By Michel Cousins
The main focus should be to bring Libyans together again. Only then is a chance that elections and a new government could succeed.
The announcement by Ghassan Salame that he was resigning as UN special envoy to Libya and head of its support mission was not wholly unexpected.
There were rumours last year he was considering resigning because of health issues. Since then, however, diplomatic efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis have faced ever greater challenges, with questions asked regularly about how long Salame could continue facing them.
The final straw was the collapse of UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) efforts to build on January’s Berlin Conference on Libya and re-launch efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis — specifically the 5+5 talks between top military commanders from both sides of the conflict and the political dialogue that was to start February 26.
It effectively collapsed when both the rival Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the Tripoli-based High Council of State decided to boycott it, which exposed UNMSIL’s diplomatic efforts as a failure.
Two statements regarding Salame’s resignation stand out as to what happens next — although not necessarily in the way intended — and they contradict each other.
Former Libyan Ambassador to the United Nations Ibrahim al-Dabbashi said Salame failed in the task given him and so would anyone who replaced him.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he wants a smooth transition in UNMSIL “so as not to lose any momentum on the gains that have been made.”
Dabbashi is right in speaking of failure and predicting it would not end with a new appointment but he is wrong in personalising it. It was not Salame’s fault diplomatic efforts failed — it was the fault of the United Nations and the international community.
The United Nations is at fault because, since the 2011 toppling of Qaddafi, it has continuously tried to install a standard Western-style political system in Libya that runs roughshod over the country’s political traditions and components; the international community because, despite promises in Berlin, it balked at taking the tough decisions needed to stop the flow of weapons and mercenaries from foreign actors that is now the prime cause for the conflict’s continuation.
A few days before he tweeted his resignation, Salame angrily lashed out at the failure of the international community to ensure the promises made in Berlin were kept.
“Did I get the kind of support needed since then? My answer is: no. I need much more support,” he said.
It was not just the absence of meaningful pressure on the sanctions violators, such as Turkey (What about UAE, Jordan, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, …), there was absence of international pressure on Libyan players as well.
“They [key international players] have many ways of putting pressure on those who violate the ceasefire, on those who violate the arms embargo, on those who do not come to Geneva political talks, on those who give orders to sabotage the military or political talks,” Salame said.
“They could be doing all this. Did they do it the way they committed to do it? My answer is no.”
The United Nations’ focus on installing a standard Western political system in Libya — believing that a ceasefire, an interim government of national unity and then elections will solve the crisis and ignoring Libya’s political traditions — is the fundamental problem.
It is the reason why Salame’s predecessors as UN special envoys were also seen as having failed. There were elections in Libya in 2012 and in 2014. Neither brought peace, stability or progress to the country. They, in fact, made matters worse.
The refusal by the coalition of revolutionaries to accept the results of the 2014 elections, which they lost, and to then seize power in Tripoli, forcing the government to flee east to Beida, was one of the main roots of the current divisions.
Guterres’s hope of a smooth transition and a continuation of UNSMIL’s efforts is unlikely to turn into reality
First, he is likely to have difficulty in finding a quick replacement for Salame. Many will see the job as an impossible task. Deputy Special Envoy Stephanie Williams, who in 2018 was interim US charge d’affaires to Libya, would certainly assure continuity.
However, although she is hard-working and highly focused on achieving success, it is thought Russia and France would oppose her appointment.
For that reason, but also because Guterres said at the African Union summit in February that it should play a greater role in finding a Libya solution, he may look to a leading African politician. The question remains: Who would want to take the job?
For the moment, it is Williams who is left in charge in what may be a lengthy interregnum.
Guterres’s other problem is the view among Libyan players, and probably others, that Salame’s resignation presses the restart button, that existing UNSMIL plans are dead in the water.
Certainly, they are on hold until a new envoy is found, Williams persuades a reluctant White House to take a more proactive policy on Libya.
That would not be an easy task although surprises cannot be ruled out in Libya.
However, if it is to effect real progress in Libya, the United Nations needs to rethink what it can offer. Focused on elections and a new government as the answer to Libya’s problems, it is on the wrong track.
The focus must be on bringing Libyans together again. Only then is there any chance that elections and a new government could succeed.
Michel Cousins is the editor-in-chief of the Libya Herald.
The Arab Weekly