UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the appointment Monday of American diplomat Stephanie Williams, who led talks that resulted in the October 2020 cease-fire deal in Libya, to support the holding of presidential elections in the oil-rich north African country scheduled later this month which face many challenges.
Her appointment as the special adviser to the U.N. chief on Libya -- a new position -- follows the Nov. 23 announcement that the U.N. special envoy for Libya, Jan Kubis, was resigning after 10 months on the job. The Geneva-based Kubis told the Security Council he was leaving to facilitate a change he considers vital: moving the mission chief’s job to Libya's capital, Tripoli, to be on the ground at a high-stakes moment for the country.
Libya is set to hold the first round of presidential elections on Dec. 24, after years of U.N.-led attempts to usher in a more democratic future and end the country’s civil war.
The country plunged into turmoil after a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. It then became divided between rival governments — one in the east, backed by military commander Khalifa Hifter, and a U.N.-supported administration in the capital Tripoli. Each side is supported by different militias and foreign powers.
In April 2019, Hifter and his forces, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive to try and capture Tripoli. His campaign collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support of the U.N.-supported government with hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
The October2020 cease-fire agreement led to an agreement on a transitional government in early February 2021 and elections scheduled for Dec. 24. Both agreements were overseen by Williams.
A member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service with the rank of minister-counsellor, Williams is a fluent Arabic speaker who served as the deputy U.N. special representative in Libya from 2018-2020 when she became the acting special representative for almost a year while Guterres searched for a special representative.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, who announced her appointment, said: “Ms. Williams did a spectacular job when she was in office, and we are delighted that she accepted the offer to return.”
He said she will return to Tripoli as special adviser “and will start in the coming days,” which “ensures that we will have the leadership in place during this very critical month of December.”
As head of the U.N. mission in Libya known as UNSMIL, Dujarric said Williams will also pursue implementation of the intra-Libyan dialogue on political, security and economic issues. But it is the Dec. 24 election that all eyes are focused on.
The vote faces many challenges, including disputes over the laws governing the elections and occasional infighting among armed groups. Other obstacles include the deep rift that remains between the country’s east and west, and the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and troops despite the October 2020 cease-fire agreement’s stipulation that they depart in three months.
In September, Kubis told the council: “Holding the elections in Libya, even in less-than-ideal situation, and with all imperfections, challenges and risks, is much more desirable than no elections. That could only foster division, instability and conflict.”
The announcement that Williams will be returning to Tripoli follows last Thursday’s ruling by a court in Libya’s southern province of Sabha that Gadhafi’s son and onetime heir apparent, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, can compete in the presidential election. The Sabha court overturned a decision by the country’s top electoral body disqualifying him, citing his past convictions.
Seif al-Islam had been sentenced to death by a Tripoli court in 2015 for using violence against protesters in the 2011 uprising against his father, though that ruling has since been called into question by Libya’s rival authorities. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity related to the uprising.
Other candidates hoping to be president include eastern Libya’s powerful general Hifter, influential former interior minister Fathi Bashaghaf, and interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who filed a request to run despite rules barring him from doing so.
Last Wednesday, Niger’s U.N. Ambassador Abdou Abarry, the current Security Council president, said “conditions for free, credible, democratic, consensual elections have not for the moment been met. The situation is not mature enough to allow this type of election.”
Guterres told reporters earlier Wednesday: “We want these elections to be part of the solution and not be part of the problem. And so, we will be doing everything to facilitate a dialogue" and solve the “irritants that might divide Libya ... for the elections to be done in a way that contributes to the solution of the Libyan problem.”