If all goes to according to plan, in the coming months Libya will hold a National Conference, an event that could serve as an inflection point for the country and has the potential to right the course of its political trajectory. In order for this to work, however, Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) to Libya Ghassan Salamé must simultaneously plan for both the conference and its aftermath, capitalizing on America’s increasing, behind-the-scenes involvement in Libya.

Action Plan inaction
When he stepped into his new role as SRSG in September 2017, Salamé inherited a difficult situation: the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) negotiated by his predecessor was not fully endorsed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), the security situation in Tripoli was fragile, and the ports that handled oil exports, the country’s economic lifeblood, were outside of the control of the newly installed government. He laid out what appeared to be a simple three-step UN Action Plan that would culminate with Libyans voting on a constitution via a referendum and electing a president and parliament. The UN Security Council followed up by endorsing the plan and supporting the sequence of steps. Although none of the steps has been implemented successfully thus far, foreign leaders have regularly urged Libyans to work towards holding elections. What they all conveniently omit is that in Libya, as elsewhere, there is no panacea for political ills.

As he worked to bring the parties together, the SRSG operated against the backdrop of French and Italian summits on Libya held in May and November of 2018, both of which renewed the call for elections. Now, more than 15 months after he unveiled his plan, it seems Salamé is intent on bootstrapping both the UN Action Plan and Libya’s political process out of the current deadlock by holding a National Conference. The conference was the first step of Salamé’s initial plan and was intended as a forum for national reconciliation where new figures would be chosen to head reconfigured executive institutions, though its current goals appear to have changed somewhat. Speaking in front of the UN Security Council, Salamé framed the National Conference as a way to not only break the political stalemate, but also to circumvent the ongoing challenges to the legal framework for holding a constitutional referendum and moving toward elections. In practice, this would de facto entail sidelining existing entities such as the HoR and the High Council of State (HSC), both of which Salamé has criticized at length over the past few months for delaying key steps of the political process.

Working out a pre-emptive deal will be key
As it stands, the National Conference is Salamé’s way of jump-starting a political process that has come undone. Reducing its role to only laying the groundwork for elections is unlikely to meet the real needs of the Libyan people. However, Salamé’s inability to coerce the Libyan parties to move beyond their zero-sum approach to politics and proceed with his UN Action Plan over the past two years signals that the goals of the conference may be at risk. Moreover, the conditions for participation and representation remain ambiguous, and no date has yet been set for the event. Though the conference could be an adequate forum for addressing the issue of constitutional legitimacy, it is uncertain whether it will galvanize the necessary political will and ensure the security forces will protect the future institutions. To avoid a situation wherein participants back away from deals struck at the National Conference, Salamé will need to capitalize on his year-long grassroots consultation process with Libyans and ensure key political, business, and social leaders are engaged in preparing the conference.

The perception of legitimacy will also be a challenge. Unless the agenda and goals are transparent and made clear ahead of time, even if the conference is successful, some may frame it as a power grab in order to contest the outcome. This is compounded by the sheer variety of stakeholders that expect to be included and heard – yet another challenge for Salamé to address. In the case of the LPA, a coalition gathered and agreed to form a unified government, only to subsequently protest technicalities to buttress their respective positions. Given that precedent, the success of the conference will largely hinge upon Salamé’s ability to build local support by clearly conveying its goals to the public before it begins. Establishing some form of consensus ex-ante may be key to guaranteeing that the political process moves forward, rather than leading to another dispute.

Constitutional obstruction
Salamé acknowledged these risks when speaking to the UN Security Council, noting that even if a deal is struck, those seeking to remain in power may backtrack on their promises after the fact. This is a common pattern in Libyan politics and one that Salamé has faced before. Aguila Saleh Issa, president of the HoR, has consistently undermined Salame’s efforts to retain his hold on power. Saleh has delayed the parliament’s vote on Libya’s constitutional referendum for months, halting the UN Action Plan’s second step in its tracks.

Before finally voting on the referendum, the HoR amended Libya’s constitutional declaration, dividing the country into three constituencies for the vote. The HoR also included other contingencies: the draft would only be ratified if more than two-thirds of those voting approved the referendum – including a minimum of 51% of voters in each of the three regions. This was guaranteed to be appealed by Libya’s HSC, further extending the transitional period during which the existing bodies – the HoR, HSC, and Government of National Accord – would remain in power. If approved, this amendment would be yet another impediment to the constitutional referendum as it would give each region a disproportionate influence over the overall result.

Galvanizing international support
If Salamé intends to bypass these legal challenges through the National Conference, he will need to not only establish a comprehensive agreement beforehand, but also ensure there is international support for deterrence and punitive mechanisms against those who did not live up to their commitments. The issue of spoilers can be addressed systematically through a comprehensive plan for political and economic reform, as well as on a case-by-case basis. The U.S., U.K., and France have recently issued sanctions against militia leader Salah Badi, demonstrating that the international community will not tolerate acts of violence against the Libyan people. Salamé should build on this engagement by encouraging the UN and other Security Council members to adopt similar measures. This would allow international actors to demonstrate that they are objectively analyzing the situation, assessing actions that would help or hinder the political process, and avoid the appearance that they are imposing sanctions on the basis of political ideology.

The odds are stacked against Salamé in his gamble that the international community will adopt a unified position, especially since even neighboring European countries have shown little ability to devise a coherent, common Libya policy. Libya has become one of many theaters in the ideological conflict between the Gulf states and Qatar and Turkey, also complicating matters. Without a major power advocating for a policy in Libya that transcends “containment” and limits the involvement of external actors, the prospects for the success of the National Conference or subsequent elections remain grim. Nevertheless, Salamé could use the influence of the U.S and its previously tried-and-tested ability to keep both Libyan actors and international players in line as he works to advance the political process.


Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images