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