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Libya’s bribery has marred political dialogue

November 26, 2020 at 8:30 am

Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) and UN Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs in Libya, Stephanie Williams make an opening speech during Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunis, Tunisia on 9 November 2020. [Yassine Gaidi – Anadolu Agency]

The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) is continuing in Tunis amid reports of bribery. On 23 November, acting head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Stephanie Williams, opened a virtual consultation session in which the 75-member group intended to discuss the criteria for higher officeholders.

However, the LPDF, seen as the last chance for peace in Libya, is shrouded in serious bribery allegations.

Two different sources confirmed to MEMO that at least one participant, hoping to be the next interim prime minister of the country, has offered up to $200,000 in return for votes. His target was another participant from eastern Libya, the region that could end up holding the balance of power in any future arrangements. Our sources, both members of the LPDF speaking on condition of anonymity, validated what was already suspected by many dialogue watchers.

The first source disclosed in an email that the bribery issue is: “Confirmed now and had been referred to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) for further investigations.” According to our second source, “political money was offered at least once.”

UNSMIL, however, did not confirm that actual money was offered, but accepted the fact that offers of cash were made. In her opening remarks of the virtual LPDF session on 23 November, Williams acknowledged that allegations of bribery “have been referred to the UN Panel of Experts.” She added that, if proven, it could “constitute obstruction of the political process.”  UN Security Council Resolution 2510 on Libya calls for sanctions against any person or entity found to obstruct the political process in the country. UNSMIL also affirmed that it had contacted Libya’s relevant authority to “address the issue.”

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In further confirmation of the alleged cash for votes scandal, at least 65 LPDF members signed an open letter to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urging him to take action. The letter also called on the UN to punish those involved by at least suspending them from any further LPDF discussions.

However, that is unlikely to happen. The dialogue session of 23 November went on as planned with follow up meetings scheduled for the following day with all members present, including the suspects implicated in the bribery.

The incident is yet another reminder of what happened five years ago when the Libyan Political Agreement was first signed. The UN envoy at the time, Bernardino Leon, behind the scenes kept regular contact with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials. Leon not only consulted them, but also offered them advice on how to influence the Libyan political process he was leading, when he was supposed to be impartial as a UN broker.

Later, it emerged that Leon was offered a job in the UAE as head of a newly-created “diplomatic academy”. Indeed, the UN sought clarification of the communications between Leon and the UAE, but that never came to fruition. He always denied any link between his work on Libya and his new job in the UAE.

A group of Libyan gather to stage a protest against Libyan political dialogue meetings hosted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum which will be held on November 9 in Tunis, in Tripoli, Libya on 7 November 2020. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]

A group of Libyan gather to stage a protest against Libyan political dialogue meetings hosted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum which will be held on November 9 in Tunis, in Tripoli, Libya on 7 November 2020. [Hazem Turkia – Anadolu Agency]

The UAE is one of the supporters of General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). The general launched a military offensive to take Tripoli last year, but failed due to Turkey’s heavy support for the Government of National Accord (GNA).

The same scenario is being repeated, however, in a different context. This time around, no one is implicating UN envoy Williams in any wrongdoing, but many LDPF participants are complaining about her decision to continue with the discussions before the bribery scandal has been fully investigated.

UNSMIL knows full well who is accused of making the money offer and who was ready to accept in return for votes. Indeed, it took the issue seriously by referring it to the UN Panel of Experts on Libya to investigate, but many LDPF members believe any suspects should have either been suspended or dismissed altogether. In fact, that was the demand in their open letter to Guterres calling on the world body to investigate the matter before proceeding any further.

Multiple sources inside the LPDF have spoken of a potential deal being signed later this week.

The LDPF is to decide two important milestones for the war-ravaged country. Firstly, to reshuffle the current presidency council by reducing its membership from nine to only three representing Libya’s three historic regions: Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south. The LPDF’s second task is to nominate a new prime minister, independent of the new presidency council. The new government is then to work on organising elections in the country no later than 24 December, 2021.

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In another development, Libya’s divided parliament met for the first time in years, with all MPs present in Tangier, Morocco. The 24 November meeting, mediated by Morocco, expressed support for the LPDF dialogue in Tunisia, promising to meet inside Libya to approve whatever recommendations were made by the gathering.

However, there are still some sticking points. For example, there is no clear agreement on the issue of armed militias and whether disarming them before any elections is at all possible. The LPDF agreed on disarming all armed groups before any elections, but this could prove to be easier said than done.

Even the military agreement signed by the LNA and the GNA representatives in Geneva last month is not making the expected progress on the ground. The military commission has since met several times inside Libya, but has so far failed to make progress. The Geneva agreement, for example, explicitly calls on all foreign forces to leave Libya. Thousands of Russian mercenaries are supporting the LNA, while thousands more Syrian mercenaries brought by Turkey are supporting the GNA.

The UN mediations might succeed this time, but whether that will mean peace for Libya remains to be seen, as the devil is always in the detail. The bribery issue, unless thoroughly investigated, will certainly come back to haunt the UNSMIL.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.