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In conversation with Stephanie Williams, the US diplomat helping Libya come together

May 27, 2021 at 11:01 am

Stephanie Williams, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) speaks during a press conference on the 7th and closing day of Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, on 16 November 2020 in Tunis, Tunisia. [Yassine Gaidi – Anadolu Agency]

Stephanie Williams joined the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) two years ago as deputy to the then mission head Ghassan Salame. In March last year she took centre stage as the acting UN envoy to Libya after Salame resigned for health reasons. She left in February, but only after creating “hope” for Libya as she noted in an article co-authored with her former boss. The pair are now busy writing a book about their experiences as UN mediators.

While much of the plan to salvage Libya was already in place, based on the Berlin Conference on Libya, implementing it was complicated as it involved many conflicting local actors backed by different regional powers. At the same time, the living conditions for the majority of Libyans had deteriorated, putting more moral pressure on UNSMIL to deliver. The attempt by warlord Khalifa Haftar and his eastern Libya-based army to take Tripoli by force failed after 13 months of a military campaign that displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians and killed hundreds more in and around the capital.

According to Williams, the then US President Donald Trump’s 24 April, 2019, phone call to Haftar was interpreted as a green light, not red. While we do not know what was said during the call, she told me, we know how it was perceived.

Trump apparently expressed his support for Haftar’s efforts to fight “terrorism” while the latter’s forces were besieging Tripoli. One time US National Security Adviser John Bolton told Haftar that if he could, he should take Tripoli “quickly”, with minimum casualties. Haftar’s campaign spiralled into a bloody and destructive adventure only to fail completely thanks to Turkey sending troops and Syrian mercenaries to repel his advance. Haftar himself was backed by Russian mercenaries.

READ: We’ve been here before with foreign troops in Libya 

Williams supports the Libyan authorities’ repeated calls for foreign troops to leave Libya as soon as possible. After a series of meetings with the new military commission, representing east and west Libya, she feels that the presence of foreign forces is an insult to the “dignity” of the Libyans. Moreover, their departure is a prerequisite for fair and safe elections planned for 24 December. Achieving that objective is no longer a Libyan decision, she suggested, but it can be done “with the relevant countries,” a reference to Turkey and Russia, although neither has, so far, responded to the Libyan call to withdraw from the country. She pointed out, though, that it was Libyan leaders who asked for foreign troops in the first place. This is an undeniable fact.

The former envoy sees renewed US interest in Libya going beyond just countering the Russian presence. She thinks it is part of a “comprehensive policy” towards Libya, and has been encouraged by the “strong position” adopted on Libya by the Biden administration over the past few months. Basically this position centres on the push for the elections as planned.

There have been positive signs backing such analysis. On 10 May, President Joe Biden appointed Richard Norland as US Ambassador to Libya, and a week later, acting Undersecretary of State Joe Hood visited Tripoli and met with officials, including the prime minister. Norland has voiced his support for the departure of foreign troops from Libya on a number of occasions.

Tunisian President Kais Saied and UN Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs in Libya, Stephanie Williams attend an opening session of Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunis, Tunisia on 9 November 2020.   [Yassine Gaidi - Anadolu Agency]

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

Williams does not agree that Washington lost the initiative on Libya during the Trump years. The US now appears to have a new agenda in the entire Middle East and North Africa region, and oil rich Libya with its strategic location is part of it. She believes that the Biden administration is genuine in its intention to help Libya by, at the very least, curbing foreign meddling. “Washington’s ability to convene and lead internationally,” she said, “will make others follow.” However, we have to remember that the US led the destruction of Libya a decade ago.

She clearly believes that the country is now “heading in the right direction.” Under her leadership UNSMIL regularly convened the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) between November 2020 and March 2021. The forum agreed a roadmap, a newly elected unity government, an economic reforms package and, above all, a ceasefire that has been holding since last October.

I asked Williams why the so called international community was very conscious about being law abiding when reinforcing the arms embargo imposed on Libya by UN Resolution 1970 in 2011, but has turned a blind eye more recently, even as arms and fighters still flow into the country and fuel the conflict. She dodged the question, but drew some parallels between the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 military intervention in Libya wherein the “lessons of Iraq were not learned.” Libya became lawless, just like Iraq, after the 2011 NATO invasion. Williams cited what she called “international disorder”, with the UN Security Council paralysed by differences among its members. Having worked in Iraq before, “I saw what [the invasion of Iraq] did.” Without actually saying so, she seemed to imply that the Iraqi invasion was wrong, as was the military intervention in Libya. The “international disorder” enabled Haftar to launch his attack on Tripoli in April 2019.

“I never liked the use of the term ‘international community’ because it does not exist,” she explained. “What does exist, are interests, and this was not easy to explain to the Libyans because we are supposed to represent this phantom international community.”

READ: What is behind the thaw in relations between Libya and the EU? 

Semantics aside, we should not forget that Libya was destroyed in 2011 in the name of the “international community” and “international law”, just as Iraq was from 2003 onwards.

The 75 member strong LPDF acts as a mini parliament. Having elected the new administration it has drafted an agenda focusing on security for the people of Libya, unifying government institutions and holding elections in December. I asked why it has 75 members instead of 80, for example. “Because it was the UN’s 75th anniversary,” she replied. The historical connection is not to be missed; today’s Libya was created by the UN 70 years ago.

She is optimistic that Libya will emerge united and stable once again despite everything it has been through because it has the “potential and talented youth” who want to pull the country together. Indeed, the country now has a new united government and (almost) united institutions after years of having two administrations, one in the east and one in the west.

“Above all,” she told me, “Libyans have, for the first time in years, celebrated Ramadan and Eid without the sound of bombs and gunfire thanks to the ceasefire agreed last October.” Nevertheless, she stressed that the “legitimacy crisis” can only be resolved “through the ballot box.”

In conclusion, Stephanie Williams spoke positively about the role of Libyan women in the political process because they “brought new momentum”. She was disappointed, though, with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s failure to fulfil his promise to allocate 30 per cent of his cabinet positions to women. Only two women — Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush and Justice Minister Halima Busafi — are in the cabinet.