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The Arab uprisings, initially perceived as one unit of analysis, have gone through a rite of passage and identified themselves as distinct from one another; it is no longer logically sound to talk of one “spring”. Nevertheless, it is instructive to extract lessons learned from each experience and place them into conversation with one another. An Arab dialectic seems possible instead of a unified discourse on change and transitions. Libya’s ‘national dialogue’ has been launched in the hope of carving out a space of peace across the country and for developing a form of consensus on what is perceived as a reborn Libyan nation, post-Qaddafi. The National Dialogue Preparatory Commission’a (NDPC) Chairman Fadeel Lame emphasised that Libya needs to “move from one stage to another and from one situation to another and that this transition could be achieved only through the power of dialogue.”[1] Earlier in September 2013, Tarek Mitri, who heads the UN Support Mission in Libya, described it as a process that “would give voice to many Libyans and opens a space that does not exclude any of those who may have contributions to make to public life and are otherwise isolated, separated or entrenched in their partisan attitudes… [to] promote a national capacity to address urgent priorities and ensure public support to the efforts of state-building.”

The need for dialogue is indisputable in a country that seems ridden with conflict. In Tripoli, separatist movements gaining ground in the eastern part of the country. General instability highlights the urgency for dialogue – and the difficulties. Recently, militias from Misrata opened fire on peaceful protestors in Tripoli who were calling for the departure of militias and the restoration of peace. According to one account, more than 40 were killed and 400 wounded in the clashes.[2] The General National Congress (GNC) and government agencies froze;  it was only through the intervention of local councils and civil society that an end of violence was reached.[3] As described by the reporter: “There was a tense calm in Tripoli on Sunday after more than 48 hours of bloodshed. Civil-society and community leaders abided by a general strike that coincided with a national mourning period for those slain. Shops were shut and normally busy commercial streets were devoid of traffic on the first day of the working week, witnesses reported.”

The question here then is not about need – in an ideal world, developing consensus among the Libyan people towards state building and a national identity would be the way out. It is about capacity. In these circumstances, can Libya have a meaningful dialogue? And how can we safeguard against having the dialogue devolve into yet another failed negotiation? The GNC’s failure to resolve the crisis in Tripoli has already undermined the efficacy of usual democratic tools, underscoring the need for organic change, one that would emerge from the people and is tailored to their needs.

The elected government is developing ways to join forces with the local councils because the only way forward seems to combine both; local as well as newly developed structures of governance. But if the GNC could not resolve one conflict, will it be able to manage a nationwide dialogue?

Libya’s long road 

Libya made quick strides at the beginning. In July 2012, a General National Congress was elected, followed by the swearing in of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan who was entrusted with placing the first blocks of a new Libyan state. He outlined a set of government priorities: “security, defence, health, public services, the economy, and starting the process of national reconciliation.” Each had a corresponding body tasked with solving it, most of them built from scratch.

Alas, the path to realizing these priorities has been thwarted, partly because of the lack of institutional infrastructure and partly because of a struggling nation-building process. National unity remains tenuous and regionalism rife. Recent calls for a federal arrangement are gaining ground across the country. It is no surprise that Libya has yet to establish a unified national army. The presence of militias across the wide expanse of the desert, now estimated 200,000 strong and boasting different allegiance to a tribe or region, further underscore (and exacerbate) the regional and tribal fragmentation.

In Libya, nation and state building are dependent on one another. But unfortunately both of them are located within a historically contested space in which state construction and the nation as imagined almost always clash. Actors responsible for each process are different: formal government institutions (ministries, political parties and military) as well as civil society organizations are central to the state building process whereas the complex process of consolidating nationhood falls on the shoulders of more informal entities (citizen activists as well as civil society groups). International actors also play a key role. While the NATO intervention was critical to the liberation of Libya from Qaddafi and the end of the war, other actors have been instrumental in either fuelling regionalism.

There is definitely a need for a national dialogue to address these issues. But this also causes further problems.

Seeking neighbourly advice

For Libya, there are lessons to be learned from the recent attempt at dialogue in Yemen, which finished on the 21st of January 2014. Participants agreed on a document that would formulate the basis of their constitution, which was launched last March with the same enthusiasm and with very similar expectations at in Libya. And also like Libya, Yemen also has regional divisions, calls for federalism, plenty of weapons, and more importantly, on-going desire for state and nation building that in the Yemeni experience was, alas, not fully captured in months of dialogue and meetings.

To start, the agenda of the national dialogue committee in Yemen was very rich, covering a variety of topics that range from national identity, governance, state-building and transitional justice. International experts willingly flew to the country to offer their services. Ample media coverage by local and international organizations depicted the national dialogue as a key achievement in the Yemeni Revolution’s trajectory.

But the reality was different. Yemen’s dialogue has not been the success it aimed to be. As I wrote from Sanaa’ in July 2013, the isolation from the very context and concerns that it sought to address at the National Dialogue Conference was very clear. The choice of location in this instance was significant:

The Movenpick in Sanaa is a fortress. You have to go through many gates to get inside and when you’re in, well, it’s a different world – that’s where the National Dialogue is taking place and where people from all over the world deliberate over the fate of a country they seem to know very little about…. Everything is big, gold, and in your face (Reminds me of the Corinthia in Tripoli). Outside, life is small, between the Qat and the small houses – even Yemenis are small in size, happiness is small.

Conversations I had with Yemenis in July 2013 underscored a disconnect between the people and the discussions that were taking place within the national dialogue. Activists and civil society professionals voiced concerns about representation and others simply did not understand what the meetings were about. They did not see any real transformations taking place at the end of the dialogue, nor did they see it as a meaningful attempt to heal old wounds. In addition, international experts knew little about Yemen’s politics and history, and rarely ventured outside the conference. This did little to serve the objectives of a meaningful national dialogue. Time will determine the success or failure of the prolonged meetings; but, in general, there are already key recommendations one can make following Yemen’s experience.

National dialogue is not a salvation.

If Libyans think that the national dialogue will put an end to all their problems, they are already setting out to fail. A national dialogue is meant to unpack old wounds, set a vision for a politically and economically complex present and a strategy for the future. There should be clear reasonable expectations of what the dialogue can achieve. Articulating a national project that would get buy-in from various regions and identify goals would be a good start.

Non-state actors are relevant to state building. 

State building not only requires state actors but can actually be driven by civic engagement, something Libya has in abundance. The rapid emergence of civil society organizations and civic activist groups was welcomed as indicative of the “liberation” process – gone are the days of the Qaddafi Foundation and its monopoly of civil society – and today Libya boasts a diverse civil society and civic activist space (See El Taraboulsi and Salah, 2013). Still, this community struggles to sustain its existence as an integral part of the state and nation building processes. The rise in numbers has not yet led to a rise in an understanding of the value of civic agency; in acknowledging its marginality in the past, that entire sector is threatened to be marginalised.

A Dialogue is a process.

There is a need to think of the national dialogue as a sustained process, not just an event with a beginning and end. A platform can emerge out of the national dialogue that would broker communication and engagement between key actors – citizens, civil society and the state. This can also help filter the social contract through different parties and ascertain that it is organically developed from within and not imposed. Libya should focus on building incentives through the process, not delivering outputs alone.

 International experts don’t know better.

International expertise can be very useful but it is a double-edged sword. It boasts limited success in other countries around the region. Libyans should make use of whatever resources made available to them — but they should do so wisely and selectively.


[1] See Zaptia, Sami. “The Libyan National Dialogue Launched.” Libya Herald

[2] See Stephen, Chris. “Militia Attack on Tripoli Protestors Raises Fear of Fresh Conflict in Libya.” The Guardian. November 16, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/16/libya-militia-attack-tripoli-fears-conflict

[3] See Daragahi, Borzou. “Militias Accede to Demands to End Violence in Tripoli.” Financial Times. November 17, 2013. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5e1695ba-4f98-11e3-b06e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2ooYdKOwv

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