The divisions have hardened in step with Turkey’s support for the internationally recognized government based in western Libya and Russia’s funneling of aid to forces in the east.
Last week, a breakthrough in a U.N.-led political process offered a moment of tentative hope in an otherwise gloomy outlook, as Libyan delegates selected a proposed slate of interim leaders who, if they can secure wider political support, will lead the country toward December elections. But even supporters of the process acknowledge the road ahead is fraught with risk.
The Washington Post recently spoke with Stephanie Williams, the former U.S. diplomat who led the effort as the U.N.’s acting special representative for Libya, two days after she stepped down. Below is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: What are your reflections on Libya's situation today?
A: Libyans are exhausted. They somehow want to reclaim their sovereignty, which has been completely shredded and violated. They want to unify their institutions, and they really want elections. All the polling is consistent on elections — 70 to over 80 percent want elections. So that’s where the country is. I think there’s an opportunity now, if the international community is there to support them, that they can move this forward.
There are a lot of challenges. I think it’s a combination of this grinding conflict, the divisions and the complete collapse of infrastructure. If they don’t take steps to address the electrical infrastructure, the grid will collapse this summer. Covid is ravaging the country. This all brought them to a state of exhaustion and determination now to somehow start . . . to try to move forward together. And that’s what we have witnessed through the U.N.-facilitated process. There’s an opportunity. It’s fragile but it’s there.
Q: How did Libya stray so far from the hopes of 2011?
A: I think there’s a lot to reflect upon the role that the international community should or could have played post-revolution. But it was also decisions that the Libyans took to exclude supporters of the former regime, the decision on political isolation [a 2013 law that banned Gaddafi-era officials from the new government] which drove conflict, the inability to somehow exert the monopoly of state arms, the proliferation of the militias — all of that sort of deadly cocktail.
Q: In 2011, you were a senior official at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, where the government stamped out a separate Arab Spring uprising. You later served in Iraq, which despite sectarian war following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and a more recent conflict with the Islamic State, has hung together as a cohesive state. What are your thoughts on why Libya went in the direction it did?
A: I think that Libya had some things in common with Iraq in the sense that, just like Iraq in 2003, it became evident that the state was actually quite brittle. So when there was a violent change of regime, there was an assumption that institutions would survive and somehow pick up the pieces. There were a lot of mistakes made by the U.S. in Iraq, to destroy key institutions like the military. But in effect, there was a brittleness to the system that just shattered. And you saw that in Libya as well.
Each country has its own peculiarities. What Bahrain and Iraq have in common, of course, is a Shia majority, these ethnically strong divisions, this crisis of national identity. Whereas in Libya, everything just fractured. There was a lot of hope, but it just shattered into so many pieces, and into that void a lot of bad actors came.
Q: U.S. and U.N. officials have said foreign powers including Turkey, Russia and the United Arab Emirates have violated a U.N. arms embargo in bringing weapons and fighters into Libya to support the warring sides. Recently those countries missed a Jan. 23 deadline for removing foreign forces from the country. What is your message for outside actors?
A: It’s very clear the deadline that was set by the cease-fire agreement that was signed Oct. 23 was a 90-day deadline. Yes, it was an ambitious deadline, but I think it spoke to the frustration of the Libyans and the urgency that they felt: that it’s time for these foreign elements to depart the country.
Just because the deadline has passed doesn’t make it any less of a legitimate demand on the part of the Libyans, or any less binding on those countries, organizations and companies who send these guys in. They need to go.