A political class stretching across Libya’s east-west conflict lines is determined to maintain the status quo and privileged access to the coffers of the state, Stephanie Williams, the outgoing acting UN special envoy for Libya has warned.
The American diplomat likened many of them to dinosaurs, saying they were linked to pre-revolutionary forces.
Williams also challenged foreign countries that are likely to defy a Libyan agreed deadline of next Sunday to withdraw all troops and mercenaries from abroad from Libyan soil, claiming countries that kept troops in Libya were doing so in defiance of the country’s sovereignty.
Both Russia and Turkey have proxy forces in Libya as they try to capitalise on a conflict between the east and the west of the country that has paralysed it since 2014.
Williams was speaking to the Guardian as the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, the body she established to chart a way forward to national unity elections, finally backed by a majority of 73% a process whereby an interim unified executive could be chosen to run the country until presidential and parliamentary elections in December. A nomination process will now start, Williams said.
The forum had been deadlocked since November on how a three-strong presidential council representing each region and a prime minister should be chosen. Williams said some of the recent manoeuvring was in part driven by individuals’ calculations on the system most likely to benefit them, but added that the country now had a rare chance to move forward towards national unity. However, she said it would require painful compromises by all sides.
Williams will be replaced by Ján Kubiš – former Slovak foreign minister and currently the UN envoy in Lebanon – but she stays in post until the end of February to oversee the formation of the executive. She insisted her departure would not slow momentum.
She has been deliberately taking risks to force the pace on political, economic and military reform, arguing she is standing up for ordinary Libyans fed up with civil war conducted by a political class on both sides of the country that sometimes prefer the lucrative status quo to unified national institutions.
She said the planned troop withdrawal deadline “was a sovereign Libyan decision that was taken by general officers who report to their chains of command and to their respective commanders in chief that signed off on the ceasefire agreement. Clearly if mercenaries remain on Libyan soil, they are denying the will of the Libyan people.
Urging foreign powers to remove their forces from Libya, Williams pointed out the ceasefire agreement signed on 23 October, and containing clauses for the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries within 60 days, was agreed by five senior officers from either side of the civil war.
“So if the governments or countries that somehow facilitated the bringing in of these mercenaries to Libya, if they now refuse to withdraw them, they are essentially denying Libyan sovereignty. The question then becomes: how can you describe yourself as a friend of Libya if you are thwarting the will and request of the Libyan officials themselves?
“It’s not rocket science. If foreign troops were flown in, they can be flown out.”
She claimed her estimate that 20,000 foreign troops in Libya was not a wild guess, but based on firm evidence and might even be an underestimate.
But she saved some of her harshest words for an existing political class that was trying to block elections.
“Elections are a direct threat to their status quo, and they are going to fight to defend their status quo, and it’s my belief that those are trying to block the formation of a consensual unified executive are the very same political forces that will try to block elections.
She said: “Their numbers numerically are not significant, but there is a constituency of the status quo. The existing political class are not interested in committing class suicide. They see any change through a temporary executive or to national elections as an end to their privileged access to the coffers, and resources of the state, and so it would put an end to their system of patronage that they have so adeptly developed in the past few years.
“Libya has a status quo party that crosses conflict lines – these are the people that have benefited from the current exceptional structure and they do not want to leave it.
She also defended the legitimacy of the forum, saying: “The dialogue forum has constituencies that have not been included in the peace process since the revolution. It is truly a Libyan dialogue and that has been the case from its first meeting in Tunis. It is very lively. It has produced a lot of good results, not the least the decision on holding national elections on December 24.”
She also warned Libyan politicians against trying to bypass the UN political forum, for instance by setting up a rival . The current UN-recognised Tripoli-based prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, in the last 48 hours has set up his own security apparatus, including two major Tripoli militias, fuelling rumours that he may be working to challenge the forum’s legitimacy.
Williams said: “Any attempt to form a new united executive has to come under the umbrella of the Libyan Political Dialogue.”
She doubted anyone including Russia would back a rival rump government, insisting Moscow supported the UN process.