By Sami Zaptia

Libya Herald’s Co-founder and Managing Editor Sami Zaptia was invited by the organizers of the Rome 2017 Mediterranean Dialogues (29 November to 2 December) to interview in front of a live audience Special Representative of the Secretary General of the UN (SRSG) and UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame.

The interview was conducted on Saturday together with journalist Giorgio Zanchini of Italian public broadcaster RAI.

Opening the session, Zanchini made a brief introduction about the Libyan situation and the latest attempts to amend the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in Skhirat, Morocco in December 2016.

Salame had proposed an Action Plan for Libya in September which involved amending the LPA, approving the constitution and holding elections by the end of 2018. Setting the scene, Zanchini asked Salame which countries were now supporting his latest Action Plan for Libya.

Who is supporting the UN’s plan for Libya?

Salame: (Answering with a smile and with humour) ”Prima facia, if I have to believe what is said to me, everyone is supporting the UN Mission. The truth is that different states have different interests in Libya. Not everyone has the same level of interest in Libya the way say Italy is. So far, the Security Council has been unanimous in its support. It has supported the Action Plan I presented on 20th September. Therefore, there are different levels of support.”

Continued but reduced external interference

Asked by Zanchini about external interference, Salame said that ”There is a lot of interference in the Libyan case. But I do believe that this is a case where the domestic issues are paramount. It is true that there is interference from outside. I don’t deny it. With weapons, with money, with, you name it”.

But I do believe that the international system as it is today allows my Libyan friends to seize the opportunity of some kind of attention going elsewhere into the regional and international system. They have a window during which there is not the same level of interference we had. Foreign interference has gone down recently. Not stopped. But there is declining international interference in Libya.”

Constitution, national reconciliation and elections

Therefore, it’s a challenge for my Libyan friends to come together and to seize the opportunity and to build permanent institutions – not have a new transition – but to go into permanent institutions around three things: A constitution within the coming years; national reconciliation and elections”.

National Reconciliation ”takes up most of my time to work on the ground to untangle local disputes and bringing people together in different cities in Libya. When I feel I have done enough of this on the ground then we go into a national conference where this accumulation of local reconciliation becomes a general national reconciliation. It has been a successful effort so far”.

The third needed pillar of permanent institutions are elections. ”For elections to be successful you do not need elections that add a third parliament to the two that are already there in Libya. Nor a fourth government to the three competing governments that are competing for the Libyans’ attention. You need to organize the elections where the proper conditions are met so that the elections are a solution to the problem and not the source of new problems”.

What are these conditions?”, Salame asked. ”These conditions are technical such as voter registration. In December voter registration will be launched by the High National Election Commission (HNEC). HNEC needs to be in all parts of Libya. You need an electoral law for the third election. Libya has already had two elections and two election laws. Libya needs a proper law”.

You need technical, legislative and security conditions so everyone who wants to run (stand as a candidate in elections) can run safely and anyone who wants to vote can vote freely and not having a pistol over their head”.

The right political conditions

An election to be successful, the main political players should accept in advance the results of this election. Otherwise you have what we had in Afghanistan and in different places and you have what we had in Libya itself in 2014”.

Accepting election results

You need everybody to accept in advance, before the elections take place, the results of the election. When these conditions are met – and believe you me we at UNSMIL are working day and night to have these conditions effectively realized – when the conditions are met – and I hope they are met before next summer – we will organize elections”.

Sequencing of Action Plan: National Reconciliation prior to LPA amendment?

I then asked the UNSMIL head about the sequencing of his Action Plan. Did he put the horse before the cart? Shouldn’t the National Conference – in order to achieve greater consensus, reconciliation, social contract – have preceded the LPA amendment and the reduction of the Presidency Council (PC) from 9 members to the new 3+1 formula? Equally, if the contending Libyan parties fail to choose a new Presidency Council, is there a plan B? Will Serraj continue as PC head in the interim period?

There is no plan B

Salame: ”There is no plan A or plan B. Various components of the Action Plan are being worked on at the same time. Different teams are working on elections, some on reconciliation on the local level until critical mass is reached for national reconciliation”. We will only move onto a national conference when we are sure there is consensus, he explained.

LPA amendment is for a more efficient executive during last days of transitional period

With regards to the LPA, ”The LPA amendment is not working for a permanent situation. I hope Libyans liberates themselves from the LPA – Skhirat or no Skhirat. Skhirat is good because it is the only reference now. As long as we have not reached this permanent state of stability, we need the LPA agreement. It is important to keep it – out of necessity”.

It could have been better if we had been able to select a government of technocrats who take care of public services. Libya is a rich country producing now 1.1 million barrels (of oil) per day. It has become also a country where 20-25 percent of the population are now in humanitarian need because public services for example in health, education, money liquidity etc, are not there. For a country that has been helping so many countries in Africa so far, building schools or hospitals – now needs help. I was surprised by that when I took over the job – that I need a humanitarian programme”.

Therefore, the idea to amend the LPA was to make the executive more efficient during these last months of transitional period. Many Libyans believe this is a very important thing and politicians are investing too much (in it). I kept begging them not to look at it this way but to look at the amendment only as a way of extension – a more efficient cabinet to deal with these lively hood issues.”

The rush to elections, 17 December deadline, end of LPA?

I next asked the SRSG if the international community was again repeating the same mistake of rushing to elections in spite of what happened in 2012 and 2014. Libya, having emerged out of 42 years of authoritarianism in a rentier state wouldn’t it have been better to spend more time on reconciliation and creation of a Libyan social contract? Was the rush to elections a strategic preemptive move against parties threatening a military solution by the 17 December deadline? Is the international community cornering itself by announcing 2018 elections?

Salame: ”On November 16 the UN Security Council clearly stated that on 17 December nothing will change because we are against having a vacuum and we consider that the LPA will remain the reference for political activity as long as the permanent institutions of the country have not been established. So, on this position, we are extremely clear.”

National conference would be a barometer for elections

Those who know me know I am not an electoral maniac. So, I am not fully obsessed with elections. In fact, I am known for having opposed elections in Iraq at one point because I believed that the security situation was not right for that. So, we would definitely would like the National Conference to take place before (the elections) because that would be the barometer for us to know to what extent the people are ready to go into a truly democratic practice”.

(I interrupted: ) So elections might not happen in 2018?

Salame: ”No. I hope they will happen because there is also something else. There is a clear consciounesss in my view among the Libyans that I had the chance of meeting, that this transition should end. And when you have this clear consciousness then the second step is to tell them; ok, then you need elections. But let us create the propitious (favourable) conditions for elections”.

(I interrupted:) But Libyans don’t want another transitional period, as you said.

Salame: ”Absolutely. I take note of the Libyans’ fatigue with transitions and I also hope that they take note that we cannot organize elections on 1st December (2017). But we hope to be able to do it in a few months from now”.

Asked by Zanchini to comment about media reports that Khalifa Hafter’s spokesman had said there would be no elections in 2018, Salame said he had not heard these comments.

However, he added that Hafter, Presidency Council head Faiez Serraj, House of Representatives head Aghila Saleh and High State Council head Abdelrahman Swehli – were all in favour of elections.

To all of them. I tell them yes. But we need to have the proper election so elections is not the new problem but a solution to the problem”.

Finally, I asked had the international community done enough since 2011 in reforming Libya’s security sector? Was enough done to collect weapons and to implement the Demilitarization, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of militias? Was enough done to form a unitary, legitimate, army and police to act as a focal point for the formation of a Libyan state. Some nations are now even working with militias and enshrining them by working with them. Can Libya become a solid, stable state as a partner to work with Europe?

Salame: ”I am not going to blame others for things for two reasons. First, the international community was in less convergence than it is now. In 2013, for example, you had the Ukrainian problem and it created a lot of problems. And in 2014 it was very divided on Syria. So, I don’t think that the international community is as acutely divided as it has been in the past few years which gives us some kind of opportunity”.

It takes time to reach agreement

(Secondly) ”I will give you an anecdote from my country (Lebanon). We went into a civil war. We found a solution in 1983. It took us 6 years to be able to impose it on the various militias and we lost 50,000 people and half a million Lebanese left the country during the six years between 1983-89. Sometimes human nature is done in a way where something that is evident: which is the inevitability of a political solution – takes some time to get into everybody’s mind”, concluded SRSG and UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame”.


Sami Zaptia – Libya Herald’s Co-founder and Managing Editor


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