Stephanie Williams left her position on the last day of July, eight months after being appointed as the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Libya. In her final statement in the role she said that her top priority was to “listen to the millions of Libyans who registered to vote” and make sure that they do vote.
Of course that hasn’t happened, because the December 2021 elections were unceremoniously shelved without any new date being set. It is very unlikely that Libyans will be voting any time soon, but Williams thinks that elections before the end of this year are “possible”. In written answers to my questions yesterday she said that elections could happen provided that Libya’s parliament and Higher Council of State provide the necessary legal “framework”.
However, that elusive agreement between the two chambers has been hard to come by. They held marathon talks under the special advisor’s auspices in Cairo in June but failed to reach an agreement. The leaders of both chambers — Aguila Saleh, the Speaker of parliament, and Khaled Al-Mishri, chairman of the Higher Council — answered her call to meet in Geneva to iron out their differences but, again, failed to conclude any deal to make elections a possibility this year. Announcing the failure, Williams said that despite the progress made in Cairo, “It remains insufficient as a basis to move forward towards comprehensive national elections.” The sticking point was should Libyan citizens with dual nationality be allowed to run for president? Current Libyan laws say no.
Failure was not a complete surprise since almost all current Libyan politicians do not want elections because it would mean the end of their political lives after their staggering failure and miserable performances over the past decade. Williams knew this only too well but there was little that she, as a UN special advisor, could do to change that fact.
Did she fail to deliver in Libya, and thus deserve much of the blame thrown at her by so many Libyans? Answering this question would require analysing the UN role in tackling the Libyan crisis, which is a complicated issue since the role has been ill defined from the start and there is enough blame for failure to be shared among all of the parties involved. The mission was set up in 2011 to support Libyans in charting their future /through a short transitional period. That transition has lasted more than a decade now, with no end in sight. The UN Security Council must share the blame; it did almost nothing to reinforce its own relevant resolutions on Libya. The council is due to discuss Libya at its next meeting on 24 August, but is unlikely to agree to appoint a new envoy as Williams both hopes and expects.
Ever since February 2011 when the crisis first erupted, the Security Council has adopted dozens of resolutions, starting with resolutions 1970 and 1973 banning the transfer of weapons and fighters to Libya. Yet a decade later weapons still flow into the country almost freely, and the number of foreign troops and mercenaries supporting different warring sides is higher now than it has ever been. In December 2020, Williams put their numbers at 20,000 in ten bases all over Libya. Russia, Turkiye, the US, Britain, Qatar, Egypt and the UAE, to name but a few, still play different, and sometimes competing, roles in the crisis, each one for its own reasons. All such activities are claimed to be helping the UN, but on the ground they are more disruptive than helpful. To the occasional observer the UN is to blame for every failure in Libya because it is trusted by its member states to find a solution. However, the organisation is the sum of its member states, particularly the five permanent members of the council. A simple veto from one of them over an unrelated matter is enough to derail a year’s worth of hard work.
This is something that Williams does not agree with. She points to her own success in helping bring about a countrywide ceasefire deal, signed in October 2020 and still holding. She also highlights her advocacy for the inclusion of young people and women in the political process, as well as economic and financial transparency in state institutions. Her boss, Antonio Guterres, also hailed her “achievements” pointing out her role in the adoption of a road map for conflict stricken Libya. Her second biggest success, in 2021, might have been the election of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the new presidency council and the launch of the process to unify state institutions, including the military and the Central Bank, after years of division, but with little success so far. She also kept advocating for Libya’s National Oil Company to remain out of the political mess.
However, credible allegations of bribery tainted the selection of Dbeibeh as prime minister in March 2021, and Williams is being blamed for preferring expediency over the integrity of the process. Many criticise her for not suspending the entire process until the bribery issue was cleared up. She counters this by saying that it was not within her mandate to investigate such allegations. The relevant UN authority was asked to investigate the matter, she explained, but that investigation came to nothing and Dbeibeh went on to become prime minister of one of the most corrupt Libyan governments since 2011. When I asked her about the issue she said that when the allegations of bribery first arose she “immediately referred them to the UN Panel of Experts and the Libyan Acting Attorney General” as the relevant authorities to investigate them, but by the time Dbeibeh was elected the UN Panel could not “confirm any of the allegations”. Eyewitness accounts of what went on behind the scenes during the process of nominations for the role of prime minister, suggest that Dbeibeh bought his way to the top job. The UN mission, given its mandate, could not do much about it.
Throughout her time in Libya, Williams has been very clear and precise about how foreign hands are, partially, to blame for the lack of progress in the country. She is in no doubt that, “Libya suffers from external interference.” However, at the same time, she observed that most Libyan leaders “love to court external actors, to travel the world, and receive the red carpet treatment.” Yet such leaders, hypocritically, publically blame “external actors for what are in the end mostly Libyan failures” to reach the needed consensus.
Now she has left Libya, many citizens believe that Stephanie Williams was one of the best UN envoys to come to their country. Who will replace her? We might know after the next Security Council meeting in two weeks’ time. Until then, Libyans and only Libyans can solve their own problems.