On 6 December United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of Stephanie Williams of the United States as his special adviser on Libya. She is tasked with leading mediation efforts and engagements with Libyan regional and international stakeholders to pursue the implementation of the three intra-Libyan dialogue tracks — political, security and economic — and support the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya.
Williams previously served as acting special representative and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL, 2020-21), and as deputy special representative (political) of UNSMIL (2018-20). Diplomats close to the Libya file say she was the driving force behind the political process that set 24 December as the date for presidential and legislative elections in Libya. Now she is returning to Libya — she arrived in Tripoli for the first time wearing her new diplomatic hat on Monday — just as concerned diplomats are saying it is more likely than not that the elections will be delayed.
In one of Williams’ first encounters with Libyan officials, she met with Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush. While both made statements supporting the move towards elections, neither indicated that the 24 December timetable would be met.
Williams also met with Mohamed Al-Menfi, head of the Libyan Presidential Council. He, too, expressed his support for the elections taking place, though without committing to a date.
“She might try to make things work but it is not going to be easy. The situation has not gone well in recent months,” said an informed Western diplomat.
One reason the 24 December deadline looks increasingly unfeasible, say concerned diplomats, is the failure of Jan Kubis, the outgoing UN Special Envoy to Libya, to work through the maze of conflicting interests, both internal and external, in the country.
“Developments in Libya are never just about Libyan parties. They always involve regional and international players, and their impact on Libyan factions in the east and west of the country,” said another European diplomat.
Kubis took up the job after Lebanese diplomat Ghassan Salamé, who had worked closely with Williams, quit the post. His reason for leaving, says a source close to the seasoned Lebanese diplomat, was because he had concluded his job was untenable given that so many powers, regional and international, were trying to establish a presence in Libya, a country with huge energy resources and incredible trade and security cooperation potentials.
“He was convinced towards the end that some countries wanted to keep Libya in turmoil rather than facilitate an electoral process that might not go their way,” the source said.
Kubis, a Slovak diplomat well-versed in the Middle East, had hoped to nudge the political process back on track. It did not take him long, say sources, to realise that he was engaged on a sisyphean task. His decision to quit the job three weeks ago, during the countdown to the elections, the same sources add, was a result of his growing sense of frustration.
Kubis, in the assessment of many diplomats, had ample reasons to be frustrated with Libya’s players and their external backers, and with the situation in Tripoli. Nobody, they say, can now exclude the possibility of a fresh round of hostilities, not just between the forces in the east and west of the country who have been at loggerheads for close to a decade, but also among the supporters of the presidential candidates likely to appear on ballot papers for a poll that the Libya Elections Committee (LEC) was still saying on Saturday should be held “before the end of the month”.
The LEC’s clinging onto its timetable appears incredibly optimistic given mounting tensionsG between the eastern and western camps, ie, the supporters of likely candidates Agila Saleh and Khalifa Haftar. And then there is the large tribal base of Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of Libya’s ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi. How will they react should their candidate finally be disqualified from the race over the International Criminal Court’s accusations of his possible involvement in crimes against humanity?
And what of the candidates’ international backers who seem determined to defend their economic and geostrategic stakes in Libya. It is an open secret in diplomatic quarters that the agreement reached on Monday between representatives of the two main military blocks, in the east and west of the country, to remove foreign militias from Libya is too shaky to prevent not only an armed conflict picking up, but also a new round of deployment of foreign militias. Clashes between eastern and western Libyan forces were reported on Monday to have intensified in the city of Sebha.
With no final list of candidates, and no deadline for such a list to be published, there is also no clear timeline for campaigning.
Cairo, which has long been invested in pushing for stability in its western neighbour, is growing increasingly concerned about the situation in Libya, a country whose security impacts directly on Egypt’s own.
Since the 24 December election date was set in February, Egyptian officials have stressed that what concerns Cairo most the stability of its neighbour. Throughout much of 2021, the officials add, Cairo has been willing to open up to political forces in the west of Libya, and temper its support for those in the east, all for the sake of giving stability a push.
Unfortunately, in the words of one diplomat, “Libya is very difficult terrain with heavy tribal agendas and enormous reserves of arms.” He added that since February Cairo has been consistent in its support of elections as a path towards the beginning of political and security stability, and not for the sake of “a deadline to be met.”
Compounding the complex situation in Libya is the fact that many other countries in North Africa are passing through a difficult phase. The dust has yet to settle on the political dispensation in Tunisia, and Algeria and Morocco are increasingly at loggerheads. Nor are things better in the southern Sahara, where proxy conflicts between international parties are in danger of spinning out of control.
So will elections go ahead in Libya? Egyptian officials say that while Cairo remains committed to elections being held, it is not fixated on a date. Far better, they say, that they occur when the security situation is stable enough to contain any fallout from the results than that they should be held regardless of the security or political consequences.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.