The long road to Libya's election
Libya will hold its first-ever presidential elections on December 24, after decades of dictatorship and years of civil war. The vote marks an important turning point for the country and is due in part to the creative diplomacy conducted there in recent years by the United Nations. On the podcast this week, we hear from Stephanie Turco Williams, the former head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, who oversaw much of that process. Host Jenn Williams also speaks with Hajer al-Sharief, a prominent peace activist in Libya and a co-founder of the organization Together We Build It. Hajer worries that the fragile peace in the country could yet unravel.
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.
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JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.
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JENN: This week, we’re looking at Libya. The UN has been facilitating a peace process there, and presidential elections are scheduled for later this month on December 24th. We’re going to hear from Stephanie Turco Williams, the former head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, who oversaw a lot of the peace process. Now, if you haven’t been following Libya since longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and assassinated in 2011 and the Benghazi attack in 2012, basically, the country has been in a state of civil war for most of the last decade. The main phase of the war started in 2014. But it’s also a proxy war, with various regional and international powers involved in the fighting. Why? Well, in part because Libya has a lot of oil.
Turco Williams served as a US diplomat for decades, working across the Middle East and North Africa. In 2018, she was in Libya, and she was actually planning to retire. But then the head of the UN Mission in Libya, Ghassan Salamé, called her up. Turco Williams takes it from here.
STEPHANIE TURCO WILLIAMS:
I met Ghassan Salamé, who, you know, is a veteran UN mediator. And, you know, I think, like, one day we were talking. You know, I said, “Well, just to let you know, here are my plans. I’ll be leaving my job, like, in June, and I’m retiring from the Foreign Service.” And he was like, “Huh. Would you like to come work for me at the United Nations as my deputy for political affairs?” It was a new post that had been established in the mission. And I thought it would be a really unique opportunity to live and work in Libya, which I had not been able to do. And so I said yes. And then they appointed me formally in July of 2018.
I mean, why did I want to do this? I must have been crazy! Well, I guess many observers had thought that Libya was the low-hanging fruit in terms of the post-Arab-Spring, you know — the prospects for change and stability. Because it was a country with a small population, around seven million. Africa’s largest oil reserves. An educated population. A country that had — prior to the revolution — very solid infrastructure, a good health care system. 98% of the population is Sunni Muslim, so you don’t have the sectarian divisions that you see in some of the other countries in the region, like Iraq or, indeed, Syria. And indeed, that — there was that optimism before things started to unravel.
So, in fact, just two months before Chris Stevens and our colleagues were killed in Benghazi, Libya held its first parliamentary elections in July of 2012. And it was quite extraordinary, because you had more than 60% of the, you know, eligible voters participating. And then what was even more astounding was that, actually, the bloc that came out so best positioned was the so-called liberal bloc, so that, you know, the specter of the Islamists taking over — in fact, the Islamist parties did not do as well as expected. But the seeds of what became Libya’s fragmentation were really laid during this period. Because you had the revolutionaries, the guys who brought down the regime, did what many others in the region had done — you have this legacy of de-Baathification in Iraq. And so here in Libya, they acted to exclude elements of the former regime from participating in the country’s political life. So then you have a constituency who is going to rebel against the new elite. And things started to fall apart, and then you have the outbreak of the Civil War. So the international community departs. Tripoli just disintegrates into violence. The airport is destroyed. You have, then — moving to a more formal division of institutions — a parliament and a government in Tripoli and a parliament and a government in the East.
By the time that I arrived, the situation on the ground was not sustainable. We needed to help the average Libyans, you know, to restore their country, to bring back some sense of the institutions. Libyans want what people all over the world want — they want a stable government, they want security. They wanted elections, and they wanted an end to the foreign interference and a restoration of Libyan sovereignty.
So what we need is to, you know, revisit the peace process itself by constructing this national conference, which we scheduled for April 14th of 2019. So one of the things that the conference was supposed to accomplish was the writing of a national charter, a unifying document, principles that all Libyans could agree on. A national charter is a foundational document which would have possibly included, like, 10 universal principles: Libya is a united sovereign country whose sovereignty should be respected. Libya is a democracy. Libya is a country where the rights of all are respected. You know, this type of thing.
We were also, I would say, traveling around the country talking to lots of Libyans in civil society, local businessmen — I mean, just sort of, you know, people of influence. So in the space of a couple of months, I went all over western Libya into central Libya. So in talking to them, it’s like, “OK, so hey, this is a process where you can participate. You will be included. Your voice will be heard. There’s a seat for you at this table.” In some cases, I was in front of an audience of 100 or more. I went to universities where I would give remarks and face a lot of questioning. In other instances, it was a more intimate or personal setting.
I needed to be able to talk to, particularly, the money guys. Because if the money guys — the major businessmen — don’t buy into your political project, they can undermine you in very important ways. And so I had a dinner with a large group of businessmen, and it was a very intense and sometimes uncomfortable conversation because, for them, this was all — there were a lot of risks. We were, in a sense, charting the unknown for them. And as chaotic and dysfunctional as the situation was, it was at least a known situation, rather than: “OK, the UN is going to lead us into this conference and God knows what. We might have to compromise. We may end up losing some of our perks.” This is the type of conversation that you would have.
And other constituents, frankly, that we spoke to were the armed groups. If you don’t talk to the guys with the guns, you’re going to, again, undermine your own project, because if they decide they don’t like what’s going on, they’ll just use force of arms to stop it. And wow, very tough conversations. Because you know what? The people that the guys with the guns least trust are the politicians. They just despise them. And they think that the politicians are happy to use these young gunslingers when it suits them and then just toss them aside. And, you know, many complaints that men who had been wounded — whether even in the course of the revolution or the various battles, you know, 2014, the battle to oust Daesh from Sirte — that these young men who had been wounded had not received sufficient support or medical care from the government. So you just have this long list of complaints. It’s easy to say, “Oh, the thugs are the guys with the guns,” right? Because, you know, they’re the ones with the weapons. And you think, “Oh, they can do just awful things, and they will extort people and hold them hostage.” But oftentimes, the more odious characters were the militia in the suits. And these were the corrupt politicians and the business interests that were behind them, because they were benefiting from the collapse of the state. And they were, in many ways — well, they were making hundreds of millions of dollars, a lot of that money was moved out of the country. There was no accountability. But the visible face of that were these, you know, young men who were getting a pittance compared to what the militias in the suits were making. But ultimately, I will say that there was substantial enthusiasm for the idea of the national conference, that people were willing to give it a go. You know, let’s see if we can take our bruised and battered country and try and put it back together.
JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators. We’ll be right back.
JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. So before the break, Libyan factions had finally agreed to a peace conference that would take place in April of 2019. But just days before it was supposed to start, the civil war escalated with attacks on Tripoli, the capital. The fighting lasted for months, and by the time Turco Williams was beginning to get the talks back on track, COVID was underway. And then her boss, Ghassan Salamé, left and Turco Williams took over. Then, in June 2020, a ceasefire was getting underway, offering the opportunity to reengage with the heads of Libya’s divided government as well as economic and military officials. The new plan was to have Libya’s various factions come together and elect an interim government that would lead the country until a national election could be held. But Turco Williams wanted input from larger groups of Libyans, including women and young people across the country. So she embarked on a series of digital dialogues that would allow regular Libyans to engage more directly in the democratic process. She picks it up from here.
STEPHANIE: I had a couple of eureka moments in September of last year when I was quarantining in Rome. I had contracted COVID, so I sort of had this enforced confinement. And in this period, you know, I thought that you need to also bring more voices into the process. And so that’s where we took — we essentially took advantage of the online environment that was necessitated by COVID to launch these digital dialogues for women, youth and the municipalities.
And really, we had no idea how this was going to go. Because while Libya is a Facebook country — it’s a country where many, many people live online — it’s also a country that suffers from terrible electricity shortages. Yet Libyans are determined to be online and there are lots of workarounds. And so, in terms of the participants, there was a ceiling: No more than 1,500 participants could be online at any time. And I have to say, in all of the five sessions that we ran, we had people in the waiting room. And you know, I’ve talked to a couple of young Libyans who were on these digital dialogues since then. And they found it to be a really — a dynamic way to interact with each other, but also to interact directly with the mission.
We used the digital dialogues, also, to ask these mostly young Libyans, “Hey, you know, we’re going to be leading these sessions for the candidate presentations. And here’s your opportunity to ask these candidates questions. So give us your questions.” And so, man, the questions just flowed in, and we used them. One of the questions was: Are you going to respect the election state? Are you going to focus on, for instance, the return of internally displaced persons? There’s 400,000 Libyans — out of a population of about 6.5 to 7 million — who’ve been, for years now, displaced from their homes. What steps is the government going to take to help these people return home?
Now, we had something like 24 candidates running for the Presidency Council, the three-person Presidency Council. And then we had something like 21 candidates running for the prime minister’s position. And so we decided that we were going to conduct live presentations, that these would be broadcast through Facebook, through the UN television, which was then picked up by all of the Libyan channels and even some of the Arab regional channels. And it was like, you know, must-see TV in Libya.
One of the women participants passed this question forward to the gentleman who is the head of the parliament. He’s the head of the House of Representatives who had supported the attack on Tripoli in April of 2019. And of course, I read it before passing it to my colleagues to ask, and I thought it was a great question, because it got to the heart of this real lack of trust between the parties. And the question she asked was, “Hey, you want to be president of Libya. But yet we were living in Tripoli, and we were under attack, we were under assault for those many, many months. And what do you have to say to us, and how can we trust you again? How can we have confidence in you that you really want to build bridges, you really want to engage in the national reconciliation that’s so necessary for us to move forward collectively?” And he was taken — I have to say, he was taken off guard, and he basically said something to the effect of, “Well, you know, people make mistakes.” But I do think it sort of affected the way that people viewed him, and I think it was a really good exercise in transparency in a region — let’s face it — where political leaders are not necessarily questioned in such a direct manner, are not held accountable for their performance.
One of the decisions that was taken by acclamation was that, in this interim government, not less than 30% of the senior positions would need to be allocated to women. And so not only was this question asked of every candidate, but they were also, by the way, made to sign written pledges that they would honor this decision of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. Now, the new prime minister did appoint, for the first time, a female foreign minister, and for the first time there is a woman serving as the justice minister of Libya. You know what, this ticket came together, and the government was approved by the parliament, by an overwhelming majority, in March. They have a lot of challenges, but from what I can see — and I’m on the outside now, so I don’t have all the details — but I can see that they’re working. They’re working really hard. Which is good.
JENN: That was Stephanie Turco Williams, former head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya. Our team talked to Turco Williams back in April, and a lot has happened since then. Nearly 100 people have registered as presidential candidates in the December 24th elections, including Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of Moammar Gadhafi. Also Khalifa Haftar, head of the army that attacked Tripoli and a key warlord in the civil war. Some candidates are being disqualified. Others are appealing those decisions, and the news of who’s still running is changing every day. Also, the United Nations Special Envoy for Libya recently left, raising concerns that the fragile peace could unravel.
So where do things go from here? Well, to help us answer that, I spoke to Hajer al-Sharief, one of the country’s most prominent peace activists. She’s the co-founder of the organization Together We Build It. And she’s also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. While al-Sharief says that the UN-led peace process was more progressive than past efforts, she still thinks the foreign diplomats missed a key piece of the puzzle.
I’m sort of sensing — from especially the international community — that there was an obsession with the elections as the solution. It is part of the solution indeed, because in Libya, we have a legitimacy crisis. We have different political institutions, and the way for you to solve it, you need to bring in new people who are democratically elected. Whereas, for an example, if you would ask me — if you would ask me what are my priorities, if you would ask me this question — even before, you know, the political dialogue was convened, before the UN actually designed the process — I will say one of Libya’s key priorities from my perspective is the lack of due processes that could be a safeguarding mechanism. Right? Because the 2014 elections were disputed, and look where we are today. For me, the question is: How can you safeguard the fact that once these elections take place, they will get us where we want to go while we literally don’t have any guarantees? So to give you an example, very precisely: One of the things that, in my opinion, the UN missed in their process is to establish a political due process in itself. It’s sort of like Libya is actually a patient that needs a heart surgery. The international community is a surgeon who volunteered to do you the heart surgery. They got you into the room, they’ve opened your chest, and they’ve started the operation. And then they walked out of the room, hoping that Libya would be able to sort of recover itself — by itself. So, in my opinion, really, like, the key issue was not addressed and certainly not solved.
JENN: I’ve heard that from so many other people in other countries. I’ve talked to people — you know, civil society groups in Haiti who are saying the same thing. They’re like, “The US and the international community keeps pushing for us to have these elections,” and that’s, like, the end-all be-all. Elections will solve everything. And they’re like, “Nobody’s going to even vote. It’s not going to be secure. Whoever is elected is probably not going to be legitimate.” Like maybe elections aren’t the, like, end-all be-all process. And you know, it reminds me, too — just talking to civil society activists, everywhere from, from Belarus to Venezuela to Hong Kong, you know — the idea of the process and these kind of benchmarks of democracy are something that, on paper, often look like yes, real democracy. But often, you know, leaders who are illegitimately elected — or strongmen, et cetera — will basically co-opt the process and use it to make themselves legitimate, even though it’s not actually legitimate. But they’re using these kind of processes. So I think part of it is unique to Libya, but I think that’s something that a lot of civil society groups I’ve spoken to have a lot of similar complaints that, you know, elections themselves are not going to solve all of our problems. They’re one piece of democracy, and maybe not even the most important piece if all of the other groundwork isn’t laid there.
HAJER: I would have really wished if the UN mission — while they’ve convened this three tracks, this important process, while they’ve done all of this work — I would have wished if they would have focused on establishing a due process, for an example, by addressing the issue of the constitution. Every progressive country in the world, every democratic country have a constitution. And in Libya, it seems that the international community really does not see that. I mean, you have a country that does not have a constitution and you want it to be democratic. How? I’m enjoying seeing people getting, you know, excited. I’m enjoying seeing ordinary people getting happy about the elections. But it also scares me, you know, like, I’m not going to lie. Earlier when I saw — her name is Leila ben Khalifa. You know, when she went and submitted her files, it was broadcasted, and you see her standing there speaking, you know, as the first Libyan woman who runs for the presidential elections. But not only that, you also hear, like, the commentators — who were men — who were saying, this is a great step, like, this is a step that will encourage other women. You can’t help but to feel extremely happy and then immediately worried. You know, because the last thing we want is for the public to think, “Elections? No thanks, anymore.” You see, we’ve had elections and it didn’t work well. We’ve had elections and it caused wars. But then the — the issue is not the elections per se. The issue is something else in the background, right?
JENN: So if you were able to lead a process like the UN did, what would you have done differently?
HAJER: Any process I design, I would need to ensure that everyone is represented, everyone is participating, and that I would actually design a process that ensures that there is a power balance dynamics — you know, like, a balance in the power dynamics. Because it’s not fair for you to bring, for an example, women or young people in a process where they are underrepresented, and then say, “Yeah, well, but we had women and they didn’t really manage to, to do something” — for an example, right? Especially in processes that are governed by numbers, by voting. You need to have the numbers in order to influence the vote. And to do that, it’s very simple: really include people. And you know your question, it’s — in my work, because I also have a lot of dialogues with really well-respected peace mediators who have worked with the UN or other institutions. And whenever I talk to them about inclusion, I can get the sense that — as if I’m idealistic. Because they can easily tell you, “You know what, if you pressure these fighting groups to — that, you know, ‘we’re going to include women in the process’? They could leave the room.” And it’s a little bit a simplistic view to think of it, right? These groups go to war against each other. They kill each other for a political gain. So there is no way that you can convince me that they will leave a process that could give them any political gains just because you included women, or just because you included young people. So very simply, a peace mediator or a facilitator should actually design an inclusive process. Not because it’s actually nice to include women, not because you are progressive if you include women and young people. You must include them because these are their political rights.
JENN: Yeah, that’s really interesting, too, because, you know, we’ve just seen — and obviously I’m in no way suggesting that Afghanistan and Libya are the same situation or anything, but — you know, we saw women, we’ve talked to them on this show. We, you know, we’ve seen women sit down with the Taliban, and they sat at the table and they talked. And yes, it was very uncomfortable, probably for everyone involved. But you know what? If you have women in there — I’m a woman. I know what it’s like to be in a room full of men. Those women will speak up.
HAJER: Not only in Libya, but also in other parts of the world. You know, we work with women from Yemen, women from Syria, women from Iraq. They all must speak the same words we speak, because traditionally, peace processes — they will bring two men to the table who have their advisors, their consultants, et cetera, and then they shake hands. Voila. This is, you know — here comes peace. And that’s understandable if you do a peace process between two states. But an armed conflict like Libya — which are cases that we’re seeing increasingly more and more now, where you have civil wars or armed conflicts within one state — you cannot do the same formula of bringing two people or four people, who are usually men, and then say, “This is a peace process,” or “This is a political dialogue.”
JENN: That was Hajer al-Sharief, co-founder of the peace organization Together We Build It.
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Next week on the show, you’ll hear about the Bring Back Our Girls campaign in Nigeria and the negotiations that got more than 100 girls released from Boko Haram.
MAN: The effort that ended up bringing them home took years. It was secret efforts — done in a painstaking, tough, almost an opaque fashion — that ended up bringing the girls back.
JENN: That episode, next week on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.