France pushes for Libya peace and a roadmap for December elections
France reopened its embassy in Libya this week after a seven-year closure, following a decade of insecurity after the fall of General Moamer Khadhafi in the 2011 revolution. As the country gears up to hold elections in December, will international powers with ambitions to gain influence in Libya's future help or hinder the new government of national unity?
French President Emmanuel Macron announced the reopening after talks in Paris last week with the head of Libya's newly installed presidential council, Mohamed al-Manfi.
After being targeted in an April 2013 car bombing that wounded two gendarmes, the French embassy to Libya was relocated to Tunis in July 2014, along with many other foreign missions.
On Monday, the French diplomatic mission resumed operations behind a tall compound wall in a new building on the outskirts of Tripoli.
Libya specialist Mary Fitzgerald says that the reopening is hugely important and very symbolic. "There's a mood of optimism internationally about recent events in Libya, where a new unity government has has formed to oversee the preparations for elections that are scheduled to take place in December," the researcher told RFI.
The move comes after European foreign ministers from Italy, France and Germany made a joint visit to Tripoli which Fitzgerald says was remarkable "given the disunity between European member states with a vested interest in Libya."
"For the most part, you have the perception that France has sided with, and supported, one of the key belligerents in the conflict in Libya over the last seven years - Khalifa Haftar," says Fitzgerald.
"That really undermined a unified European position. And France has a lot of work to do to regain the currency it had in Libya and repair its image problem because of its perceived support for Khalifa Haftar," she adds.
She reminds us that Haftar is the man who launched an offensive to capture Tripoli from the then internationally recognized government just days before a United Nations dialogue meeting was due to take place in April 2019.
"He failed in that offensive, he failed in his war," she says, "and France is left having to repair the damage of the perception that it supported Haftar - that's a strong perception in Libya."
The new unity government
Most diplomats and other foreigners left the country after repeated attacks and kidnappings, notably an Islamist assault on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi in September 2012 that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
#Germany @HeikoMaas, #France @JY_LeDrian & #Italy @luigidimaio Foreign Affairs Ministers showed their support to @LyHNEC and @UNDP's national elections project during a polling station demonstration held in #Tripoli in the presence of new 🇱🇾 #GNU Minister of Foreign Affairs. pic.twitter.com/hqZ5NWLGV7— UNDP Libya (@UNDPLibya) March 26, 2021
Fighting only came to a halt last summer, and a formal ceasefire in October was followed by the establishment of a new Government of National Unity, led by interim Prime Minister Abedlhamid Dbeibeh.
For researcher Mary Fitzgerald, one of the most striking aspects of this latest chapter in bringing peace to Libya has been the peaceful transition of power from the leader of the internationally recognised administration of Fayez al-Sarraj to Dbeibeh, who is a controversial figure.
He comes from a wealthy family in Misrata, Libya's third city - a prosperous port - and his family have been accused of corruption going back to the Kadhafi era and also over the last decade, post-Kadhafi.
According to Fitzgerald, during the forum on creating a unity government, "there were allegations of bribery - essentially people alleged that there were attempts to buy votes in favor of Mr. Dbeiba." The allegations are being examined by a UN panel, but "many worry they could come back to haunt Mr.Dbeiba as his nine month term unfolds," she adds.
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Meanwhile, only last week, the new U.N. special envoy for Libya urged foreign forces and mercenaries to leave the country as demanded in the October cease-fire agreement.
Addressing the U.N. Security Council, Jan Kubis warned against “pitfalls” that could obstruct the elections in December, urging continued support for Libyan authorities to “act against international terrorism and to fight unlawful armed groups and organized crime networks plaguing the country, which is critical for the stability of Libya.”
Turkey and Qatar have been backing forces loyal to the U.N.-supported administration in Tripoli. Conversely, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt have supported Khalifa Haftar who controls eastern and southern parts of Libya.
With the imperial ambitions of regional protagonists being played out in Libya, will they heed the UN call to pull out their forces operating on the ground?
"Turkey has already indicated that it will start withdrawing some of the Syrian mercenaries that it deployed to Libya," says Fitzgerald. "Many questions remain about what may happen with the Russian mercenaries in eastern Libya who were there at the behest of Khalifa Haftar. Some of them are embedded in oil infrastructure and there is the question as to what degree Russia sees these personnel as a way of protecting its interests and ambitions in Libya."
Although there is a school of thought that Turkey and Russia might come to an arrangement where the interests of both countries are served and protected in the country, that remains to be seen.
As it stands for now, says Fitzgerald "there is more engagement on the Turkish side in terms of its relationship with new unity government. There are still a lot of questions about what exactly Russia's strategy is in Libya, in the next weeks and months."
As the clock is ticking for the GNU to get government institutions in place ahead of the presidential and legislative elections slated for December, who knows if the UN's call for an end to foreign interference will be received, and if international diplomacy over engaging with Libya's future prevail.
Mary Fitzgerald is a writer, researcher and consultant specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya.
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