Libyans have taken an uncertain step toward ending nearly a decade of civil war, agreeing in U.N.-mediated talks to hold national elections in December 2021. The discussions, in the neighboring capital, Tunis, fell short of yielding a transitional government to oversee the elections and the establishment of a new constitution. The talks are shortly to resume. From Tunis, USIP’s Nate Wilson notes that the step is positive for a country that began 2020 with a surge in warfare and the involvement of foreign forces. Making this peace effort effective will require restraining that foreign involvement, he says, and will need to ground the talks in grassroots support.
The United Nations has pushed these talks forward, yet it has been only five years since a U.N.-mediated peace deal for Libya that quickly failed. Can this effort be made effective on the ground?
A lot of work, and a good bit of change, will be required to make this effective. These talks—the process is formally called the Libya Political Dialogue Forum—are a start in the right direction, seeking political and military reconciliation between the opposing factions. The U.N. Support Mission in Libya, or UNSMIL, has brought together 75 delegates for these talks. Notably, it included a contingent of prominent Libyan women. But that’s the easy part. Libyans are questioning the selection process. It’s clear that building local legitimacy, across Libya, will be harder. So to complement the talks among the factions contending for power, what is needed is a dialogue at the grass roots that consolidates a consensus among Libyans about their shared identity, how to reflect that identity in a government and how they can solve their disagreements through politics and not armed conflict.
What does that grassroots dialogue look like?
When the international community supports local dialogue, working from the bottom up, that helps those with power—both nationally and internationally—take into account the deep mix of viewpoints, recommendations and grievances across a conflict zone. In Libya, the Switzerland-based peacebuilding organization, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, conducted a series of forums in 2018—nearly 80 conferences across Libya and in the diaspora that gathered in more than 7,000 people. Something like that is a positive step, although those meetings still have not gotten us to Libyans’ identities. A lot of powerful drivers of events, like the engine of a car, are not visible from the outside.
So while Libyans may all desire unity, security, effective public services, these priorities quickly shift when regional and cultural divides emerge. Without a common understanding, even at a very general level, of what it means to be Libyan and where they fit in the region and the world, those divisions can reemerge and expose Libya to foreign interference and internal strife. So it is important to broaden the dialogue and use it to bring the most marginalized to the table, confirm previous consultative processes, but deepen the conversation to frankly discuss—and have a plan to have follow up on—factors that connect and divide Libyans. Where people are not ready to openly discuss with their former enemy group, we can help bring them together by helping them jointly solve concrete problems they share. USIP has been doing this between municipalities and ethnic groups. This can build trust that the “other” is operating in good faith. This type of social reconciliation is necessary to complement political reconciliation, and people have to understand for themselves how it can deliver a better society and improve their lives materially.
If Libyans and the international community can produce that kind of dialogue, can they hold elections in 13 months, as planned?
Key questions remain, and establishing a constitution that shows the framework for a new government should be the first order of business. Otherwise, Libyans will be unclear about the type of government they will be electing. And preparation for elections will have to go deeper than just the technical steps related to vote-counting, voter registration and access, etc. These aspects are important, but the vital, deeper step—again, at the grass roots—will be civic education and voter education. Libyans suffered for 42 years under a dictatorship with the illusion of democratic participation, and now nine years of transition buffeted by violent conflict. If Libya is to have a chance of a representative government, it will have to start and ultimately end with education—the mundane, day-to-day work of ensuring people know their rights, can defend them, and can negotiate differences without recourse to violence. One location for this type of education is in schools, which has been done in other countries in the region. The type of dialogues I envision should be started immediately and can directly buttress the technical work that must be undertaken.
And what about the potential spoilers for this effort? This year began with a new surge of fighting and the addition of Turkish forces to the mix of foreign military elements in this war.
The international community will have to agree to stop military supplies to Libyan factions and will have to press non-compliant governments to step back. These include regional and global powers supporting the government based in Tripoli and the forces headed by Khalifa Haftar. If arms transfers are not halted, and Libyans with international support do not disarm, any peace agreement will be on shaky ground, even if it has managed to shape a solid power-sharing regime.
And, the domestic challenges, including a risk of spoilers, are steep as well. Libya will have to undergo a transitional justice process. The trick will be implementing this and its associated measures—fact finding, reparations, truth commissions, and criminal prosecutions—without derailing a peace process. The peace process, however, needs to address the root causes of conflict. These include deep senses of regional marginalization, like in Libya’s southern region of Fezzan. Underrepresentation of ethnic minorities, like the Tebu and Amazigh, as well as women and youth, is also a chronic problem. Addressing these questions, with Libyans themselves in the lead, is essential for the sustainability of any peace.