Ghassan Salame, U.N. special representative for Libya, delivers a speech in 2017 during a summit of foreign ministers of Mediterranean countries. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

U.N. Special Representative for Libya Ghassan Salame indicated in a statement to the Security Council that a national conference should be convened at the start of 2019 to “create a space for Libyans to crystallize their vision for the transition and no longer be ignored by their politicians.” This follows a conference in Palermo, Italy, that brought together international partners and Libyan stakeholders to discuss the situation.

Salame’s framing suggests that the conference will seek to impose a new path, regardless of what existing institutions might want. In other words, Libya’s transition plan, established in 2012, is being rebooted following a painful lack of progress on a number of fronts. The original plan consisted of organizing a constitutional referendum, to be followed by elections. That plan was put into question after the Libyan House of Representatives, a legislature elected in 2014 whose internal legitimacy is now contested, failed to adopt the needed referendum law for a combination of reasons, including internal political dynamics.

While the conference’s proposed mandate, decision-making rules and time frame have not been publicly discussed, it seems the idea is to create a narrative of the country coming together at one event. The conference would serve as a founding “we the people” moment, resulting in a sense of legitimacy and authority to set new constitutional rules for a new Libya. Salame has only stated that the national conference will give “a platform for, and give a voice to, the Libyan people.” This has led to speculation that participants will be mainly drawn from the country’s various social constituencies rather than limited to representatives of the country’s main political forces.

Is this the best way forward for Libya?

Lessons learned

Many other countries in the region have experience with national conferences that offer lessons for Libya.  Those experiences show that while national conferences create important opportunities, they are also fraught with risks.

The main feature of Yemen’s failed post-2011 transition was the National Dialogue Conference, which was designed to give an important voice to social constituencies alongside the country’s political forces. The transition eventually collapsed for a number of complex reasons. Of note, the discussions that took place in the conference did not reflect the quickly evolving power dynamics on the ground, which eventually imposed themselves through force of arms. The clear lesson for Libya is that attempts to impose decisions without the support of forces that control territory on the ground are likely to fail.

The situation of Somalia in 2012 has many similarities to that of Libya in 2018. Somalia, too, was mired in a long-standing conflict-ridden transition; the country sought a legitimate new political framework upon which to build a new state; and the Somalis, with international partners, were hammering out a constitution to be sent to referendum. Just as in Libya, at a certain point, a referendum was thought to be impossible, primarily because of security concerns and an inability to find consensus on critical issues.

Instead, international and Somali officials organized a conference, the National Constituent Assembly, to provide legitimacy in adopting a “Provisional Constitution.” This would then pave the way for elections and a more permanent constitutional foundation for the state. However, more than six years later, the legitimacy of both the Provisional Constitution and the Somali state are still weak, inclusive elections have not been held, and the transitional period continues with little change in either the political elites or the lives of ordinary citizens.

Tunisia presents one of the only successful experiences with dialogue processes in the region, but the context and manner of proceeding will be extremely difficult to replicate in Libya. First, Tunisia’s conference was convened by a number of civil society actors, whereas Libya’s process is effectively being launched by the United Nations and will depend heavily on additional support from the international community. Secondly, Tunisia’s conference lasted for over a year and made very slow progress, which most Libyans would probably view as highly undesirable. Finally, the Tunisian conference encouraged agreement between the country’s main political forces, whereas in Libya, the rationale seems to be more to maneuver around political elites.

Preconditions for moving forward

Libya needs a way to move itself out of transition. A new constitution represents a birth certificate for a new state, a new social and political contract whose legitimacy and authority are grounded in the will of the people. As such, it is a critical milestone in exiting from transition and building foundations for a new society. In the case of Libya, a constitutional settlement would ideally help reconcile competing claims for legitimate authority and provide a common vision around which the state-building process can happen. However, even laying foundations requires certain conditions be met, such as minimal security and an acceptance of the main power holders who need to work together, or at least to channel conflict through politics rather than violence.

The question then poses itself — what can be done when those preconditions are not there? In Libya, the answer seems to be to hold a national, legitimizing event to create a narrative of a new beginning. Based on regional experience, perhaps we should be prepared that this may not be the dawn of a new Libya, but rather one step toward the end of the transition’s beginning.

Zaid Al-Ali is senior adviser on constitution-building for Arab countries at International IDEA.

Sumit Bisarya is head of the Constitution Building Program at International IDEA.