The former UN acting envoy to Libya, Stephenie Williams, revealed the details of her mission in Libya, leading to the agreement signed in Geneva to end the crisis, which produced a new presidential council and a government of national unity.
Philadelphia Painting and Presidential Council:
The former UN envoy, in a lengthy interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, spoke about the painting of the Philadelphi military ship burning in the port of Tripoli, saying: “As you know, since 2014, American diplomats have had to travel in an American military plane to Tripoli. I arranged to go there with AFRICOM. We flew to the naval military base in Tripoli to meet Al-Sarraj. In the room, we sat there. Everything was beautiful. I looked at the wall. There is a board. This was the first US military naval deployment, as this warship was deployed to fight pirates. This was in 1804, when it fell into the hands of the locals in the port, the military navy decided to burn it so that it would not be kept. The story is exciting. An American officer sits in a room where a picture of an American ship is on fire. The drawing that is on the wall behind the lamp, which Gaddafi had ordered to paint remained on the wall for many years. ”
The former UN envoy indicated that she raised the subject of the painting, “I raised the issue later with the assistants of Al-Sarraj. I said that next time they should pay attention to what this means. It may take the wrong political significance. I guess they never thought about it. It was not intended. The painting had been around for a long time, and for many years, they wanted Americans in Libya. As an American diplomat, I previously visited Libya and Tripoli in 2008 and 2009, when the relationship with the regime improved under settlement and compensation. In 2018, it was my second visit to Libya and the first after the revolution.”
Ghassan Salame and the Libyan file:
Williams touched on the beginning of her entry and her closeness to the Libyan file, saying: “I knew Ghassan Salame (the former UN envoy to Libya), who was looking for a deputy, a political partner. He asked if I wanted to apply for work. I said: Certainly. Everything happened quickly. I resigned from the US State Department at the end of June 2018, then a few days later I joined the United Nations in New York and flew to Tunisia, and then directly to Libya. On July 13, I was in Tripoli.”
Stephanie Williams continued, “When I started in Libya, Salame had a plan of action and tried to work by the Presidential Council and Parliament to amend the Libyan political agreement and hold meetings at the end of 2017. Efforts collided with the obstacles of the rigid situation that refused to change.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Williams pointed out, “That was the second phase of the plan. The referendum procedure was complicated because the House of Representatives had to pass the referendum draft. And in the second stage, the National Conference. We were looking for a place to hold the conference. At that time, the “Center for Humanitarian Dialogue” (based in Geneva), on behalf of the United Nations, communicated with the Libyans, including the diaspora. This was the basis for understanding the political situation. ”
The idea of the National Congress and the economy:
The economic file was on the agenda of the UN mission, and Williams talked about the beginnings of the idea, even if it might improve the economic situation. There were many things. There was an economic crisis. For example, the black market and the difference in exchange rates, this was creating a problem of financial liquidity.”
“I watched with my own eyes the long lines for Libyans to get money. Some were waiting between 12 and 14 hours.” She said.
She indicated, “Ghassan Salame suggested focusing on political economy; Because economic issues must be linked to political files; Because there are economic factors of conflict. And I tried to pressure the central bank to solve the exchange rate problem. I didn’t get much luck. We worked on the issue of the global financial audit demanded by Al-Sarraj as one of the ways to solve the oil blockade problem from Haftar. Safety work on this matter. He succeeded in retreating Haftar.”
Tripoli war and corruption:
Stephanie Williams confirmed that the mission tried to stop the war. “We worked to achieve a ceasefire. Each party signed the ceasefire agreement, except for Salah Badi. Badi groups said they attacked Tripoli; Because they were not happy with the course of things and the corruption.”
“We said in the ceasefire agreement that the government and the central bank should make exchange rate reforms,” Williams added, saying some gap between the official market and the black market has occurred. ”
We also used the cease-fire agreement to say the need for structural security reforms and changes in the Sarraj government.” She added.
Fathi Bashagha and Haftar:
The former UN acting envoy to Libya spoke about the efforts of the Minister of Interior in combating corruption, saying: “Bashagha joined. Faraj Boumtari, who became Minister of Finance, also joined. Bashagha worked on reforms in the security sector, but at the same time, Mr. Haftar began at the beginning of 2019 to move to southern Libya and launched a large military operation.
Regarding the contact that took place between former US President Donald Trump and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Williams said, “According to what I understood and was informed, the first contact (from Bolton) was decisive, as it was interpreted as a” green light. “What we have heard, including from Haftar’s group, is that the call is 4 or 5 days before the attack. (Bolton) told Haftar: If you want to do it, do it quickly and reduce the civilian casualties. I don’t know what General Haftar was saying, but it gave the impression that he would easily walk to Tripoli. February and March were decisive.”
Green Light and Tripoli
In the context of Stephanie Williams’s talk about those phases of her mission in Libya, she mentioned, “Haftar made his decision after the Bolton call. He had great confidence. There is something. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. When Haftar took the Libyan National Army to southern Libya, where there is a big void. That campaign began in January 2019. No party said a word. No one said: What are you doing? Even Tripoli did not say anything. In fact, some welcomed that and said that there is some safety in the south. Some in Sebha were happy. By the way, we had ministers in the government in Tripoli saying, ‘That’s fine, at least we have some security in our area. I guess he had wrong maths and wrong readings.”
The former UN acting envoy added, “What I know is that there were four days between the call and the announcement of the contact between Trump and Haftar. We had no idea. We knew about Bolton’s call, but we didn’t know about Trump’s call until he announced it. ”
“What happened was that there was some difference between the American institutions,” said Williams, referring to that stage. I know that the State Department was not happy with the contact (between Trump and Haftar). ”
The Red Line and Sirte:
Regarding the Presidential Council and Turkey not exceeding the red line announced by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the former UN acting envoy to Libya explained, “The reason is that GNA did not cross the Sirte-Jufra line, that Libya is a large country and it is difficult to control it from any party.
Williams added, “Maybe. There is no doubt that this is one of the main factors in thinking. Also, the reality is on the ground. Also, perhaps the Turks were not the conflict with the Russians and Egyptians on the ground in Libya. ”
Mercenaries and their number in Libya:
Stephanie Williams said in the interview with the newspaper, about the mercenaries, “There were between 17 and more than 20 thousand in Libya. Most of the mercenaries are Sudanese, numbering about 11,000, and most of them are with Haftar, perhaps about 10,000 with him. With the “GNA” government there were about 700 soldiers, in addition to mercenaries from Chad.
“Of other nationalities, there are six thousand,” Williams added. Syrians and others from the “Wagner” group. Some of them work or protect oil installations. The presence of “Wagner” was evident in September, starting with their presence in southern Libya.
Geneva and start of the dialogue:
She spoke about the beginning of the efforts for political dialogue. “The stalemate allowed us to activate the“ Libyan track, ”and we launched the“ three baskets ”: political, military, and economic. The easiest route, the economical one.”
“On the military track, we had meetings in Geneva before the epidemic, but the parties did not meet face to face. We completed the negotiations in the spring and summer, and then they hastened to say: They are ready face to face in Geneva. This led to the agreement in Geneva and the ceasefire on 23 October.” She said.
“The political track was maturing,” Williams added. The “Track Two” meetings took place in the summer. Then Mr. Al-Sarraj said that he would leave his post. So we hastened political negotiations to form a new executive body. We were doing the political and military tracks. A cease-fire was agreed upon, and the military leaders met and spoke clearly against the “mercenaries” and the foreign occupation, and said that they want all of them outside the country. This provided us with a boost on the political track.” She added.
Coronavirus and ending the conflict:
Williams referred to the stage of the start of the spread of the Coronavirus in Libya, “The country was in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. Many fell ill and were suffering. There were demonstrations in the summer. People are tired and do not want to fight. They said: That is enough. Also, there was a feeling in eastern Libya that Haftar had tried (military victory), but it did not happen. There were calls to try a political solution. The escalation of the national reconciliation discourse.
Date of the next elections:
Stephanie Williams suggested, “It could be different. There is an opportunity. The reason is that in the first round in Tunisia in November, a “road map” was agreed, elections would be held on December 24, and a unified government would lead the country to elections.
She touched in her speech by saying, “The problem that Libya will face, everything depends on two institutions: the House of Representatives and the High Council of State. The political segment did not want to commit political suicide. The council will pass legislation that will say: Goodbye to you. They benefited a lot and traveled. But now, in the “road map” it says that in the event of failure to implement the requirements, then there is a return to dialogue. We are now at an exciting stage. There were 60 days to provide the legislative basis – the constitutional basis for elections. This timeout was exceeded. These institutions did not do what they should have done.”
The new government:
Williams spoke about the government of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, saying, “It does not mean that the current government is strong. The strength and weakness of the government in Libya is relative. The current government wields power over an area not beyond the center of Tripoli. At least, the new government, there is Prime Minister, who has traveled all over Libya and the world, there are representatives in the east in it, and Haftar agreed to the new arrangements, also Aqila said he would support it. Any of the active forces do not oppose what is happening. So; There is more opportunity than before, although there are huge challenges. I do not say that it is easy.”
Fighting for Wealth:
The former UN envoy described, “The biggest challenge is to contain the desire for power. Power means access to wealth. In what agreement do you want to accept the arrangements. The goal is now elections.”
The position of the US government:
Williams said, “The US administration is re-arranging its foreign policy. But America does not have to be engaged in a big new form. You just need to be more involved than the previous situation. There is an active US embassy and the ambassador is greatly respected by all parties, and he is moving in an excellent way.
Russia and Turkey:
The former UN envoy spoke about Turkey and Russia, although the situation in Libya is related to what is happening in Syria, “There is no direct link. But certainly, what happened in Syria fuels what is happening in Libya, given that the two sides have geopolitical ambitions.
“But the situation in Libya is different. What serves their interests is not to be in an undesirable place. Libyans do not like the presence of foreigners. There is nothing wrong with trade, visiting, tourism and contracts, but a permanent military presence is another matter.” She said.
“Libya is a very wealthy country, and there is enough room for every country to get its share,” said Williams, adding: “But the only way to make sure that Libya is an important partner is to end the conflict and support Libyans to lead their country and elect a sovereign government able to make its choices. The Libyans clearly expressed their opinion that they do not want the presence of foreign forces in their country.”
The elite of dinars in Libya:
Speaking of the start of the actual political dialogue, Williams said, “We launched parallel tracks and used each track to propel progress on one track here and there. Also, we benefited from the fact that there are young Libyans. You called the political elite “dinars”. The majority in Libya are young people in their twenties, and they don’t remember much about the beginning of the conflict.”
“Also, there are Libyans who want their country back. In summary, you should use every tool you have in mediation and when you see a window expand and build on it. For example, there was a loophole in the Tunis dialogue that we built on. Two months of swinging, then they said: We are ready and prepared for the Geneva meetings. I remember we had them work 12 hours a day. The important thing was to maintain the effectiveness of work and activity so as not to lose the dynamism.” She explained.