Finding a path to peace in Libya, with Zoom and lots of tea
Last Friday’s call by Libya’s internationally recognized government and the head of the rival parliament for a ceasefire in the country’s latest conflict made no mention of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Which is just what Felix Tusa, a project manager for the group, which works on Libya, prefers. “Unfortunately, one of the conditions central to successful peacemaking is to keep the process very discreet,” he said Monday, speaking with GS by phone from the UK.
With at least 430,000 people displaced in Libya as of 31 July, just one of the extensive humanitarian impacts of the war, the call for a ceasefire offers a hint of optimism — though the head of a third group, Khalifa Hafter, has already brushed aside the ceasefire announcement as a “marketing” stunt. Earlier peace talks have so far brought no respite for either Libyans or the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees who often find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Tusa, an Oxford and Graduate Institute Geneva alumni, has previously worked in Tunisia, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on projects related to security governance for the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF). He spoke with us about what it’s like mediating in the time of COVID-19, the role his group plays in brokering peace around the globe, and why a cup of tea over a Zoom call can sometimes be more helpful in bringing two groups together than sitting in a hotel conference room.
GS — How did we get to this point where two warring factions have called for a ceasefire?
Felix Tusa — Unfortunately, one of the conditions central to peacemaking is to keep the process very discreet. So you know I'm not going to go into details. What I can say is that there had been contact with several parties over the last few months, building on the work that had been done at the end of last year. This led to an agreement among parties to build a space to discuss what peaceful solution can be found in Libya, while outlining a Libyan-led process that shepherds the events afterwards.
What role does HD play in the most recent development?
Our goal in these processes is to do the outreach to the different parties — doing the bits that traditional diplomats or officials from the UN can't, such as making direct contact with parties of conflicts.
So HD essentially connects different groups that usually won't talk to each other?
It's one of the roles it plays. It is very much this idea of outreach and making contact with people that others just can't. In the Libyan context, the current situation is very fragmented. Most organisations don't have the resources or the know-how to be able to keep in contact with those parties in the conflict. Because we're a specialised mediation organisation in Libya, we're able to do that, having a team of 15-20 people who keep contact with all sides.
We also offer our mediation expertise, which differentiates us from international organisations. This expertise comes from the work we've been doing for the last 20 years, bringing in expertise in how mediation processes and events should be run.
What were the difficulties that played into the events leading up to the call for a ceasefire? Did Covid-19 play a part in this?
Covid-19 certainly had an effect on this process and the situation in Libya. Firstly, if we're talking about the situation in Libya, cases have been rising dramatically. There even have been calls from medical institutions within Libya that urged the country’s divided institutions to work together to tackle the disease — especially from those who do not have the capacity or the equipment needed to combat the virus.
Globally, HD had to also find a way to work around the Covid-19 pandemic. I think one of the things we've been successful in doing is finding new ways to mediate, whether it be through online technology or through processes that rely more on online-based documents.
Can you give an example?
It’s not particular to the process in Libya, but we have used technologies such as video conferencing. There's a debate within HD and within the mediation community as to whether you can successfully mediate entirely by video conference. There's still a feeling that at the heart of mediation is this idea that you have to bring people together: the importance of face-to-face contact, and even the stuff that doesn't happen in the meeting room, but in corridors or coffee breaks. However, from what I have seen so far in the last few months, new technologies, even publicly-available ones like Zoom, can really help make a lot of progress because you can simply increase the amount of dialogue that happens.
As an example, we organised a series of online dialogues late at night during Ramadan — bringing people together online after the iftar. At around nine o'clock, we'd have people who would log online, from their own homes, feeling happy after dinner with a cup of tea. It produced a unique atmosphere that you honestly can't get if you bring people together in the meeting room in the hotel. The jury's still out, but I think what we've seen through the Covid-19 pandemic is that you can mediate through video conferencing, through online technologies. It can actually really help the process.
What does this ceasefire announcement say about what’s currently happening on the ground in Libya?
There are many different parties in the Libyan conflict, and many more who are affected by the conflict. What this ceasefire shows is that dialogue between Libyans is possible. This is the first time since the war began in 2019 that the different factions have come together like that. Since then, there hasn't been a Libyan-led dialogue. There certainly have been small attempts, times when different individuals have been brought together. However, this is the first time that we've actually had leaders come to an agreement. Libya's Prime Minister, Faiez Serraj, and the president of the House of Representatives based in eastern Libya, Aghila Saleh, both called for an immediate ceasefire this week.
The Libyan conflict has become a very internationalised conflict with influence from Russia, Turkey, Egypt and the UAE, among others. What this shows is that despite the international elements, you can still have dialogue between Libyans, and that it can be productive.
Were there international actors involved in developing this ceasefire?
I can't really go into details, but what I can say is that since the end of last year, the UN has accepted publicly that the international parties have to be part of any solutions in Libya, and that was what the earlier process in Berlin last January was all about.
Ghassan Salamé, the former United Nations special envoy to Libya, opened up in an interview with HD in June, and spoke of his frustrations with members of the UN Security Council for “stabbing him in the back’’ expressing concern over what he called their “hypocrisy” in undermining his mediation efforts in Libya. How does HD work with these contradictions?
What Ghassan said in the podcast is fascinating, as the UN is in a very difficult position. On the one hand, a part of the UN deals is administration or missions, who are charged with trying to make peace in Libya or in any other country. At the same time, you have the UN Security Council, which is governed by member states who themselves are parties to different conflicts around the world. You're saying that the UN struggles a bit with what seems like a contradiction, and I think that that indicates a problem not limited to Libya alone.
We're very aware that there are international parties who play a role in the conflict in Libya, alongside all these various contradictions. What differentiates HD is that if there is an organisation or state apart from the UN who are trying to work for peace, then we'll do what we can to help that effort.
As part of the team that works with all these actors, would you be able to give us a preview of how peace talks work?
One of the things about mediating a conflict in Libya is that there aren't any major social divisions in the country. You have a large number of parties that are fragmented, but you don't have major social divisions. In fact, socially, they are quite united — you can bring people together from totally different sides of the conflict. They may be diehard enemies, but you would see that they would actually be hugging each other, they embrace, speak together. There's a lot of social cohesion, which is actually quite striking. And I think that explains why the conflict in Libya has not been quite as deadly as you might expect, if you compare it to other conflicts such as Syria. You don't have quite the same number of deaths. Because even though everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong, Libyans don't like killing other Libyans. So, when I look for positives, that's very much one of them.
What are your hopes for moving forward?
I definitely see this ceasefire as a confidence-building measure. The trick now is to turn this call for a ceasefire into some more concrete agreements. To do that, you have to talk with other parties, and there's a lot to be done also to manage events on the ground. There have been large protests all over Libya about living conditions. If the ceasefire becomes something more sustainable, you need to find a way of capturing the different frustrations between different parties and build something that's much more inclusive.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.