libya within 90 days, which has thus far been ignored.
United States officials say their priority is persuading foreign forces to pull out.
“There are negotiations underway with some of the key actors aimed at trying to remove some of the mercenaries, the foreign fighters,” US envoy Richard Norland told reporters on Monday.
The UN estimates there are 20,000 foreign troops and mercenaries in Libya, many of them lined-up either side of a front line stretching south from the central coastal town of Sirte. French president Emmanuel Macron is hoping to garner support for a plan for a staged withdrawal of those forces, which include Syrian mercenaries deployed by Turkey and units from Russian private military contractor Wagner.
A more immediate worry for diplomats is lack of progress on arranging elections planned for December 24, the date chosen to mark the 70th anniversary of Libyan independence.
Libya’s unity government, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, was installed in March but its mandate expires in December. If the planned elections are delayed, there are fears the country will split along an east-west axis, with the prospect of further military confrontation.
Planning for the elections is stalled over the issue of the constitution. Libya’s parliament is beset with disagreements over what form of government should be elected in December, and notably whether Libya should have a directly-elected president.
Libya’s High National Elections Commission (HNEC) wants a decision on the constitution by July 1, to give it time to arrange polling stations and give political parties time to campaign.
One option diplomats will debate today is whether to sidestep Libya’s parliament and hand the job of choosing a constitution to a UN-chaired mediation group, the Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).
The LPDF, consisting of 75 Libyan figures, created Mr Dbeibah’s unity government in March and appears to have a consensus for creating a constitution based on a two-house parliament and president.
However, the LPDF has no formal role in Libyan politics, with its members chosen by the UN, not the Libyan people, and there may be resistance to a constitution imposed on the country without voters having a say.
One solution being discussed is that a national referendum is held on the new constitution to give it legitimacy. But time is short to organise a referendum and election in the space of six months.
Pressure on Libya’s politicians to make sure the elections happen on time will come from the European Union. Earlier this week, it announced it will impose sanctions on “persons and entities obstructing or undermining the elections.” The sanctions will include travel bans and asset freezes, and could apply to politicians stalling on the constitution and military leaders whose forces interfere with the process.
Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush acknowledged the "reluctance and delay" in enacting recommendations set at the last Berlin meeting in January.
“We have noticed since the first conference of Berlin a lot of reluctance and delay in implementing its recommendations despite the fact that the parties concerned have reached a ceasefire," she said in an address to the Libyan people shared online.
"So, we have considered setting up a specific timetable to especially guarantee the implementation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions. We will no longer accept that our recommendations and decisions just look good on paper.”
A reminder that Libya’s civil war is on hold, rather than over, came on Monday when the new government failed to re-open the coastal highway linking its key cities, Tripoli and Benghazi.
The day before, video from the Reuters news agency showed Mr Dbeibah on a bulldozer clearing an earth barrier near Sirte that has blocked the highway since April 2019. But on Monday afternoon General Ahmed Almasmari, spokesman for the eastern-based Libyan National Army, said the road will remain shut because the re-opening decision rests not with the prime minister but with the UN-appointed Joint Military Committee which has not yet authorised it.
One bright spot for diplomats is that the Libyan public are enthusiastic about the prospect of elections. While national politics is deadlocked, the HNEC has had success in hosting a string of local elections across the country over the past two years, and voter registration is high. In late May HNEC chief Emad Sayeh said that technical and logistical details for holding elections are already in place, with the agency 70 per cent ready to hold a national vote.