Over the last two weeks, the United Nations Special Advisor on Libya, Stephanie Williams, has been under sustained attacks across social media. Williams, who returned to Libya last December, is neither impressed nor responding.
The current stalemate is, as usual, the outcome of disagreements between Libya’s House of Representatives (HoR) and Higher Council of State (HCS), which led to the indefinite postponement of the 24 December elections. Both institutions are trying to stay in power, despite their failure.
Suddenly, and surprisingly, both chambers agreed and launched a new roadmap that called for the formation of a new government and for organising elections no later than 14 months—meaning no elections in 2022.
While this sounded promising, Williams knew it was only false hope and both institutions would resort to their old tactics of obstruction and delay. With years of experience behind her, she understands every political manoeuvre by Libya’s corrupt elite for what it really means.
She believes Libyans are on her side, based on the fact that three million citizens have registered to vote and 2.8 million have already collected their voting cards, ready to cast their ballots despite hurdles standing in their way. She still enjoys the support of major powers like the United States, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, beside the full trust of her boss,Antonio Guterres. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine means the UN Security Council is unlikely to agree to anything of substance on Libya, despite promising her full cooperation when she visited Moscow last January.
Mrs. Williams – or the Iron Lady, as some politicians call her -told MEMO, that she feared an “impasse” between HoR and HCS is forthcoming. This is what happened when HCS announced that it does not agree with the election of Fathi Bashaga as the new Prime Minister, to replace caretaker premier, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. Not only that, but the roadmap adopted by both houses is conflicting with the roadmap adopted last year and approved by the UN. The issueis: the UN plan envisioned elections by June this year, at the latest, while the newly agreed document implies no elections before the end of 14 months period.
HoR and HCS have agreed to work together on a constitutional base; how that will happen and, most importantly, when, remains unclear. The constitutional base has long been a contentious issue between the two sides. The matter was not solved in previous talks and had not been settled even in Geneva when Stephanie led talks last year.
On 4 March, Mrs Williams asked both houses to name six members each, to work together under her supervision to develop the required constitutional base but, so far, the committee has not yet started work – if it will ever do so. She told MEMO that the ideal situation is to have such a committee establish a “sound constitutional basis” to enable the holding of elections as soon as possible. But, again, there are no guarantees that this will happen any time soon. Williams wanted the committee to finalise its work before April in order to have the elections organised in June, but this looks increasingly unrealistic, thanks to endless arguments between HoR and HCS.
Mrs Williams is also unclear about how to handle the fact that HoR has already sworn in a new cabinet led by Fathi Bashaga, while the outgoing Prime Minister is still refusing to handover power. When asked why she does not cut short the constitutional debate by simply calling for a referendum on the draft constitution, still pending since 2017, she said that this was not up to “the UN”, but a Libyan decision to be made by “relevant institutions”, who rarely agree on anything.
Despite all this, and the accusations against her – that she is deliberately stalling and delaying – Mrs Williams still thinks that Libyans, not the UN, should “own and lead” the political process and her role, and that of the UN, is only to help facilitate talks through “good offices” when the parties hit a dead-end.
Asked about the possibility of reviving the Libyan Political Dialogue Form (LPDF) to continue its work, she said “consultation” with the 74-strong group is ongoing, but refused to confirm if it will convene. Some LPDF members see the group as irrelevant now and that it needs reconstruction to gain new momentum and legitimacy. Stephanie Williams formed the LPDF to act as a mini parliament, almost 2 years ago, in order to circumvent the usual disagreements between HoR and HCS. It succeeded in electing Prime Minister Debeibeh, forming a new presidential council and setting the country on the path to the 24 December elections. However, LPDF failed to agree on a constitutional base for elections.
LPDF was also tainted by bribery allegations that helped the outgoing Prime Minister gain power. Despite being investigated by the UN’s Panel of Experts, the issue is still outstanding.
Many think the UN was not transparent in handling these serious accusations and this led to the current impasse, but Williams disagrees. She insisted that she took the matter “seriously” by referring it to the Panel of Experts and the Libyan Public Prosecutor. She seems to blame LPDF members for failing to give their testimonies to Libya’s Public Prosecutor to investigate and, at least one LPDF member, Zahra Langhi, has confirmed this.
Clearly, Williams is hitting a roadblock, particularly in relation to the new government. MEMO asked her if the UN recognises Bashaga’s government. She said that the UN is not in the business of “recognising or endorsing governments” because this is a “sovereign matter” for Libyans.
To Salem Belgassem, a Political Sciences Professor at the University of Benghazi, this is a “diplomatic way” of saying that the UN does not recognise the new government which is yet to arrive in the capital, Tripoli.
Major powers, including the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy have taken the same vague position. In their joint statement, published on the US Embassy In Libya‘s website, they expressed their “concern” about the threat of violence, while warning about the potential for violence and threatening sanctions against perpetrators. They reiterated their support for the UN and Williams but did not mention the new government.
After meeting Bashaga, on 12 March in Tunisia, the US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, tweeted, commanding “HoR-designated PM Fathi Bashagha” while noting his interest in pursuing urgent “UN-facilitated negotiations” with Dbeibeh to ease him out of office. The tweet called for a peaceful approach to differences but did not side with Bashaga.
Despite all the setbacks and the shortcomings, Stephanie Williams is not yet giving up on Libya. She feels responsible for helping the Libyan people to decide their future.