Inside the youth-led fight for peace in Libya
The uprising in Libya that ended Moammar Gadhafi’s long reign in 2011 was supposed to provide a path to stability. Instead, the country descended into civil war, with regional powers vying for influence and resources. An election brokered by the United Nations last year was called off at the last moment and the sides to the conflict remain at an impasse.
But while official negotiations have stalled, one peace group decided this past summer to bring opponents together in Norway, where they would try to find a way forward. The group, Together We Build It, has been working on peace and security issues since 2011, in part by engaging more women and young Libyans in the process. While the Norway talks were held largely behind closed doors, reporter Amira Karaoud attended the conference and interviewed the participants.
Photo: Paul Patrick Borhaug/Utøya
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]
JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.
This week on the show, we’re looking at this past summer’s peace talks to try to end the conflict in Libya.
A brief refresher on Libya: Longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and assassinated in 2011. Then there was the Benghazi attack on the US embassy in 2012. And basically, the country has been in a state of civil war and weak governance for most of the last decade.
NEWSCLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING:
Haftar ordered his so-called National Liberation Army to capture the capital.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH WOMAN SPEAKING:
This lawlessness has plagued the country since Gadhafi’s downfall. And today, Libya is fractured into rival governments. The UN and …
JENN: It’s also become something of a proxy war. Various regional and international powers are all involved in the fighting, mainly by supporting different armed groups. Why? Well, sometimes for counterterrorism reasons, but often just because Libya has a lot of oil. But in 2020, the head of the UN mission in Libya, Stephanie Turco Williams, managed to help negotiate a ceasefire to end hostilities in Tripoli and elsewhere. We talked to her last season about this. Check out season one, episode eight, if you haven’t already. But of course, it’s one thing to stop fighting and another thing entirely to form a functional government. And that’s why we’ve returned to Libya for this season.
One of the main problems is the divided government. There’s one in Tripoli to the west, that the UN recognizes, and one in eastern Libya called the House of Representatives. Neither side has complete legitimacy in the eyes of the people. So a key step to ending the conflict is having just one unified government. This was a big reason Turco Williams set out to help organize elections last year: to elect this unified government. But too many people doubted the legitimacy of the process, and so, eventually, it was called off in December of 2021.
So where did that leave Libya? Well, without a democratically elected government. That’s why Together We Build It founder, Hajer al-Sharief—who you may remember we also talked to last season—decided to organize more inclusive peace talks. Her organization invited young political leaders and activists, mostly in their twenties and thirties, to travel to Norway of all places. They figured that would be about as far away from the noise of the conflict as they could basically imagine. The goal was to bring people together, talk, listen to each other, and try to maybe negotiate a way out of this mess. So this August, 11 of these leaders spent a week digging into the country’s toughest issues and seeing if, finally, they could bring some stability to their country.
We sent reporter Amira Karaoud to Norway to be there for those discussions. Amira is originally from Tunisia, which shares a border with Libya. The two countries have a lot in common. And Amira thinks this helped the Libyan participants open up to her. She arrived in Norway right before the talks commenced on a small, remote island.
[SOUND OF GENTLE WAVES ON A SHORE]
August 23rd, 2022. Day one in Utøya Island. Utøya Island is super small. Very close to the main road is a small hill from the ferry to the center of the island. Nobody lives in the island. So it’s mainly cabins. It’s very green. Very tall pine trees all over. There is a new building, a big L-shaped building. All of it is open windows that has this amazing view of the water. And you could see the sunset from that side of the, the island. When I say “new”—meaning that it is being built after the attack of 2011.
JENN: Now, if the name Utøya sounds familiar, that’s because it was the scene of a horrific massacre in 2011. Members of the ruling Labor Party’s youth wing were running a summer camp on Utøya. A neo-Nazi gunman made his way onto the island and shot dozens of people, killing close to 70. The youngest victim was just 14 years old. Since then, the island has continued supporting pro-democracy events, including these peace talks.
Now, while the actual talks were conducted behind closed doors—in an L-shaped building with lots of glass everywhere—Amira was able to interview the participants throughout the process. They had their differences, but all of them agreed that young people had a better chance of solving this crisis than traditional leadership. And from what Amira could see, the beautiful setting really helped the participants open up and be surprisingly positive throughout the talks.
For this episode, we’re talking to a few activists, including one who mediated a local conflict, then a young, prominent politician and a final person who’s pretty influential. They all address the most fundamental issues facing Libya and, really, any country trying to transition from violence and anarchy to a democratic state.
JENN: What were you hoping to learn from these individual interviews? What were you—what were you wanting to hear from the interviewees?
AMIRA: The idea for me was to really go and hear from politicians and representatives of civil society. How do they think, like, the conversation will be bridged between the divided parties in Libya, and what’s their vision of peace in Libya? How is Libya going to unify and how they are going to get to an election, rebuild in the country and go back to normal? You know, Libya today is going through a huge crisis. In a daily basis, people have no access to food, to gas, electricity. Each house has its own generator. This has been going on for 10 years. It’s not—it’s not a life that anyone would wish, really. You know? And for a young generation, which represents over 67 percent of the population, it’s tremendous loss to see that they have no future. So this offered an opportunity to really hear from these people who are affected the most. So we wanted to hear what’s their opinion, how do they see this is going to happen and why are they not getting there?
JENN: So, as you mentioned, these peace talks had political representatives as well as, as folks from civil society. So that brings us to the first interviewee I want to talk about: Emad Shanab. He was really interesting in that he both had, you know, government and NGO experience. So he was an advisor to a former minister of the interior in the Government of National Accord, and now he runs a youth debate organization. So, yeah, tell me about what he shared with you.
AMIRA: He’s one of two people in the group that have conversation with armed groups. So he’s from Misrata.
[EMAD SHANAB SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
We started a national reconciliation between Misrata and Tawergha. Tawergha is sitting next to Misrata. During Gadhafi reign, the city was bombing and attacking. They killed and had attacked Misrata several times, which is my city. They attacked my own family.
AMIRA: He’d lost his brother in this conflict. And he told me about the initiative that himself and other youth to start a conversation between youth of these two towns, Misrata and Tawergha.
[EMAD SHANAB SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
MALE TRANSLATOR: So we—as a youth from the cities—in 2017, we started an initiative. We brought together youth from Misrata and Tawergha through dialogues and encounters. So we created the relationship between both youth groups, and we said, “We need to build the true reconciliation. And it’s us who are going to build it.” So I brought both youth groups, who were armed and fought against each other. We convinced them that Libya—seven, eight years after the war, we need to build Libya together. Use the weapon back then for freedom and stability. Today, use your weapon for peace and reconciliation. And it could be you who builds peace and stability.
AMIRA: And then eventually they got to a place that they moved from just negotiation to actually bring in some of the youth from Tawergha who left the town—because the town, after Gadhafi was overthrown, got emptied and everyone pretty much left that town. So they got to a place where they took a couple of youths that left that town and brought them back to their town in order to see their houses, in order to see that the town was not completely demolished.
[EMAD SHANAB SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
MALE TRANSLATOR: This reconciliation was followed by the UN and important appointees, and they were surprised and very happy.
AMIRA: And he believe that that example can be replicated all over Libya. So he, he believes that that initiative is a good example of how Libya can actually reunite against all the odds and besides all their differences. He strongly believe that this strategy has to happen and a program has to be put in place to include the armed groups in order to find the rule and participation in rebuilding the country.
[EMAD SHANAB SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
MALE TRANSLATOR: Now for some groups, they need some reassurance that no one would come after them. They want to have a role within the government. They want to have some reassurance that they will be included in the military and security institutions. It’s their right. At the end of the day, they are Libya’s youth, and they used weapons for the sake of the revolution. And they participated in different wars. And now, it’s necessary to have a role in building Libya. They didn’t get a chance yet. They say, “We want to be within the government. Today, I’m outside the state boundaries. Who’s going to guarantee my existence? How can I be guaranteed that I can continue existing?”
AMIRA: When I talked to him about, you know, the armed groups, he said it’s important to identify all actors; to include everyone in the negotiation to be able to go to a peace negotiation.
JENN: Right. I mean, that makes sense, right? If you’re trying to build a, you know, stable peace, you would have to eventually, at some point, involve the people with the guns, right?
JENN: I’m wondering, was, was it dangerous? Like, was he scared to approach these groups? How did he do that? I mean, did he just knock on the door and say, “Hi, I’m here to talk about peace?”
AMIRA: Yeah, that’s—that’s exactly what they did. Like he said—and he talked about it—he said, “We covered the entire region,” like, east to west, north to south, going to the borders, talking to tribe leaders.
[EMAD SHANAB SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
MALE TRANSLATOR: During the two last years, we had some important meetings, and we organized social dialogues in every city in Libya. This is something that no other official did, and I challenge anyone who claims that he visited the Libyans in their regions, localities and houses. We listened to them. We discussed with them. We saw the forces in the neighboring countries, the security infiltrations and all the conspiracies that are brewing. Because we have traveled this long road for months. And we visited all the localities. So it was something that we saw with our own eyes. We met with the tribes, tribal leaders, young people, women, et cetera. We were warmly welcomed, because there was anger and refusal of all that the officials have done during the last ten years.
AMIRA: I think he wanted to really emphasize that none of the politicians have been doing that. So they have a better understanding of Libyans. They have a better understanding of what Libyans need and want to see to actually motivate them.
JENN: I wanted to talk to you, too, about the next interviewee, another person you talked to. Her name was Libya Idress. She’s a media expert and a civil society activist. But you also mentioned that she shared about having lost her cousin and what the loss of her cousin says about the larger conflict. Can you tell me a little bit about what she had to say there?
AMIRA: Mm-hmm. For her, they all share a lot of bad experiences from this last 10 years. You know, she brings back, like, her personal experience, you know, when she talks about, like, how most of people in Libya lost family members and share that experience.
I lost a cousin who was 32 years old. She had a brain stroke, because she lost her aunt and she wasn’t able to make it to her funeral. So she died before she was able to drive from Tripoli to Tunis and then take a flight from Tunis to Benghazi to be able to participate in the funeral of her aunt. My cousin died and left a four-years-old son. His mom was perfectly healthy. It was nothing but that her brain exploded due to conflict. And that’s a story of, like, someone who is not on the frontline, someone who didn’t die of a bullet. It’s going to be very hard to measure how much pain and impact and effect this conflict is going to leave. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to reconstruct the Libyan nation, to heal wounds, to work on the social fabric. And we must start at some point.
AMIRA: When I asked her about the tension that was happening during the time that they were in the meeting, there was an expected armed conflict in Tripoli. And she says that— and I think that she really refers to the negotiations and the talks that’s been happening behind closed doors—she says that even the ones who represent the parties that are going into violence and using violence, they would not want to see conflict.
LIBYA IDRESS: I don’t support any of the fighting groups, but I know, even for others that are supporting one of the two groups, for them—for their group to lose is better than for the conflict to spark a gun in the capital. I just believe 10 years of political division is better than an hour of armed conflict.
AMIRA: People are tired from violence in Libya. They are done with violence and do not want to see violence anymore.
JENN: So we did say that there were politicians involved here, not just civil society actors. So first, could you just explain to our listeners what the Government of National Unity is? What is that?
AMIRA: So the Government of National Unity is a provisional government for Libya, formed in March 2021, and it came to unify the rivalry between Government of the National Accord and the second cabinet of Abdullah Al-Thani, which is elected by the House of Representative[s]. So initially, the House of Representative approved the formation of the Government of National Unity, or GNU, let’s say. And since September 2021, the House of Representative[s] does not recognize the legitimacy of the Government of National Unity. Basically, what happened—the House of Representative[s] passed a non-confidential vote against the GNU, and then they selected Fathi Bashagha as a prime minister. And the prime minister of the GNU rejected Bashagha an appointment as a prime minister, which creates conflict between the GNU and the House of Representative[s] today.
JENN: Okay, so the House of Representatives originally helped create this Government of National Unity, and then they had a no-confidence vote, said, “We don’t like the guy who’s leading it,” they elected a different guy. The guy said, “No, I’m staying.” And— [CHUCKLES]
AMIRA: Pretty much. Yup. [CHUCKLES]
JENN: And now we have two separate, sort of, governments.
AMIRA: I, I know it’s complicated. You know, Libya’s conflict is definitely one of the most complicated conflicts today, I think.
JENN: Sure. I want to talk about Musaab al-Abed. Out of all of the people there that you talked to, he was probably the person with the—I guess you could say the least amount of interest in the peace talks. He is a member of the House of Representatives, which you already mentioned—that the House of Representatives, as we said, helped create the Government of National Unity. And then they broke apart. And now they no longer support the Government of National Unity; don’t see it as legitimate. So you have Musaab al-Albed here. He’s not super interested in the peace talks. You also said he wasn’t that interested in talking to you. [CHUCKLES] Can you just tell me a little bit, how did you manage to get him to talk to you? And what, what was the conversation like?
AMIRA [CHUCKLING]: I really had to chase him. I chased him. I mean, like, the last night we had dinner together, walking back, like, to the hotel from the restaurant, I was in a mission to actually interview Mohammed [sic] al-Albed. But, you know, and Mohammed [sic]—I was like, “All right, I’m going to be here. Do not go anywhere. We’re going to have this conversation.” That was, like, 11:30 at night. [JENN CHUCKLES] I’m going to have him on the phone, you know? And I was like, “Where are you? I’m here. I’m waiting for you. I have this room booked for the meeting.” And he’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m already out,” you know? And I was like, “So when are we—should I wait for you? Are we going to have this conversation?” He’s like, “Oh, tomorrow morning. I assure you that’s going to happen tomorrow morning.” I get there, tomorrow morning. [JENN CHUCKLES] Yeah. I was there sitting for, you know, an hour, and then, yeah, texted Musaab. He’s not answering. At that point, I’m walking into the hallway and here he is, leaving his room. So we went down and eventually, like, they were like, “Yeah, take 10 minutes. It’s not a problem.” It was a little longer than 10 minutes, but he eventually gave me those few minutes to get, like, a piece of his mind, really.
JENN: So what did House of Representatives member Musaab al-Abed finally share with Amira? His surprising comments after the break.
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JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m Jenn Williams. This episode, we’re sharing stories from young Libyan leaders who participated in informal peace talks, which took place in August on an island in Norway. Members from the major political parties, as well as civil society leaders, sat down to address the country’s toughest problems. Before the break, we heard from Emad Shanab, who helped mediate a local conflict which he hopes can be replicated throughout Libya. And we also heard about Musaab al-Abed, a member of the House of Representatives. Now, al-Abed kept dodging our reporter Amira Karaoud. Now he’s finally talking to her, and he admits something right away.
AMIRA: He did share that he actually was very reluctant to come to the meeting. He was stressed out about it.
[MUSAAB AL-ALBED SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
I wasn’t prepared to hear other’s opinion, different from my opinion, but when I found that everyone is open and understanding, I felt I have to play same role myself. And I felt I shouldn’t be too resistant and only accept my own ideas. If there is a common ground everyone agrees on, yes, I would be part of it.
AMIRA: So he basically played the game. He found it, you know, very interesting. There was that bond that is also interesting, you know, that I didn’t expect.
JENN: Just among—among the men? Or the politicians?
AMIRA: I mean, really, between all of them. Like you see them, like, all sit together, you know, civil society representative and political representative. They sit together, you know, beside—regardless of what parts they represent, you know. So I was curious about, like, how was it for them to be together when the conflict was happening on the ground in Libya? And he was like, he’s like, “Let me tell you something that people don’t know and don’t understand about Libya.”
[MUSAAB AL-ALBED SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
MALE TRANSLATOR: Why is every conflict resolved very quickly? There has been more than one war in the last 10 years, and it ends quickly. We got used to Libya conflicting party. I have friends in region, for example, in past wars. I have friends who were in the opposite side to me. Communication between us doesn’t get interrupted. We always stay in communication, no matter the size of the problem. But there is always friendly treatment when we meet somewhere and—or when we talk to each other. In general, there wouldn’t be any tension. To the contrary, we always try to stay close to each other. Most of the time, the conflict that happens in Libyan wars, we know Libyans are part of it. But in reality, external parties.
AMIRA: In fact, like, Safwan, who’s a member of the High Council of State, he kept telling me, you know, like, “Oh, you should interview me and Musaab at same time. You should do an entire podcast specifically about both of us. We are seen as opposed. But in reality, we’re friends.” And in fact, like, they were inseparable most of the time.
JENN: Part of me has a hard time wrapping my head around what he’s saying to you and the reality that he was, you know, spending time with Safwan. At the same time, there are people shooting each other. It sounds good, right? Like, it sounds like—I want to go, “Oh, of course. Yes. They’re all friends. They’re all family. At the end, we’re all Libyans. We may disagree, but we can come to the table.” But, like, there are people literally killing each other, because they oppose each other. How do you put those two things at the same time?
AMIRA: When you look back, the conflicts never last too long. I mean, I don’t know if I’m demonizing it, but as if they try and, like, to show how powerful they are to each other. That this killing is felt by the population, not by the politicians. We’re talking about politician—that they’re fighting among each other without consideration of the Libyan population.
JENN: Right. They’re not accountable to an electorate. OK. So I want to talk about the last interview that you did. The last person you spoke to. This is Stephanie Turco Williams. Our listeners may remember her from season one. So she was the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and helped broker peace talks. Part of that was supposed to lead to elections late last year, which, as we know now, didn’t happen. Listeners may also remember Hajer al-Sharief from last season. She’s the founder of Together We Build It, which also organized these talks. I talked to al-Sharief right before the elections were supposed to be held. She was worried, because the UN had skipped over a crucial step.
I would have wished if they would have focused on establishing a due process, for an example, by addressing the issue of the constitution. You have a country that does not have a constitution, and you want it to be democratic. How?
JENN: So, getting back to you, Amira, if you could first just tell me, like, what was the mood like the day that Stephanie was there at the talks?
AMIRA: I think, before the meeting, of seeing some excitement of being able to address her directly. We all know that to a certain extent, most of Libyans really don’t agree with United Nations intervention, which Stephanie represent. And after the meeting, there was another excitement in the breakroom, of the finding that they had heard from her during the dinner last night. They overheard of, like, them asking her questions of which country is behind this person, which country is behind this power and that power? There was a great openness from her, and I think she gave them an understanding of what went wrong.
JENN: So people were excited that she was there. Was there any resentment, or was there any, like, “We can’t wait to give her a piece of our mind?”
AMIRA: That’s the excitement that I heard—that I felt before the meeting.
AMIRA: But after the meeting, there was, like, another excitement about, like, learning more about other insights that they were not aware of.
JENN: So at first they were like, “We’re going to tell her how we feel.” And then after, they were like, “Tell us some stuff.”
AMIRA: Exactly. It was like, “This is our chance to actually find out more about how things are happening, and what’s going on on the ground and who’s backing up who.” And, like, all the information that they feel like they—they have the privilege to know today and they never knew before. They know that this is a super-amazing learning experience for them. The last 10 years, this meeting, and their participations in political scene and the civil society—all of this is the capital that they are growing for the day that they become leaders and would be the decision-maker.
JENN: What was it like interviewing Stephanie later on? Like, after—this is after she has talked to everyone, she’s had all those talks. How did—how did she seem?
AMIRA: Very open and relieved, from her political position, to be able to give to these young people the information they need that would help them in the future or would help them at that point. She does say that they need to take over the streets.
STEPHANIE TURCO WILLIAMS:
I also pushed them on the need to organize, and they have a responsibility to ensure that their voices, their own voices, are lifted. They’re all very active on social media, and that’s important. But I don’t—I think that there’s no substitution for peaceful demonstrations, peaceful organizing, to put pressure on the parties, on the political class and, frankly, on the international community, because there are many countries that—they just want to deal with the official parties to the conflict.
JENN: That’s surprising. Did she say anything else, anything that surprised you?
AMIRA: She said there was a rush for election for the sake of elections.
STEPHANIE: The intention was there to ensure that the electoral process was grounded or put in the framework of—of a constitutional basis. I think that was a step that was overlooked, unfortunately. There was certainly sort of a rush to elections for the sake of elections, and then a decision to sort of jump over that, I think, that critical step.
AMIRA: Every participant, Libyan participant, accused, to certain extent, the international intervention. OK. I mean, that’s an easy call, but pointing fingers only at them is not fair neither. But Stephanie also said it, like, she did back up that idea. And for her, the wealth of the country is its problem.
STEPHANIE: As long as you don’t have a firmly grounded electoral process, and then some means to manage the oil revenues, which are huge, [CHUCKLES] people are just going to fight over who has access to power and resources. As much as the international community is responsible for the foreign intervention, so are the Libyans. Many Libyans—and this is why I criticize them, because they complain about foreign intervention, but they run to those capitals, and they sit with whoever, whoever, whoever, because they think that those guys are going to advance the interests of whichever Libyan is sitting in front of them without recognizing that, look, these countries have their own interests in Libya.
AMIRA: She does recognize that the UN has a limit of how much they can do in Libya, because it has a, you know—we’re talking about armed conflict, you know? So the UN has a lot of limits on acting in Libya.
JENN: That’s fascinating. So just to kind of wrap up here, from all of these interviews that you did, what were the main things that you learned about the Libya conflict that you didn’t know before?
AMIRA: I think this meeting made it clear to me that there isn’t only one actor in Libya. And we cannot talk about the conflict between the East and the West. The conflict is a lot bigger than that. There is way too many parties, and all of them has to be brought into the table. I don’t know how is that going to happen, but that’s something that it’s—I see very complicated. But honestly, I’m very impressed by the people that I met, and seeing them having hope, even though they don’t have a better option than holding on to a little bit of hope. But I think they gave me hope, really. Seeing them, you know, being able to get over their differences gives me hope, because at the end of the day, their positions are also important, and they will be able to influence, you know, these conflicted parties.
JENN: That was Amira Karaoud, a multimedia journalist who reported on the Utøya meeting on Libya for this episode. The nonprofit Together We Build It, in partnership with Utøya, organized these talks. They were supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and co-financed by the European Union and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Amira says folks left the meeting knowing full well that bringing peace to Libya is going to take a long time. It’ll require a lot of reconciliation and probably some protests, particularly to keep the politicians in check. It’ll also require bringing everyone to the negotiating table, including the armed groups, and writing a constitution and maybe, then, democratic elections. But at the end of these talks, all the participants felt heard and they really listened, too. Sometimes peace talks are just about building a foundation of trust. And these talks accomplished that. Now, only time will tell if these young leaders can influence future negotiations.
The Negotiators is a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our production team includes Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Special thanks to Chamsdine Bach Ouerdian and Khalil Ellouze, who did the voiceover for this episode. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show.
Foreign Policy is a magazine of news and ideas from around the world, and we encourage you to subscribe. Just go to foreignpolicy.com/subscribe. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation, where the most urgent issues of our time are discussed and debated. Tune in at dohadebates.com.
On the next episode, the chief EU negotiator of Brexit shares behind-the-scenes stories.
FRENCH MAN SPEAKING:
I tried to work for this unity, for this trust, every day and every night.
JENN: That episode, next week on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.