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MENASource November 21, 2019

Another conference, another incomplete solution for Libya

By Karim Mezran and Federica Saini Fasanotti

Key Points

  • Libya should be created by and for Libyans without external interventions or conferences that do not include all Libyans.
  • Municipalities in most of Libya have resisted the ongoing violence over the years and proved to be key institutions of the country.
  • There is another path. Around 107 local leaders attended meetings in January and March to discuss how to end the ongoing violence in their country.

On September 11, 2019, Germany’s ambassador to Tripoli announced that in October or November, Berlin would host a conference on Libya to try to stabilize the situation in the country and bring relief to a population deeply affected by the military action of field marshal Khalifa Haftar.

This past spring, Haftar, launched an attack on the capital Tripoli with the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the pretext of freeing it from terrorists. This conference would be organized in collaboration with the United Nations Special Envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. He seems to believe that Germany could represent a neutral actor among the foreign actors’ intervention; who are seeking resources and international prestige on Libyan soil for years. But looking at recent history, there are several criticisms that this is not the best approach. In recent years, conferences on Libya held in other countries with extremely limited local representation have done nothing but exacerbate tensions and make the situation worse.

French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to create a new order in Libya, sponsoring many diplomatic—unofficial and official—engagements. He hosted two conferences in Paris, the first on July 25, 2017 between Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Marshal Khalifa Haftar. A ceasefire was agreed upon, and elections were promised to be held as soon as possible. A second event took place in Paris on May 29, 2018, with the proposal of scheduling election day on December 10 of that year.

In response, Italy—under the initiative of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—organized another conference in Palermo on November 13-14, 2018. Then, in February 2019, another conference held in Abu Dhabi produced an agreement to hold elections. None of these agreements or proposals were realized. Instead, everyone in Libya seemed to be completely unsatisfied: the militia leaders excluded from the negotiating table fought in the capital between August and September 2018; Haftar started a new war in April 2019 against the same militias in Tripoli; Sarraj felt profoundly disappointed by his antagonist refusing to sit at the same table. Those most impacted by the failed negotiations are the Libyan people who cannot find the necessary stability to begin to rebuild their country. These international conferences did not bring about any effective resolutions of the conflict, creating only disappointment among the citizens.    

There is however, a different type of meeting that is much more productive. On December 6-8, 2017 the Swiss Center for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) succeeded in organizing a meeting of Libyan mayors in Tunisia. For the first time since the conflict began, almost all Libyan municipalities and local authorities gathered to discuss how to end the ongoing violence in their country. This important event saw the active presence of the UN representative Ghassan Salamé. The meeting was a success and built an important foundation for a potential National Conference, which should have included the main representatives of Libya’s three regions: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan.

Municipalities continued to walk on this path, with a series of gatherings at the beginning of 2018 not only in Tunis, but also in Shahat in January and Tripoli in March. Around 107 local leaders, including those coming from Libya’s east attended the meetings. Local leaders asked to be left alone in trying to rebuild their own country.

Local leaders asked to be left alone in trying to rebuild their own country.

Municipalities in most of Libya—except for those in the eastern province where mayors and city councils have been replaced by military governments per Haftar’s orders—have resisted the ongoing violence over the years and proved to be key institutions of the country. For this reason, they must be reinforced.

Given the success of the HD initiative, Mr. Salamé, at the beginning of 2018, asked HD to manage the preparatory process for the National Conference, one of the foundations of the UN Action Plan for Libya. With that target, the HD opened up consultations, which were attended in forty-three locations by more than 7,000 Libyans.

It is important to remember the basis for Germany’s proposal for a new international conference, lies in the strong relationship Berlin has with Turkey and Egypt that must not be undervalued, given the fact that these two nations are each supporting Sarraj and Haftar respectively.

In the meantime, a Libya Local Governance Forum was held on September 14-16 in Tunis in order to improve a strategic approach to localism. The event was supported by USAID, the World Bank, and UNDP Libya. The media did not talk extensively about it, but it would be interesting to understand how many local administrators were present and from which region of Libya.

As many scholars and specialists on Libya agreed a few months ago in a Brookings report on Libya, the model implemented in the country should be created by and for Libyans, building the “state from the grassroots up, rather than top down.” In this context, there is no place for external intrusion nor for conferences that do not have the full participation of the Libyans of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Mr. Salamé remains optimistic about the forthcoming Berlin conference despite an escalation in aerial fighting in Libya, but it is necessary to remember that conferences cannot be held without those who actually have a role and a stake at the local level. A simple theorem, but evidently very difficult to put into practice.

Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

Federica Saini Fasanotti is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, of the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution.

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Image: People queue to sign up at a bank for a $500 annual allowance that provides a lifeline for many Libyan families struggling to make ends meet in Tripoli, Libya October 17, 2019. Picture taken October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny