And unlike the fraught national elections, which would be held on a single date and which could revive regional and political tensions, low-key municipal elections are decentralized, held on staggered dates around the country. Local elections are more likely than national ones to be about services, not highly contentious matters like identity and zero-sum power contests between regions. Minorities are often able to gain election to municipal councils.
In the meantime, the majority of municipal leaders, in their struggle to provide services, are in direct communication with their constituents. That makes them the ideal class of leaders to give meaning and definition to citizen demands for decentralization. As has been shown in other conflict areas, particularly the Balkans, municipalities share common challenges enabling them to surmount regional, ideological or political differences and devise pragmatic solutions, including on nettlesome questions like federalism.
Responding to citizen demands, the UN’s new compact would set out principles for support to municipal governments. The Presidential Council in Tripoli, in particular, would be asked both to release funding and to rescind its recent decision designed to skew results of preferred party blocs. The European Union would be asked to provide considerably more financial and technical assistance to municipalities, not solely to aid vulnerable populations like migrants which has been the focus so far.
At the national level, the UN should respect citizen demands for transparency by partnering with Libyan civil society on a new, “Comprehensive Transparency Initiative.” The core goal would be for every oil contract, every letter of credit, every government transfer and purchase (above an agreed amount), and every payment to a militia to be displayed on government websites.
The UN could also take on an active role with the country’s Audit Bureau to ensure compliance with transparency initiatives, supporting investigations into dubious transactions, transfers or omissions. Working with courts and prosecutors, the UN could help launch the process of utilizing Libyan institutions to hold officials accountable. These same new policies and procedures could apply across Libya, including in parallel Eastern institutions. Officials who fear intimidation or extortion under the new transparency protocol could be transferred; those who remain in office and fulfill transparency requirements could get bonuses.
As for citizen demands for the accountability of armed groups, the UN could recommend long overdue, effective national registration. In order to continue receiving payments, all militias would be asked to provide Libyan officials with details on their leadership, membership, areas of operation, weapons and communications. Eastern-based militias receiving Central Bank payment would also be required to register.
Recognizing the dependency of the weak Tripoli government on militias which can easily interrupt oil flows, penalties would be mild at first. A militia that refuses to register would still receive payments, but its name would be placed on a public list. Over time, being named to the list would become a stigma—an unwelcome sign of weakness that a self-preserving militia would want to avoid. On the positive side, militias which registered would have a preference for incorporation into new, higher paying, uniformed forces—a key demand of Libyan citizens.
Despite its precariousness, Libya is a potentially stable, even prosperous country that has lost its way. If the UN and its partners embrace the wisdom of Libya’s citizens—instead of chasing its polarizing leaders—the National Conference could be the second chance that the country desperately needs.
Edward P. Joseph is an adjunct professor and a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Image: Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo.