A liberating way to end Libya’s long war

Outside mediators are trying a novel tactic: Those who waged war in Libya must promise not to run it when peace prevails. 

Stephanie Williams, the United Nations envoy to Libya, speaks to reporters Oct. 21 about the coming talks between Libyan factions.

When Libyan representatives gather in Tunisia on Monday to begin charting a political future of their war-torn country, they will be restrained by a remarkable precondition: A seat at the table requires giving up personal ambition.

The participants, including both the president of the unity government, Fayez al-Sarraj, and his principal rival, Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, “must remove themselves from consideration in high government positions,” said United Nations mediator Stephanie Williams. That includes membership on the presidential council, the office of prime minister, and all other cabinet posts. 

What makes that requirement so notable is where it came from. The talks, part of a cease-fire agreement reached on Oct. 23 putting the country on a path to democratic elections, were framed with input from several Libyan civil society groups. Participants were drawn from across the country’s diverse geographic, political, and ethnic groups, with an emphasis on involvement from women and youth. A people battered by conflict since the ousting of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 are playing an active role in shaping peace. 

“Research and experience across numerous conflicts underscores that inclusion of all groups involved in, and impacted by, a conflict is vital,” said Osama Gharizi, a staff member at the United States Institute of Peace who has worked on the Iraq peace dialogues. “That inclusivity helps to ensure broad acceptance of a negotiated outcome, and to persuade all sides to pursue their grievances through institutions of law rather than through violent conflict.”

For nearly a decade Libya has been the theater of a complicated post-authoritarian conflict fueled by international rivals seeking to dominate the Mediterranean region and control the country’s oil reserves. A U.N.-backed unity government was established in the capital, Tripoli. It controls western parts of the country with armed forces, militias, along with mercenaries and military support from Turkey, Italy, and Qatar. To the east, the government’s main rival is run by a general once aligned with Mr. Qaddafi and propped up with support from Egypt, France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

In addition to access to Libya’s oil fields, the international powers are divided on the role and influence of Islamist factions in Libya’s future governance. 

The talks due to start Monday are a study in incrementalism and persistence. During the past five years the path to these negotiations have wended through Russia, Switzerland, and Morocco. Early cease-fires and accords were followed by pitched battles. The toll on ordinary Libyans is impossible to quantify accurately. 

Importantly, U.N. diplomacy sought patiently to build local support. Ms. Williams, the acting special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in Libya, met with major players across the country in crafting the cease-fire and negotiation framework.

For this round to hold, two key issues need to be resolved almost immediately. The first is how the foreign powers, which have never formally acknowledged having a military presence in the country, will withdraw by the accord’s January deadline. The second involves the demobilization of armed factions, integration of rival forces, and joint security operations. Reestablishing flights between the rival power centers of Tripoli and Benghazi would help establish goodwill. 

But the cornerstone is inclusivity. “What matters to the Libyan people is ‘what,’ not ‘who,’” Ms. Williams told negotiators in a virtual meeting last week. “Libyans want peace, security, and a decent life for them and their children. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to place the supreme national interest above person, partisan, and regional considerations.” And for now, that supreme interest lies with Libyans who have put peace first.

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