In mid-March, a delegation of prominent Libyans traveled to Washington carrying an important message: a new U.N. initiative focused on holding elections is welcome but it must be part of a bigger, comprehensive reconciliation effort to bring peace and stability to Libya. According to the deputy head of Libya’s Presidential Council, Abdullah Al-Lafi, reconciliation — and elections — can only be achieved by Libyans themselves. In Washington, Al-Lafi and the members of his delegation presented their own initiative for a national reconciliation project in order to create a Libyan-led process that complements the plan for elections proposed by U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya Abdoulaye Bathily.

A man sits along a street littered ahead of Libya’s 2012 election in Tripoli, Libya. A new U.N. plan aims to have the country hold elections this year, but many Libyans want to focus on national reconciliation. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times)
A man sits along a street littered ahead of Libya’s 2012 election in Tripoli, Libya. A new U.N. plan aims to have the country hold elections this year, but many Libyans want to focus on national reconciliation. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times)

Over a decade into Libya’s conflict, the war’s dividing lines seem frozen in place. The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli (the west) vies for power with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (the east), backed by warlord Khalifa Haftar. A mélange of foreign powers continues to support one side or the other, focused on advancing their own interests to the detriment of peace and security in Libya. A prior U.N. plan to hold elections in 2021 failed, but east-west fighting has largely subsided in recent years. Still, with no plan for national reconciliation in the offing, the current stable status quo could be disrupted at any time.

Al-Lafi traveled to Washington with Muftah Nasib, the head of the National Planning Council, and Aymen Seifennaser, a member of the House of Representatives (HoR), to engage U.S. policymakers on the need for a renewed focus on national reconciliation and solicit deeper U.S. diplomatic involvement. USIP coordinated and supported their visit.

A Strategic Vision for National Reconciliation

The proposal Al-Lafi presented in Washington — produced with the support of Libya’s National Planning Council and the University of Benghazi Centre for Law and Social Studies — outlines five “governing principles” or points of emphasis that should be undertaken to promote national reconciliation:

  1. Addressing the root causes of the conflict; the report identifies 33 issues, grouped into five categories, that are at the heart of the Libya’s civil war;
  2. Respecting the rule of law, especially as it pertains to passing and implementing legislation that protects individuals (and businesses) from vigilante justice, exploitation and corruption, retributive justice and arbitrary application of the law;
  3. Safeguarding individual freedoms and protection against discrimination based on race, tribe, geographic origin, gender or political beliefs;
  4. Addressing public needs with clear and consistent effort; and
  5. Coordinating efforts that promote reconciliation and restorative justice, incorporating best practices and lessons learned throughout the process.

Throughout the document, several key points respond to some of the most controversial and vexing problems that prevent political progress in Libya today. For instance, how would responsibilities and authority be shared with a central government and the regions? The proposal recommends a decentralized system, with a new constitution detailing how the institutions and functions of the administrative state are devolved to local authorities. While calling for devolution, the proposal also asserts that Libya should remain a unitary state, not broken up into three (or more) regions as some have foreshadowed.

On the role of religion, the proposal clarifies that Shariah law would serve as a primary basis for legislation, enshrined in the constitution. As for the executive branch’s authority, the report emphasizes the need for a balanced distribution of power among government branches with an entirely independent judiciary, to be clearly defined in the anticipated new constitution.

From left to right: Muftah Nasib, a member of Libya’s National Planning Council member and Abdullah Al-Lafi, deputy head of the Libyan Presidential Council, in conversation with USIP’s Thomas Hill while at USIP.
From left to right: Muftah Nasib, a member of Libya’s National Planning Council, and Abdullah Al-Lafi, deputy head of the Libyan Presidential Council, in conversation with USIP’s Thomas Hill while at USIP.

Elections Alone Are Not the Answer

Many Libya observers agree with Al-Lafi and his delegation that Bathily’s new initiative places too much emphasis on elections — particularly given the failed effort to hold them in 2021 — while overlooking other more urgent concerns. Two years ago, unresolved questions about candidate eligibility and constitutional ambiguities presented significant obstacles. These issues remain unresolved today. However, Bathily contends that the current political class suffers from a crisis of legitimacy and that most state institutions lost their authority in the eyes of ordinary Libyans years ago. As such, successful elections are necessary to legitimize and empower a new Libyan government to tackle the country’s toughest challenges, like the disarmament of militias, oil-revenue sharing, reconstruction, the presence of foreign militaries and mercenaries inside the country, political representation and citizenship especially for historically marginalized communities, irregular migration and border security, among others.

In response to queries in Washington about Bathily’s new initiative, Al-Lafi took a cautious stance, advising observers to withhold judgement until more details of Bathily’s plan — particularly the proposed “high-level steering panel” — are revealed. In February, Bathily said that “all relevant stakeholders” (rumored to be 40-45 Libyans) would be convened to facilitate the adoption of a legal framework and time-bound roadmap for holding elections in 2023. As Al-Lafi pointed out, the selection of these stakeholders may itself be controversial, complex and time consuming, potentially delaying elections into 2024 or beyond. Indeed, elections may not materialize, as the steering panel may never be formed.

Al-Lafi’s approach includes a timeline for reconciliation beginning with the Presidential Council adopting a national reconciliation resolution to serve as the basis of any new laws. As new legislative measures emerge, the National Planning Council will lead the process of circulating proposed new law drafts to relevant parties including civil society and legal experts. A final draft of any new laws will then be consolidated into a single bill for consideration by the House of Representatives under a “national conference” convened by the Presidential Council.

Libyans Need to Talk to Each Other

While Al-Lafi’s proposal does not provide details on the national conference, this would not be the first such effort to convene Libyans at a national scale. In 2019, the United Nations planned to hold a national conference with 120-150 Libyan leaders in the city of Ghadames, but it was scuttled by a Haftar-led military offensive. Spoilers may try to undermine Bathily’s high-level steering panel this time, too, and it’s not clear that Al-Lafi’s national conference would be any more successful. Nevertheless, there seems to be a consensus that Libyans need to talk to each other to rebuild trust.

Abdullah Al-Lafi explains to an audience at USIP why intra-Libyan dialogue is the path to peace.
Abdullah Al-Lafi explains to an audience at USIP why intra-Libyan dialogue is the path to peace.

Al-Lafi noted that there is an extreme trust deficit among Libyans. This has fostered a very real sense that the next elections will be zero-sum, with the winners using their new power and resources to exact retribution and “justice” on the losers. It’s understandable, then, that Al-Lafi strongly advocates for a comprehensive amnesty for politicians and others that might be targets of such retaliatory actions. It’s an interesting idea that is not without precedent in other war-torn countries. However, blanket amnesty programs that make no differentiation between the severity of crimes can create an impediment to reconciliation. If an amnesty agreement is reached between rival Libyan factions, it will be crucial to ensure that it is not perceived by the public as a self-serving attempt by political elites to shield themselves from justifiable prosecution.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, international attention has largely shifted away from Libya. Today, concern over Libya in Washington primarily revolves around the the activities of the Russian-backed Wagner Group. The withdrawal of some Wagner Group forces and the current pause in fighting has lulled many into thinking the situation in Libya is stable and not warranting close attention. Europe and the United States have determined that resolving the Libyan conflict is now the responsibility of the United Nations and all of their effort is directed at supporting the new U.N initiative.

The Libyan delegation was warmly received in Washington by U.S. policymakers, who are keen to see Libyans take the initiative to resolve their internecine conflict. However, the United States has made clear that all of its energy and support will go toward Bathily; parallel or alternative paths to peace are not being entertained, at least not yet. Bathily will be given every opportunity to be successful but if he stumbles or his initiative loses momentum, there could be an opportunity to shift course. The fact that Al-Lafi and his colleagues have put forward a plan puts them in a strong position to pick up the mantle if elections fail to materialize or produce a functional government.

Watch the full conversation with the Libyan delegation at the U.S. Institute of Peace:

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