The key skill of Libya’s UN-chosen leader

Known as a listener who builds consensus, Fayez al-Sarraj must win over warring factions, unite an army, defeat Islamic State, revive the economy, and stem the flow of refugees.

AP Photo
Fayez al-Serrej, head of the U.N.-backed unity government meets with his team in Tripoli, Libya, March 31.

The United Nations is not in the habit of choosing a country’s leader, but in December it was forced to do just that for Libya. The North African nation has been in chaos and civil war for nearly five years since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. Islamic State has gained a foothold with thousands of fighters while more than 300,000 people have fled from Libya’s shores to Europe.

So what sort of leader did the UN choose?

He is Fayez al-Sarraj, whose career credentials are that he is an architect and former housing technocrat who hails from a respected family in the capital. His father helped found postcolonial Libya. On March 30, he was finally able to go back to Tripoli as prime minister – under heavy guard – after being selected as the consensus candidate between major Libyan factions during UN-sponsored talks. 

His main attribute as a leader, however, may be that he hears people out to achieve a consensus, which will be critical to piecing together a country split apart by tribes, region, and ideology. “He listens more than he talks, and he thinks before speaking,” said a former Libyan ambassador and childhood friend, Abdu Alhameed, to Bloomberg.

In an Arab society more accustomed to bold-speaking strongmen, Mr. Sarraj is an unusual yet necessary choice. He heads the newly formed Presidential Council that runs the new Government of National Accord. His three deputies represent different parts of Libyan society. This executive body must operate by consensus. It must also work with two rival legislatures that claim to represent all of Libya. He will be helped along by the fact that the UN Security Council holds sway over Libya’s $67 billion sovereign wealth fund.

His goal of political reconciliation is daunting. But he was off to a good start with endorsements from a few key institutions: the central bank, the national oil company, and the Libyan investment authority. This gives him control of the nation’s purse as he tries to meld various militias into a national army that can defeat Islamic State. He might invite European or American forces to contribute to the fight.

For now, his listening skills are more needed than guns or money. “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen,” said Winston Churchill. The UN may have done well by picking Sarraj for Libya.

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