What Libya needs

December 7, 2017

Ghassan Salamé, United Nations special envoy to Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), told Al-Ahram Weekly this week that he was actively working towards “reviving”, “uniting” and “liberating” the state institutions in Libya.

Salamé had earlier unveiled plans in September for legislative and presidential elections next year as part of a UN-supported plan to “revive Libya’s political process”. According to Salamé, the plan contains three phases: amending the existing political accord; organising a conference to draft a new constitution; and holding legislative and presidential elections.

At a roundtable held with Egyptian journalists and political researchers in Cairo, during which he spoke with the Weekly, he said one of the main goals the UN is working towards in Libya is the holding of free and fair elections, which are slated for next year. “But for this to happen the main players have to announce beforehand that they will accept the outcome. Otherwise, the elections will be an uncalculated risk,” Salamé said.

With two parliaments and three governments currently operating in Libya, a situation the UN hopes to end, “there are four rules for the elections to run smoothly and successfully.”

The first, Salamé explained, regarded technical conditions and the setting up of a national commission to register voters. “Since the last elections in 2014, registering voters has stopped in Libya. It is a tedious process, but without it the results of any elections could be dubious,” he said.

As far as the legislative conditions are concerned, the second rule, the Libyan parliament and State Council should arrive at a consensus on two new election laws. “The elections Libya witnessed in 2012 and 2014 were held under different laws. Tripoli needs to agree on laws governing parliamentary and presidential elections – the latter have never been held – and another set of laws governing municipal elections because the current council terms are about to end,” Salamé said.

The third rule concerns security conditions. “The armed groups should hand over their weapons to the state,” insisted Salamé.

All the parties must accept the outcome of the elections. This is Salamé’s fourth rule. He insisted that the parties should agree that the elections are meant to build something solid, “not another transitional phase. The devolution of power is a notion that should be integrated into Libya’s political culture,” Salamé commented.

THE ROLE OF EGYPT: Salamé said the neighbouring countries of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger and Chad and the Quartet that includes the Arab League, the UN, the European Union and the African Union could play important roles in ending the Libyan crisis.

He said the Arab League was “indispensable” and that Libya’s neighbours felt the “danger is imminent and have interests and legitimate fears”. He explained that Egypt and Algeria had been paying a hefty price to secure their borders with Libya and that “there are approximately 23 million weapons in Libya, a country that cannot put its hands on or control them. In addition, there are millions of Egyptians and Tunisians working in Libya.”

Salamé praised Egypt’s role in managing the crisis, pointing out that the Egyptian military and foreign ministry had displayed “a high level of coordination and integration” in harmonising roles and the responsibilities of the ministries of defence and foreign affairs in managing the crisis. The former is helping to train the Libyan army, while the latter has engaged with the UN Mission in diplomatic talks, he added.

Cairo’s “institutional distribution” of roles had been helping the UN to understand the security and military situation in Libya, Salamé said.

Egypt has been actively engaging with the different parties in Libya, hosting vital security and political talks which enabled it to score a breakthrough with the Libyan factions, he said, and this would help the UN resolve the crisis. Salamé added that Cairo has hosted three rounds of meetings with Libyan military leaders to discuss unity among Libyan army ranks and that the Egyptian capital would host a fourth round in the coming days.

There was a need at the UN “for Egypt to unify the Libyan institutions,” Salamé said, adding that despite the fragmentation his own country of origin had suffered in the Lebanese Civil War, claiming the lives of 130,000 Lebanese, “the Central Bank was not closed down.” Even in Iraq, where Salamé had previously worked, the Central Bank was not dissolved, unlike what had happened in Libya.

“Egypt’s success in unifying the Libyan army can serve as a model for civil institutions to follow suit. Libya desperately needs this. The fragmentation of its institutions is adding to the chaos on the ground,” Salamé said.

He said that unifying the Libyan military would be “a long-term process” because it was not “split into two. The army in the eastern part of the country is more or less united, but it is fragmented into multiple parties in the west of the country.” Unifying Libya’s institutions should be done in parallel, and they should be rejuvenated, unified or liberated. “Rebuilding a country without reviving its institutions is futile,” he said.

“I am not looking for quick victories, nor am I in Libya to start another transitional phase,” Salamé said. “I want to get Libya out of the whirlpool of transitional phases and help establish enduring institutions that enjoy permanence,” he added.

THE SECURITY SITUATION: “In some areas, security is enforced, in others not. In some parts, security is only negotiated, but not applied,” Salamé said, commenting on the uncertain security situation in Libya.

Weapons are acquired either to “defend oneself and one’s family, or for political or ideological reasons, or to commit theft.”

Libya’s neighbouring countries have the right to be concerned about the spread of weapons and armed groups in the country. The weapons could be smuggled out of the country, “but the situation in Libya requires an accurate understanding of the reasons behind the spread of weapons in order to envision a future where arms are in the hands of the state alone.”

Salamé added that “those who hold weapons for self-defence should be secured in legitimate ways, and those who acquire arms for political or ideological reasons should understand that they have no place in the political process before giving up their arms and that the only way to be involved in politics is through the ballot box. The third group, the thieves and thugs, belong behind bars.”

He said that countries having a stake in the Libyan crisis had helped to find a meeting point to solve the crisis. “Egypt is opening up to officers outside [Libyan military leader] Khalifa Haftar’s circle. It is also reaching out to areas it was told would be very difficult to communicate with.”

Despite comments made by Haftar’s spokesman, Egypt has been “flexible in a diplomatic matter that neither cuts off Haftar nor adopts him, all the while keeping its interests as a priority. It has been said that the Libyan military leader may have an Arab ally or two, but I have seen him in Moscow, Paris, Tunis and Rome, despite claims that the latter capital did not support him.”

“For months before I arrived in Libya, flexibility, it seems, played a part in Libyan politics. Those who backed Haftar are expanding their connections and those who had no communication with him are now establishing links. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti all visited Libya recently. I can feel a sense of realism on the part of Egypt and those countries that either agreed with or opposed Haftar.”

“The meeting point I see is that these countries concerned with Libya have realised that there is no military solution and that Haftar’s power cannot be ignored. There is also an understanding among these countries of the other powers west of Libya and the heavy burden placed on Cairo. Reaching this meeting point should help find a political solution to the Libyan crisis,” Salamé said.

He admitted fixing the situation in Libya was no easy task, but “the UN secretary-general and UNSC approved the plan I presented for Libya on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on 20 September.”

Some observers have been mixed up about the main and subsidiary points of this plan, he said. “Ninety per cent of the effort is directed towards the three main goals of drafting a constitution, free and fair elections and the national accord. Libya is an exhausted country with no history of institutional work. What it needs is stability, not another transitional phase.”

Salamé said he had been struck by the worsening living conditions in the country. “Libya used to assist a number of African countries. Today, one in four Libyans is in need of humanitarian assistance. Despite the fact that new millionaires are emerging, the middle class is nosediving towards poverty amid high inflation and unemployment. There is an unprecedented gap in the price of currency between the official and black markets. Schools have been demolished. Libya can barely afford to pay salaries, and there is nearly no budget for maintenance or investment. A World Health Organisation study revealed that only a quarter of hospital equipment is functioning.”

Problems had occurred “when we tried to form a government that would tend to the deteriorating living conditions while we focused on the main work plans. Some observers, and some Libyans, thought that forming a new government was my main mission.”

“Things took so long because the political accord did not contain a mechanism for this government to see the light. Article 12 had to be amended, a step which required forming a committee comprised of members from the parliament and the State Council. Another misunderstanding happened when these efforts were branded a ‘political dialogue’, attracting the hopes of many Libyans. I hope the new government will succeed” in improving the Libyans’ living conditions, he said.

In Tunisia last month Salamé met with the constitutional drafting committee to “put on paper what we have agreed in order to separate the powers of the Presidential Council from those of the government in a manner that will place state management in the hands of an interim government, setting the conditions for the Presidential Council and its procedures during the transitional phase. If there is consensus on these points, it will be good for the Libyan people. If not, we are back to the three main goals.”

PRESSURE BEFORE 17 DECEMBER: In 2015, delegates from Libya’s warring factions signed a UN-brokered deal to form a national unity government which was hoped would bring stability to the country.

The deal never fully materialised, however, and now a delegation from the eastern parliament is expected to start negotiations with members of its Tripoli-based rival assembly in a race against time to reach an agreement before 17 December when opponents of the 2015 deal say it expires.

“We will not be having a futile argument about what the 17 December date means. The final decision is with the UNSC,” Salamé said. He suggested ignoring the date completely and “focusing on the three main goals”.

“Only 10 months remain to achieve the national accord, draft the new constitution and hold legislative and presidential elections, set for 20 September 2018. This is what we have set our eyes on,” he stressed.

Regarding calls made by the Libyan National Army led by Haftar and the Presidential Council headed by Fayez Al-Farraj to lift the embargo on weapons sales to Libya, Salamé said the matter lay in the hands of the UNSC and that it was unlikely to happen because the UN secretary-general was following the decisions taken by the UNSC and the Libya Sanctions Committee headed by Sweden.

“There is no consensus within the UNSC about lifting the embargo on weapons, frozen assets or sanctions,” Salamé said.

He said the UN could not fend off negative interventions in Libyan affairs. “Some initiatives may be helpful, but I have to know about them in order to integrate them into the larger plan. The UNSC decided that the UN initiative was the best for Libya because it possesses tools unavailable to other organisations like sanctions on individuals and groups.”

Nonetheless, Salamé insists he is staying in touch with organisations such as the Arab League, the African Union and the European Union on matters related to Libya with the aim of “protecting the Libyans from being distracted by a multitude of initiatives”.

FROZEN ASSETS: Salamé said he had started talks with the World Bank and the UN Libya Sanctions Committee to define the mechanisms necessary to manage frozen Libyan assets abroad. The assets were frozen pursuant to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution in 2011.

Salamé said UNSMIL was working towards a binding agreement with the Libyans in preparation for legislative and presidential elections slated for 20 September 2018 after achieving a national accord and drafting a constitution for the country.

Salamé revealed that he had “proof that these assets will be liquidated if they are not dealt with quickly,” stressing that “nobody is currently managing Libyan assets abroad.”

He added that he had held talks with Libyan representatives and economists two weeks ago concerning the assets after he realised the dangerous situation they were in. This was “despite the fact that no demands were made requesting the liquidation of the assets for fear they might be misallocated.”

Salamé said he supported the “smart sanctions” idea in the Libyan context and that he was consulting with the Libya Sanctions Committee and the World Bank “on the best and most transparent means to manage these assets for the sake of Libya’s younger generations.”

He added that it was still unclear whether the Libyan assets would be managed by a UN committee or a joint Libyan international board.

ahram