Can the United Nations Save the Day in Libya?

Now that Libyans have voted in another parliamentary election, the United Nations is gearing up to pave the way to a national political dialogue. Last month the UN's efforts to bring the country's political factions to the negotiating table broke down amid criticisms of the way the United Nations Special Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was preparing for the talks. The controversy forced UNSMIL to postpone a planned meeting that was supposed to launch the dialogue. The UN issued a statement chiding unnamed forces for derailing the talks, adding -- with uncharacteristic frankness -- that "such attitudes are not helpful in launching a dialogue under the current circumstances." UNSMIL's initiative met its strongest opposition from nationalist and tribal factions. (The image above shows Libyan election officials counting ballots after the parliamentary election last month.)

The latest efforts to jump-start talks among the most important political players started on June 5, in the wake of General Khalifa Haftar's military campaign against extremist militias in eastern Libya. The retired general started his campaign, which he has dubbed "Operation Dignity," in response to two years of terrorist attacks targeting the army and security forces as well as judges, journalists, and political activists. Given the central government's failure to improve the security situation, Haftar has managed to garner significant popular support for his military campaign, which is currently seen by many Libyans as the only viable way to rein in terrorist groups. But western diplomats worry that Haftar's campaign might lead to renewed civil war.

UNSMIL's initiative is supported by the United States and the British, represented respectively by special envoys David Satterfield and Jonathan Powell. Yet all those involved in the effort seem to have been caught off guard by the storm of criticism it has prompted. A range of politicians have denounced it as biased and poorly prepared, claiming that UNSMIL hadn't done enough to consult with important figures in Libya's political scene. Some even denounced the effort as going too far to placate the Islamists.

The role of UNSMIL and Libya's friends in the international community is crucial at this juncture in the country's affairs. The past two years have thrown into sharp relief the inability of the various political factions to come together and discuss a path forward from the current crisis. Theoretically, at least, a well-planned from the UN could provide just the stimulus needed.

As welcome as their efforts may be, however, the UN and other countries need to proceed carefully. Any moves by international players should be well thought-out and carefully designed to counter possible perceptions of undue bias against particular factions.

One of those charging the UN with impartiality was ex-health minister Fatima al Hamroush, a member of the current National Dialogue Preparatory Committee, who is currently leading efforts for reconciliation among the Libyan diaspora, which includes large numbers of Libyan expatriates living in the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Libya. Another key politician to criticize the UN initiative was ex-Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. Jibril, who emphasized that he doesn't oppose the dialogue initiative, criticized the preparatory document issued by UNSMIL as "one-sided" and "biased."

Why? Largely because UNSMIL's draft document on the initiative expressed strong criticism of Operation Dignity, which has significant support among Libyans, especially in the eastern part of the country. In addition, the document seemed to imply enshrining the role of militias in the security and defense sectors, an idea that Libyans have been publicly demonstrating against for the last two years, demanding that professional army and police forces should be based on proper vetting procedures and a clear chain of command. These two distinct issues were enough to make Libyans doubt UNSMIL's neutrality.

In its statement announcing the initiative, UNSMIL was at pains to emphasize its neutrality toward all factions and its respect for Libya's sovereignty and stability. But that didn't stop the storm of criticism and demonstrations, prompting the mission to call off the meeting scheduled for June 18-19.

The critics didn't attack UNSMIL only for alleged bias. They also attacked it for the way UN and western diplomats invited delegates to the meeting. This was dramatized by a June 12 TV interview with Tayeb al Sharif, a key figure in eastern Libya's tribal politics -- he's a member of the council of elders for the Obaidat tribe, the biggest in the East -- who was invited to participate in the first round of the dialogue. In addition to raising similar concerns about pro-Islamist bias in the initiative's draft, al-Sharif scolded the UN for failing to send him an agenda for the meeting or a list of participants, despite repeated requests. "I obtained all this information [about the initiative] through my own contacts and from other sources." al-Sharif said. He also faulted the UN initiative for failing to address the roots of the problems that now plague the country. "To my huge surprise," he said, "I found out that the point of the invitation was not to discuss the present situation in Libya and the future of Libya, nor was it about what should be done in order to save Libya from the current crisis."

There are several reasons why UNSMIL and the British and American special envoys encountered these problems, but one of the most important is their failure to consult with important political players outside of Tripoli. Indeed, any initiative by the international community is likely to run into trouble if it relies solely on contact with the political elite in Tripoli and neglects to broaden its base of communications to include the full range of forces across the country's diverse regions. Allowing militias and their political backers in Tripoli to dominate the dialogue process will almost certainly undermine it -- and it was precisely such an approach that derailed the process last month. Libya's friends should not take the current reality of Libya as a given by glorifying the role of militias and their alleged role in the revolution that toppled the Qaddafi regime, thus giving them unlimited legitimacy and impunity.

UNSMIL and Libya's friends in the West must study the results of the parliamentary elections, engage with key groups and players on the local level, and widen their information and communication base. If any dialogue initiative by the international community is to succeed, it must learn from the failures of the Libyan interim parliament and government over the last two years. The politicians in both of these institutions promised an inclusive political process, reconciliation, and transitional justice. It was their failure to deliver on these promises that contributed to the problems that bedevil Libya. The UN and Libya's friends in the international community have to do better.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.


Democracy Lab

Sharing the Pain: A Cuban and a Venezuelan Compare Notes

I first met Yoani Sánchez, Cuba's most famous blogger (and occasional FP contributor), at an event hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. When I mentioned that I write for a Venezuelan newspaper, she smiled: "I never quite know what to say to Venezuelans. We're like two hospital patients, suffering the same affliction, who pass in the hospital corridor and feel compelled to compare symptoms." With this in mind, we agreed to meet a few days later and do just that.

Yoani is just one member of a budding generation of independent Cuban opinion-makers and media -- but she has undeniably become that movement's most visible figure in the eyes of the international community. From her Havana home, which like most Cuban domiciles lacks Internet access (she relies on pen drives a great deal), the 38-year-old has been instrumental in introducing the world to an "unofficial" Cuba. Her efforts have garnered her considerable acclaim abroad even as they've been actively suppressed by the Castro regime at home.

We meet in an empty office at the council's stately Michigan Avenue headquarters. During a brief swap of national "clinical histories," Yoani agrees with me that Venezuela and Cuba do share a number of common problems: "state censorship, the self-censorship it breeds, the cults of personality, and the easy invocations of class warfare and subversive foreign plots as a way of silencing dissent and explaining away problems." The symptoms are similar, even if there is considerable variation in scope and severity.

In the immediate aftermath of seizing power in Havana on New Year's Day, 1959, Fidel Castro wasted little time in silencing unofficial Cuban media, commandeering all means of informational production and exiling erstwhile owners and journalists. By the early 1960s, nongovernmental news, let alone critical editorial lines, was very much a thing of the past. Even individual critics, working independently through self-produced pamphlets, speeches, or even private conversation, could find themselves receiving harsh penalties through onerous provisions in the Cuban legal code that criminalized the disseminating of "Enemy Propaganda" or even "unauthorized news."

In Yoani's view, the Venezuelan authorities, while seeking similar control, have taken far longer on the road to achieving it -- gradually chipping away at media freedoms rather than dismantling them outright. In Venezuela, she tells me, there remain people who, despite the dangers and the censorship, "will still try to show the world on the other side of the coin." In Cuba, that voice was lost for many years, and only now is slowly being regained.

Recent years have seen Cuba take some tentative steps towards liberalization. Internet access, while limited, remains on the rise, as does cellphone ownership. Opposition voices, such as Yoani's own blog (and a recently announced online newspaper), are increasing, even if the government allows them only begrudgingly. Indeed, her very presence in Chicago would have been impossible a few years ago. Yoani says she feels indebted to those independent voices that paved the way for her, often ending up in prison, exile, or worse.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the ward, Venezuela's condition is deteriorating. While still well shy of Castro-level social controls, there is a strong sense that the worst may lie ahead. On June 12, popular Venezuelan comedian Luis Chataing -- whose hit late-night show blended Colbert-style political parody with more quotidian comedy based on local events -- was taken off the air by Televen, a private television network. Chataing has claimed that the unexpected cancellation stemmed from "official pressure" following a skit poking fun at President Nicolás Maduro's long-announced, but as yet unseen, "evidence" of U.S. plots to assassinate him.

Chataing thus joins the ever-lengthening list of independent media casualties in Venezuela -- including its principal television stations, news programs, and popular radio. Those unwilling to compromise their editorial lines have been expropriated or otherwise shuttered, leaving the country's media landscape all but bled white. The government has denied century-old newspapers the foreign currency needed to import paper, and a climate of self-censorship and fear is pervasive: Over a year ago, my editors at El Universal started bouncing my columns back to me, asking me to soften the language in various paragraphs; today, they just go ahead and cut chunks out.

The result, I tell Yoani, is a ubiquitous and unchallenged state media apparatus that deliberately keeps the citizenry woefully uninformed. As someone who grew up in a context where there was no alternative to state media, however, Yoani sees it all in more nuanced terms.

"We always think of government media in terms of what it leaves out, but it is likewise important in terms of what it puts in," Yoani says. "For example, consider the laudatory content that ends up becoming the norm towards the cult of personality of the leader." Often it is in this latter portion, she tells me, that one can learn to read between the lines. Official media can become informative despite itself.  

She continues: "Official media, when referring to Fidel Castro, will normally write something along the lines of 'Our Dear Commander in Chief' or 'Our Invincible Comandante.'"

I nod. This all sounds very familiar.

"But when someone doesn't refer to him that way, if they only say 'Fidel Castro' or 'the Former President,' that is a way of criticizing the regime." She tells of friends who work in official journalism and who sometimes come to her excitedly to brag about some particularly "brave" publication they've gotten away with. "They'll tell me to look at paragraph four, line two, words four through six...." Suddenly, my editor's reluctance to allow me to compare Maduro to Caligula's horse in my own column (he eventually came around, even if it was only ever run online), didn't seem so bad.

While Cuba's censors have traditionally given no quarter to individuals who dared spread critical or unsanctioned information, Venezuela's "revolution" has sought to secure communicational hegemony primarily by limiting the reach of critical speech rather than banning content. Until recently, the Caracas regime rarely arrested journalists. Instead it targeted their outlets, buying, seizing, or otherwise hamstringing those with the broadest popular reach. Yet the government still allowed some places -- particularly online -- in which committed opponents might bounce complaints off one another, ostensibly in a closed loop. But lately, as more and more dissidents take to social media to express their frustrations, and as their sometimes hyperbolic opinions garner attention abroad, there are signs that officialdom is preparing a crackdown.

Indeed, such attempts raise an interesting question. Cuba is often characterized as a nation "frozen in time" -- the regime, the embargo -- almost as if history had forgotten it. Venezuelan leaders, by contrast, will essentially have to go back in time in order to reach similar levels of social control. Having long maintained a relatively free press and open borders (at least until recently), Venezuelans are globalized, consumerist, and Internet-savvy. Can any government, regardless of how ruthless or well-financed it may be, ever reverse this completely?

Yoani thinks not. "When I saw the news being tweeted by Venezuelans during the recent protests," she explains, "I was amazed by the fact that it was the students who took the most active role. These were people who largely came of age during Chavismo and would have been duly indoctrinated by the glorious myths, similar to Cuba's, of the people's revolution against oppression. But here they were taking snapshots of working-class police beating working-class students."

Only towards the end of our conversation did it dawn on me that Yoani smiles a great deal. Among Cubans (and, increasingly, Venezuelans), a smile can serve as armor. Appreciating the ridiculousness of life in authoritarianism has a way of letting one move forward in spite of the many frustrations. And yet, despite the regime abuse she has personally experienced during her rise to prominence in Cuba's nascent independent media -- including physical assaults, arrests, and intimidation against her and her family -- her smile retains a particular earnestness. Absent is the cynicism, the gallows humor, that I increasingly find on Venezuelan faces, including my own. There's something very hopeful in that.

With this in mind, I ask Yoani what advice she might give the Venezuelans of today, those who are disheartened by the opposition's failure to capitalize on the recent crisis to produce palpable change.

"The struggle will be long," she tells me, adding quickly, "but I don't mean it will have to be 55 years like ours. One can't let oneself feel defeated. This isn't a sprint; it's a marathon."

In her view, it is vital for opponents of the regime to maintain their unity. The Venezuelan opposition, under the now-struggling leadership of the M.U.D., a coordinating coalition of opposition parties, has been something that Yoani says "has given great hope to Cubans," where the opposition has struggled to overcome rivalries among various factions. She sincerely hopes that unity can be regained.

"The Venezuelan students prove that the light of liberty is not something that can just be turned off. People are funny that way. And I know that Venezuelans will someday be free -- and, when they are, we will be as well."

For someone who "never quite knows what to say to Venezuelans," that last part sure came out well.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.