Women, Tribal Leaders Key to Rebuilding Libyan State

Libyans demonstrate in support of eastern military leader Khalifa Haftar, Benghazi, Libya, March 17, 2017. (Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images)

Clashes between rival governing authorities and associated militias continue to erupt in Libya. In late March, the Gharyan tribe pulled its support from the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and joined military commander Khalifa Haftar’s rival administration in the country’s east. If the GNA is to have any hope of extending authority beyond Tripoli it will need to reach out more effectively to tribal leaders and local actors to ensure inclusiveness in the stalled peace process.

Implementation of the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement remains at a standstill. In August 2016, the recognized parliament under the agreement rejected the deal’s implementation and the GNA’s authority. The largely eastern Libyan parliamentarians cited a lack of representation and inclusiveness in the formation of the agreement as a motivation for the decision. Furthermore, as militias battle for control of the country’s vast natural resources, the UN mission in Libya (UNSMIL) remains effectively without leadership. The mandate of UN special representative Martin Kobler has ended, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ attempts to replace him with former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was vetoed by United States UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who cited support for Israel.

This lack of an effective and reliable lead international mediator requires that attention be given to efforts at the local level. Inclusivity is an important consideration within this process; as mentioned in the UN’s Guidance for Effective Mediation, an inclusive process is more likely to “identify and address the root causes of the conflict and ensure that the needs of the population are addressed.” The guidance further states that “civil society actors can play a critical role in increasing the legitimacy of a peace process and are potentially important allies.”  Mediation efforts that solely involve armed groups often lack legitimacy, and risk generating resentment and exclusion for other actors. As is often the case in mediation efforts, national tracks can benefit from local dialogue mechanisms, which in turn enhance ownership.

UNSMIL and other international partners have indeed left community leaders out of the peace negotiations to date. They continue to lack a local or tribal track and have instead focused on engaging with contested political leaders and holding peace negotiations outside the country. This is not through a lack of interest on the part of locals in creating peace in Libya, however. Many of these individuals and groups are gathered under the umbrella of the National Movement for Libya (NML), which has been working since 2015 to promote reconciliation and inclusion in the country. As the state struggles to exert its authority beyond Tripoli, members of the NML highlight the need for a bottom-up approach to statebuilding and the establishment of the parallel tracks of dialogue that are currently missing from the formal negotiations.

The important role these local community leaders can play in Libyan peacebuilding was highlighted at the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held in New York in early March, where nine NML representatives spoke of the various initiatives currently underway to help create peace in Libya.

About 70% of Libya’s territory is governed by a geographically based tribal structure; tribal leaders play an important role in the Libyan society and are viewed as highly-respected authorities with considerable influence. As such, tribal leaders formed the NML to fulfill the void left by the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and the absence of state authority in rural tribal areas. Since the ousting of Gaddafi, tribal and ethnic fighting have considerably increased, particularly in the rural South. However, many tribal leaders, including NML members, have also taken the initiative of signing ceasefire agreements and uniting to pursue a path towards peace and reconciliation. These leaders are playing a decisive role in engaging dialogue with the youth to dissuade them from joining militias; their uncontested and embedded authority helps to ensure the effectiveness of these efforts. Another NML initiative directly targets youth already involved in militias by providing potential alternative pathways to violence, such as social support, employment opportunities, housing, and even marriage.

Women are also a key component of NML. The organization includes more than 80 female leaders from across the country and tribal and ethnic divides. One result of this is the so-called “tent movement,” which establishes mobile camps in the midst of battlefields, where female NML members who have lost husbands or sons in tribal conflicts engage with other women in the same situation. The aim is to build on the common experience to promote dialogue across tribal lines. NML hopes to encourage more and more women to join the movement and spread a message of reconciliation to sons and husbands. In the southwestern town of Ubari, which has suffered through 14 months of intense clashes between the Tuareg and Tebu tribes, women mediators built a mobile tent in the middle of the violence. The mediator involved in this process said at CSW that this dialogue facilitated the restoration of peace in the area and, to some extent, the signing of a ceasefire agreement.

Women leaders working with NML are also directly negotiating ceasefires with militias in conflict-affected areas in the South, to allow unhindered access of humanitarian aid and care for the wounded. This work is not without risk, and a high number of women peacemakers have been targeted or killed because of their engagement. Yet this is not an uncommon experience for Libyan women at present; a general level of insecurity remains a major challenge and has jeopardized their long-established presence in police and military positions, particularly in the west of the country. The past presence of women in these roles was noticeable even in the female military bodyguards assigned to protect Gaddafi.

The community leaders speaking at the CSW, in particular women mediators, also cited political Islam as threatening their work, with radicalized militias seeking to restrict or silence female activists and using religion to attract youth. They have, however, found several ways to work around the increasing limits they face on freedom of movement and their abilities to organize. This includes exchanging thoughts and ideas on peacebuilding digitally, through the instant messaging app Viber, which is available nationwide.

NML members called on the international community to provide increased sustainable and accessible financial support for capacity-building; stressing on the challenges and obstacles to obtain funding for local actors in Libya. They further called on the international community to curb the circulation of light weapons throughout the country, to help diminish armed groups’ reserves. This is necessary despite a UN Security Council arms embargo that has been in place since 2011.

UN mediation advice highlights that national ownership of mediation processes require adapting to local cultures and norms and that the inclusivity of a process has a direct impact on the depth of ownership. In keeping with this, NML members underline that a solution to the Libyan crisis will only be found within Libya and by Libyans. They are therefore calling for international negotiations on the conflict to be held within the country and through the creation of a unifying and representative national charter. They want community leaders including tribal heads and women to be included in mediation and peacemaking efforts. Recognizing that the standard centralized “transition” approach has only exacerbated Libya’s weaknesses and divisions, the international community could adapt its approach to the country’s specific societal structure.

For peace to be sustained through reconciliation in Libya it is crucial to invest in and support community leaders in their local mediation efforts, recognizing that their traditional authority and legitimacy make them key players. As the community leaders in the NML stated, they chose to step up and take on an active role because the state was absent and failed to fulfill its duty.  Short-term investment in this area will likely allow for long-term social cohesion and institutional capacity. It may enable a robust central government with control over its entire territory and a more sustainable future for women and men in Libya.

Aïssata Athie works with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.