Libyan women have struggled with exclusion from official peace talks. However, in 2020, following a campaign for inclusion, seventeen of the seventy-five negotiators (23 percent) in the UN-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) were women, marking a significant improvement in women’s representation in the official Libyan peace process. In addition to the LPDF, more than one thousand Libyans participated in a UN-facilitated digital dialogue for women. The LPDF was ultimately unable to help facilitate a lasting political solution for Libya, and a stalemate has ensued since late 2020. In February 2023, the special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG) for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, announced his plans for a High-Level Steering Panel for Libya focused on moving the country toward presidential and parliamentary elections as early as 2023. While members of the steering panel have yet to be announced, Bathily has stated that it will be comprised of a diverse group of Libyan stakeholders, including women and youth.
Libyan women have advocated tirelessly for their inclusion in efforts to build a lasting peace in Libya. They were instrumental in helping women secure 23 percent of seats in the LPDF and have participated in conflict resolution and mediation efforts at the local level.
Following the 2011 uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi and military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), interim governments have struggled for legitimacy as armed militias have vied for power [PDF]. The combination of a weak federal government, decentralized power centers, and recurrent terrorist attacks led to widespread instability and violence, culminating in civil war in 2014. In 2015, warring parties forged the Libyan Political Agreement, which led to the United Nations’ recognition of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). However, the Libyan House of Representatives—elected in 2014—did not recognize the GNA. Instead, it allied with the eastern Libya-based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar, a former Qaddafi loyalist who switched allegiance and lived in exile in the United States until the 2011 uprising. In the ensuing years, the LNA—comprised of various armed militias—assumed control of different territories in east Libya, while both the GNA and LNA embarked on separate campaigns against Islamist militants in the country. In April 2019, the LNA, backed by Egypt, France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates, began an offensive to seize GNA-controlled Tripoli. In June 2020, the GNA, with military support from Turkey, successfully repelled the LNA. Hundreds of thousands of Libyan civilians have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict.
In the summer and fall of 2020, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) facilitated a dialogue between representatives from the GNA and LNA, which led to the announcement of a national cease-fire. In November 2020, UNSMIL convened the first meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunis, where seventy-five Libyans representing different regions, tribes, and political affiliations committed to a road map to hold presidential elections on December 24, 2021, and parliamentary elections shortly thereafter. UNSMIL also convened parallel online discussions to foster an inclusive peace process. However, the elections failed to materialize after two key Libyan entities responsible for agreeing on the terms of the elections—the High Council of State and House of Representatives—became mired in dispute, largely over when to hold the presidential election and the eligibility of candidates. The House of Representatives wanted to hold elections quickly and allow dual nationals to run. The Council of State, in contrast, wanted to restrict the ability of dual nations to run and delay elections until the writing of a permanent constitution. The political and security situation has continued to deteriorate in the ensuing months, and today Libya has two competing prime ministers—one supported by the UN-backed GNA, and one backed by the House of Representatives. The high-level steering committee announced by SRSG Bathily is gaining traction toward breaking the political stalemate and moving Libya toward elections and a more lasting political solution.
Historically, Libyan women were largely excluded from official peace talks. However, this began to change in 2018 when seven thousand Libyans were consulted—25 percent of whom were women—under the track two Libya National Conference peace process.
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum marked a major turning point for women’s participation in the conflict resolution process. Of the seventy-five Libyans in the LPDF, seventeen were women (23 percent), in part due to lobbying by Stephanie Williams, the former head of the UNSMIL. In parallel to the LPDF, UNSMIL convened an online dialogue sub-track for women with over one thousand Libyans participating.
Libyan women are also expected to play a role if special representative Bathily is able to establish a high-level steering committee for Libya comprised of a diverse group of stakeholders.
Despite these developments, Libyan women’s participation in public and political life has been dangerous in recent years, as women in public positions have been targeted in high profile attacks. Since the passage of a cybercrime bill in October 2021—which allows authorities to severely restrict online freedom of expression and imposes severe penalties for alleged violators—women’s rights defenders have been harassed and imprisoned. Targeted attacks on public figures, including Hanan al-Barassi, Seham Sergewa, Salwa Bughaighis, and recently, TV correspondent Mabrouka al-Mismari, are important reminders of the risks facing Libyan women who speak out on the future of their country. Notwithstanding these hazards, Libyan women have found ways to foster peace in their communities outside of official peace processes, including by participating in local negotiations such as mediating tribal disputes.
Libyan women have also exerted leadership in civil society roles to influence the Libyan peace process. For example, activists Hajer Sharief and Rida al-Tubuly co-founded Together We Build It, a civil society organization that advances peace and security in Libya. Sharief and Tubuly have used their platforms to advocate for greater women’s inclusion in the Libyan peace process. In addition, the Libyan Women’s Network for Peacebuilding, founded in 2019, has provided a platform from which Libyan women have organized to make the peace process more inclusive.
Broadening the agenda. In the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, women highlighted important issues that would otherwise have been sidelined, including transitional justice and accountability for human rights violations—even when men were more reluctant to address these topics. The road map produced by the LPDF included transitional justice as a principle for the national reconciliation process.
Greater transparency and participation in the peace process. Women peace-builders insisted on broadcasting the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum to promote transparency and build community buy-in. “Women campaigned and insisted on the Libyan ownership in the UNSMIL process,” according to Lamees BenSaad, a member of the LPDF.
Community advocacy and support. Women peace-builders used their networks to assist community members vulnerable to violence, called for the release of political prisoners, and sought protection for women in political positions. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, women peace-builders helped provide direct services to migrants and refugees and advocated for communities most affected by the conflict.
Bringing civil society experience to the table. Libyan women’s extensive experience in civil society prior to participating in the LPDF enabled them to work cooperatively and productively with other negotiators in the official Libyan peace process. The skillsets Libyan women developed through their work in civil society helped negotiators find common areas of agreement and informed their negotiation strategies.
“There is a lack of trust and confidence in the capabilities of women in the political realm…In the rare case where women are included in peace processes, they are often taken in to merely tick the box of women participation, and are still not given an equal opportunity in participation.”
—Maryam Dajani, program and communication officer at Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP)