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Can the Iron Lady salvage Libya’s elections?

December 16, 2021 at 12:12 am

Stephanie Williams, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) on November 16, 2020 in Tunis, Tunisia [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

On 6 December, the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, appointed Stephanie Williams, nicknamed the “Iron Lady” by some Libyan politicians, as his Special Advisor on Libya, SASG on Libya. Her appointment comes at a very critical moment in the Libyan stalled democratic process, with uncertainty looming over the 24 December planned elections which are likely to be postponed. Williams is not taking over as the role of special envoy but, rather, special advisor with full power over the political track, particularly the elections process she has launched earlier this year.

With the presidential elections almost certainly not taking place on 24 December, as planned, Williams’ first task is to make sure the delay will not be for long. The idea of delay has been championed by different political actors inside Libya and abroad as well. Sources from the French presidency reportedly do not mind a short delay, as long as such “delay does not” lose the momentum the process has gathered so far.

Here comes the role of Stephanie Williams, who arrived in Libya a couple of days after she was appointed, and started a series of meetings with different political leaders. Throughout her meetings,  she has emphasised that elections are “the wish of the majority” of Libyans and it should be taken seriously. After meeting the Chairman of High Council of State, Khaled Mishri, she tweeted that “I emphasised the demand” of the Libyan people in holding elections. Mr. Mishri is at the top of squad of politicians calling for election delays, citing what he calls “flawed laws.”

Mrs. Williams’ return to Libya, however, in different capacity,  means the UN is serious about pushing for change and democracy in Libya, a decade after it helped destroy the country by authorising the use of force, in resolution 1973, that “legitimised” military intervention in March 2011.

READ: UN Special Adviser for Libya vows to help achieve peace, stability in country

The official UN envoy, Jan Kubis, resigned suddenly on 23 November, a month before the election date, throwing the entire process in doubt.

Bringing back Mrs. Williams as an advisor to Mr. Guterres came about as the UN Security Council failed to agree on another special envoy and head of UN mission in Libya after Kubis resigned. To get around this obstacle the Secretary General did not name Williams as an envoy but a special advisor. In reality, though, she has almost monopolistic power over the political track, besides mediating in other tracks, like economics.

An experienced former US diplomat, Williams, joined the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in 2018, responsible for the political process while her boss at the time, Ghassan Salame, was the UN envoy and head of UNSMIL. That arrangement was changed when Mr. Salame resigned citing health reasons and Mrs. Williams took over as acting envoy. The pair complemented each other and came up with workable ideas to facilitate the conflict.

They, together, were behind the idea of the two Berlin Conferences on Libya, first in January 2020, whose decisions were coded in a UN Security Council resolution 2510 and, again, in June 2021 in which the Berlin II participating countries reaffirmed their commitments made in Berlin I meeting.

When Ghassan Salame resigned in March 2020, Stephanie Williams was already in a good position to continue. She presided over the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) charged with forming the new three-member Presidency Council and electing Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. LPDF came up with a roadmap that called for ceasefire, elections on 24 December and, most importantly, it became an alternative to the ever quarrelling parliament and High Council of State (HCS).

Williams’ first priority, now, is to salvage the elections, even if delayed as expected, by making sure that Libyans will have the chance to vote at some point in the immediate future. She also must use her negotiation skills to convince both the parliament and HCS, the ever quarrelling institutions, not to drag the judiciary into the election issue. This does not mean the judiciary should not be part of the process; it rather means not to overdo it because legal battles in Libya are endless.

We should not forget that Libya’s judiciary is not operating in a perfect environment. It is always under threat from various conflicting political and armed groups. Last month, for example, for three consecutive days, judges in Sebha, southern Libya, could not access the courthouse to decide on Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi’s appeal disqualifying him from running for president—he has already been reinstated into the race.

READ: Libya’s Presidency Council says ‘important’ to hold timely elections

Mrs. Williams, aware of the issue, visited Libya’s top judge and the Minister of Justice to update herself on the latest judiciary development in relation to elections. In a tweet, on 14 December, she reminded players that the UN will not “tolerate” any intimidation against the judiciary.

Stephanie Williams is further empowered to succeed by having the LPDF at hand as an alternative venue to forge compromises in the face of ever fighting parliament and HCS.

She actually created the forum, a 75-member group, as standby mini parliament ready to intervene and take over whenever the political process stalled because of in-fighting between the different political actors.

The Iron Lady has a huge task at hand that involves regaining some of the credibility UNSMIL has lost. The outgoing UNSMIL Chair, Jan Kubis, made vital errors by sidelining the LPDF, giving the other actors in the country the impression that it is done with and they can go back to their habit of never agreeing—thus paralyzing the country.

A member of the LPDF confirmed that the group is likely to be called into a meeting before the end of the week to evaluate the process so far, indicating its relevance for Stephanie Williams who created it in the first place.

Most indicators say that the Iron Lady is likely to resuscitate the political process and set it on track again, but it is not going to be either easy or straightforward, and she certainly needs the support of the UN Security Council.

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