Putting Libya back together again

As civil war saps and splits the North African country, leaders of rival groups are in talks aimed at forming a unity government. The UN-led talks require a patience in turning Libya's shared suffering into hope for a shared democratic vision.

A child plays at a public playground in Benghazi, Libya, April 11.

For a peace negotiator like Bernardino León, the United Nations envoy trying to end a stubborn conflict in Libya that is spilling far beyond its borders, a necessary diplomatic tool is patience. It is not a patience of mere waiting. It is also a steadfastness in simply reminding the combatants of their own admitted weariness.

Mr. León need not say much during the peace talks being held in nearby countries. The rival militias and governments in a fragmented Libya – either Islamist, secular, or tribal – are slowly running out of money or support, especially from activist women and their civic groups. Despite holding Africa’s biggest petroleum reserves, oil production in Libya has fallen by more than 80 percent. Foreign support to the militias is no longer assured. Airports are closed and daily life gets harder for this North African nation.

The very fact the major parties have joined the UN-led political negotiations shows they are so tired of the suffering that they are ready for hope. 

“Peace in Libya: either the tribes do this, or no one is going to do this,” said Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi after meeting with President Obama on Friday to discuss a coordinated response to the chaos in Libya. 

That hope, as the UN envoy has laid out, lies in the various sides making enough concessions to form a unity government, one that leads to a fully democratic one, which Libyans sought during the revolution of the 2011 Arab Spring. As he patiently presents Libya’s plight and its promise, León might be  able to find a consensus on a road map that restores Libya as a country.  As Mr. Obama put it, “The answer ultimately is to have a government that can control its own borders.” 

In recent remarks, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Libyan people now want stability and “are capable of getting along.” And in a Skype talk to 250 women gathered in Tripoli, the UN envoy asked Libyan women to keep refuting the message of the militias. “We count on you to spread the culture of peace in your communities and to talk and engage with all who have a role to play in bringing stability,” said the UN special representative.

Libya’s civil war represents a challenge to the international order – by being a failed state that has become a launch pad for terrorists and refugees to the West. But it is also a challenge to the notion that every war is winnable. Libya’s conflict has reached a point of despair for all rather than a defeat for one side. In such a situation, a negotiator’s patient task is to channel the mutual cry for relief into a common hope and a shared vision.  

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