Tue, Jul 20, 2021

The meeting of the Forum for Libya in Geneva fails to produce any practical results

MENASource by Karim Mezran and Nicola Pedde

Related Experts: Karim Mezran,

Libya North Africa Politics & Diplomacy

Tunisia's President Kais Saied speaks as Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Political Affairs in Libya Stephanie Williams listens to him during the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunis, Tunisia November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi/File Photo

In spite of the efforts of the United Nations (UN) and the international community, the seventy-five delegates of the Forum for Libya’s Political Dialogue (LPDF) were unable to agree on the legal framework needed to organize the Libyan elections scheduled for December 2021. As a result, the context and practical details of the elections have yet to be defined. Moreover, foreign actors continue to undermine the stability of Libya by exercising influence on its state building process.

General Kamel’s mission in Tripoli

On June 17, the Egyptian military intelligence director, Major General Abbas Kamel, visited Tripoli and Benghazi with the purpose of calming tensions generated in the previous days between General Khalifa Haftar and the Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity (GNU), Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. The visit, which was organized on very short notice, was also set up by the Egyptians to discuss the ongoing negotiations for the preparation of next December’s elections with the authorities in Tripoli. Furthermore, the parties debated the conditions to ensure the security of the country and the exit of all foreign troops and mercenaries still widely present throughout Libya.

According to the Egyptian press, General Kamel communicated to Dbeibah both the disappointment of Cairo for the continuing role of Turkey in the country and the Syrian militias connected to it, and the availability of General Haftar towards the definition of an agreement with the GNU. An agreement that, according to the Egyptians, could also include his candidacy in the presidential elections.

General Kamel tried to convince the Tripoli authorities of the necessity to dissolve the numerous militias still present and to accelerate the start of the exit of the Turkish forces and the Syrian militias associated with them, arguing that this condition constitutes the prerequisite for the cessation of General Haftar’s hostile posture.

On the GNU side, however, the Egyptian narrative has been not only rejected but also substantially overturned, justifying both the Turkish presence and that of the militias as a direct consequence of the aggressive action of General Haftar.

Although the government in Tripoli is, in principle, willing to encourage the exit of the Syrian mercenary forces and integrate the different local militias in an embryonic national army as much as possible, the knot of the direct Turkish presence remains unraveled. Turkey’s military and political programs in Libya have long-term goals and are bolstered by the will to create a permanent military and economic garrison that are essential to the development of a political and commercial synergy with the country.

This knot is difficult to untie. On the one hand, Egypt is trying to unravel it through the mediation capacity of General Kamel and the Egyptian intelligence. On the other hand, Egypt fails to offer real assurances to the GNU regarding the control of General Haftar and his well-known intemperance.

Another aspect that upsets Egypt is Tripoli’s de facto refusal to accept the proposal of integration between its own militias and those of the Libyan National Army (LNA), with a view to the creation of a unitary national army. The unification of Libya’s military apparatuses will represent a long-term objective of the stabilization process, and Egypt’s insistence on accelerating this process risks being perceived in Tripoli as an instrument to surreptitiously favor the consolidation of General Haftar’s power. Therefore, the insistence of General Kamel in this direction could frustrate the minimum opening that has been recorded in recent months between Tripoli and Cairo, consolidating the role of the Libyan militias and probably expanding the consensus around the presence of Turkey and especially its military.

The GNU authorities did not appreciate the comments made by General Kamel during the continuation of his visit to Libya, when, on his return to Cairo, he stopped in Benghazi to meet with General Haftar, to whom he repeated his invitation to “prepare the forces of the Libyan National Army” in view of the imminent elections. The de facto assumption of the LNA forces as the military structure guaranteeing the elections is part of the countless controversies accompanying the preparation of next December’s elections, and it is clear that nobody in Tripoli intends to grant the LNA such a role. Thus, General Kamel’s statements in this regard appear highly inappropriate in Tripoli and are fueling the well-established fears that accompany Egypt’s role and its overt siding with General Haftar.

The failure of the Forum in Geneva

The efforts of the UN, through its support in the organization of the LPDF, aimed at outlining the legal framework within which to organize the elections scheduled for December 24. Unfortunately, the LPDF has systematically failed in their ability to identify a consensus, which is reflective of the wide sphere of dissent that characterizes Libya’s political and social context.

It was the UN itself that announced that the work of the forum did not make any progress with a statement issued on July 3, highlighting the attempt by some political forces to derail the now-defined roadmap and postpone the elections.

Five days of forum work in a hotel on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland, where seventy-five delegates met with the primary purpose of designing the regulatory framework for the December elections, ended in deadlock. None of the constitutional formulas proposed for the organization of the vote found a majority consensus, while UN coordinator Raisedon Zenenga said that any proposal to postpone the date of the election will not be taken into consideration.

The outcome of the meeting seems to reveal an insurmountable set of differences between the delegates, which is certainly not limited to the legal framework needed to organize the elections. There are many aspects on which the Libyan parties are unable to find a common position. First of all, there is a lack of clarity and agreement on the electoral context, as neither the scope of the vote nor the way it will be expressed have been precisely defined yet. Since it is not yet clear which offices will be voted for, it is consequently impossible to establish the eligibility criteria and the way the vote will be managed, especially considering the de facto division of the country into three distinct entities, each characterized by its own autonomous management.

The UN proposal to limit the December vote only to the election of a legislative assembly (thereby extending the duration of the current transitional executive, which is presided over by Dbeibah, until subsequent elections for the choice of the new executive) has raised criticism from at least one third of forum members, making it an impractical option.

The issue related to the presence of foreign forces on Libyan soil—where it is estimated that over twenty thousand mercenaries are currently engaged on several fronts—is also central.

Additionally, establishing the decision-making process that will vet and allow candidates to run for the elections will be particularly complex. There could be highly polarizing and controversial names among the various candidates, such as that of General Khalifa Haftar. While a part of Libyan society considers his candidacy legitimate and lawful, another part considers his candidacy unacceptable and rejects it outright.

Looking ahead

The Geneva talks of the Libya Forum were a failure. The differences expressed by the seventy-five delegates representing the heterogeneous political and social context of Libya appeared insurmountable, and no agreement was found even on the most basic issues related to the legal definition of the constitutional framework within which to organize the vote.

Weighing on the already significant divisions expressed by Libyans are also issues related to rivalries between the main international players—especially militarily-wise—in local dynamics. With less than six months to go before the elections are scheduled, it is still unclear which offices will be voted for, based on what criteria, at what time, and in what context of security and transparency.

Looming over the fate of the Forum and the elections is the specter of the candidacies of controversial and highly polarizing figures, such as General Haftar, and it is therefore urgent to define a legal framework that establishes the eligibility criteria and the management of the selection process of the future Libyan executive.

On the contrary, personalism and mere factional interests risk to compromise a phase that was only recently characterized by the possibility of a solution to the many obstacles that stand in the way of the country’s normalization.

Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council focusing on the processes of change in North Africa. 

Nicola Pedde is director of the Institute for Global Studies in Rome, Italy.