Dr. Omeish, thank you so much for this invitation. This is really a welcome opportunity to put in perspective the past decade or more in Libya’s tumultuous history.
Let’s start by remembering that Libya is a young country, coming out of the colonial period only in the early 1950’s.
We must also recall that Libya bears the scars of over 40 years of brutal dictatorship which left the country isolated from the west and its citizens fearful of political expression and involvement.
Qaddafi’s excesses led to NATO military intervention to protect civilian lives, with the unintended consequence of toppling the government and opening up a period of intense turmoil.
Militias filled the security vacuum and continue to play an outsized role to this day. External actors sought to play out their interests on Libyan soil.
Extremists also seized on the vacuum that was created, and the country was wracked by pitched battles against efforts by ISIS to use it as a platform for the expansion of its perverse “caliphate.”
The traditional regional divisions and rivalries between east, west and south were exacerbated, with some areas and ethnic groups feeling more marginalized and disadvantaged than ever.
So Libya became a battleground for civil war and for the war against terrorism. Terrorists continue to seek a foothold in Libya, and we must remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent this.
But as recently as 2019 there were still those who believed the country could only be reunited and stabilized at the point of a gun.
A precarious military balance eventually took hold which ultimately allowed the UN-led political process to begin to put the country back on the path to peace and stability.
Dedicated public servants like Ghassan Salame and Stephanie Williams harnessed international support for the Berlin Process launched by Chancellor Angela Merkel, and provided a framework on which Libyans themselves could rebuild their country. That framework comprised political, military and economic tracks facilitated by the UNSMIL mission.
Military leaders from each side, in the so-called 5+5 Joint Military Commission, surprised the world with the announcement of a ceasefire in October 2020.
Economic progress was reflected in the ending of the oil blockade and the first steps toward transparency in distribution of Libya’s oil wealth nationwide and toward reunification of the central bank.
On the Political front, this was followed by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s success in producing an interim government, which took office in March of last year, tasked with paving the way to elections in December.
Everything hinged, however, on those elections – these were the key to unifying the country and regaining its sovereignty, by empowering and legitimizing a strong central government comprising executive and legislative leaders elected by the people.
There was nearly universal disappointment that these elections were postponed, and confusion about what comes next.
There were multiple reasons for the postponement, but it was not because of any lack of technical preparation. The High National Election Commission led by Dr. Emad al-Sayeh did a remarkable job in organizing the infrastructure for a proper vote.
Nor was the lack of a solid legal or constitutional basis the principal factor in the postponement: to be sure, the electoral laws were procedurally flawed, but viable candidates were being registered and there was no legal reason the elections could not take place on time.
In retrospect, it was the issue of controversial candidates that brought things to a halt, and especially the late-emerging candidacy of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi.
Of course, there already were concerns: that one candidate was a former military officer who had launched an offensive on Tripoli. Or that another was someone who had pledged not to run. But in some ways these candidates balanced each other off in the public eye.
To be clear, one solution would have been for the candidates themselves to recognize that their personal aspirations would lead to division rather than unity and bow out of the race for the well-being of their country.
But seeing as the candidates were not going to bow out, another approach would have been for all three controversial candidates to run – and possibly to lose — in free and fair elections. What better message for problematic candidates than to be rejected by the voters themselves?
However, it quickly became apparent that a Qaddafi candidacy was different: it raised in many people’s eyes the specter that the Libyan revolution had been for nothing. Whether he had a chance to win or not, just having the name on the ballot of the man who demanded in January 2011 that revolutionaries be “attacked and destroyed” and that loyalists “bleed them day and night,” was too much for many people.
Indeed, one might wonder whether those promoting his candidacy had in mind exactly that impact. There were reports that the Wagner group had facilitated Saif’s reappearance.
Under pressure, the system for reviewing, appealing and approving candidacies – largely in the hands of the judiciary – broke down.
People were afraid – and not without reason – that elections would lead to violence and that the results would not be accepted by all parts of the nation.
Ultimately, of course, it is Libyans alone who should decide who can be on the ballot, and who should win.
But two important facts stood out following the postponement of the elections: first, nearly 3 million Libyans had registered to vote and were still eager to cast their ballots. Second, not a single politician or leader wanted to be identified with, or held responsible for, postponing the elections. Even days before December 24, no formal postponement was announced.
This is still the overriding dynamic today. The pressure is still on to produce a credible timeline for elections as soon as possible. Even those who see elections as political suicide know they cannot be seen as standing in the way of the people.
Following her reappointment as lead UN facilitator, Stephanie Williams has engaged with the full range of actors across the Libyan political spectrum, pressing institutions such as the High State Council and House of Representatives to finally reach a consensus on a way forward.
That process is ongoing. On February 10, the HoR adopted a roadmap toward elections, in consultation with the HSC. The HoR also proposed a new Prime Minister to lead the country toward these elections. These steps are still the subject of ongoing negotiations among the parties.
We support efforts to chart a new political path forward based on consensus and proper parliamentary procedure. We are doing everything we can to assist Stephanie Williams and all the leaders involved to reach agreement on how to make these efforts successful.
The United States joins the UN and other international partners in rejecting any effort to stoke violence in this context. We call on all parties to focus exclusively on political dialogue to hammer out agreement on the difficult issues that still lie ahead, including who will serve as prime minister in the run-up to elections. This will require statesmanship and compromise on all sides.
We are paying particular attention to the financial dimension of the current situation. Efforts to steer state resources toward various militias in order to shore up political support on any side will be met with a sharp reaction.
As we have all along, the United States believes only fair and inclusive national elections will restore legitimacy to those Libyan institutions charged with leading the country toward stability and prosperity.
Some have questioned this total focus on elections, and I want to be clear: we do not see elections as an end in and of themselves. But they are the indispensable key to future progress, for without a strong, unified government, Libya cannot bring its regions and ethnic groups together, share its wealth equitably, or rid the country of foreign fighters, mercenaries or combat forces that challenge its sovereignty.
I am confident Libya will be able to hold these elections. I believe, just as with the October 2020 ceasefire, we will wake up one day and be pleasantly surprised at how quickly and smoothly this has come about. But this will not happen automatically, and we cannot let up in our determination to support the process.
Looking ahead, I am optimistic about Libya’s future. Even though we have not yet been able to reopen our embassy in Tripoli, we have had multiple opportunities to meet Libyan young people, through exchange programs and engagements with civil society. I have been tremendously impressed by how bright they are and by their commitment to taking their country into a better future. They have seen fighting and turmoil, electricity shortages and lines at the bank, and they have said: “enough.”
The United States will stand by these young people. We will stand by the parents who are so desperately trying to build a better future for their children. As we gradually reestablish our diplomatic presence on the ground, we will stand by all Libyans who want to put their country at last on a truly democratic path. As a young Libyan doctor once said to me, “After more than 40 years of darkness, the Libyan people deserve to see the sun.” Thank you.