What Libya Can Learn from Yemen

Libya-watchers should be encouraged by the initiation of the country’s National Dialogue last month and an election date set for the constitution-making body on February 20, both of which give much-needed positive momentum to lift Libya out of the cycle of violence and recrimination. The National Dialogue Preparatory Commission (NDPC) and its seventy-five member advisory body are making critical decisions that could set the dialogue up for success, or if managed badly, sow the seeds of further unrest. While Libya’s context is unique, relevant parallels with Yemen’s National Dialogue, which just concluded on January 25, provide both valuable lessons and warning signals.

The internationally-backed agreement that put an end to months of fighting in 2011 in Yemen mandated an inclusive national dialogue to address the underlying issues that led to the popular uprising—the lack of functioning government, demands for independence and regional autonomy, guaranteeing rights and freedoms, reducing the centralization of power, eliminating corruption, and others. After months of preparation and repeated delays, Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) ultimately agreed to 1400 articles and recommendations, some of which will now be incorporated in a constitution to be drafted in the coming months. As with Libya, creating a framework for the key actors in Yemen to stop fighting and sit together peacefully in dialogue is in itself a notable achievement. The real gains will rest on the ability of Yemen’s leaders and institutions to actually implement the outcome, but in the meantime, their experience can highlight some critical lessons as Libya treads similar waters.

Key Lessons from Yemen’s National Dialogue:

  • Prioritize inclusiveness. For Libya, as for Yemen, instituting a process that is seen as credible, legitimate, and representative—and getting the right people around the table to agree to a non-violent, political process—is perhaps more important than what the national charter will actually say. Libya’s preparatory commission intends to conduct public outreach to find out what issues are most important to address among citizens and to utilize the seventy-five member advisory group in these consultations. But security and economic concerns add pressure to move quickly and to keep the process in step with the constitution-drafting time-table. Allowing sufficient time for substantive outreach—not just paying lip service or conducting some superficial meetings—cannot be overemphasized. 

    In Yemen, the initial plan was that the National Dialogue members would conduct field visits to listen to the concerns and gather input from citizens outside the capital, as well as transmitting information about what was happening inside the dialogue to a broader audience. However, this was never fully implemented, both for security, cost, and time issues, and a significant opportunity was lost. Few people outside urban areas had any real knowledge of what was happening in the “Republic of the Movenpick” (dubbed as such for the swank hotel where the dialogue was held), and it was primarily viewed as an elite-dominated exercise that consumed the capital city for a year and a half, but had very little relevance elsewhere. Libya’s advisory group for the dialogue can serve as two-way ambassadors, but that mandate should be clearly defined at the outset. A strategy should be developed for public consultation and communication throughout the dialogue process, and resources should be made available to facilitate that work.

  • Ensure transparency and active communication. The perceived transparency of the process will be just as important in determining success as the actual agreements reached upon conclusion. The value of the dialogue will be felt not only through the buy-in of those sitting around the table, but of the constituencies they represent. Libya’s dialogue could create a unifying national identity and vision for the future, but only if a broad number of people are aware of what is underway and have opportunities to participate. Engaging diverse constituencies will require creativity in Libya’s tense security environment, but effective avenues could include: televising dialogue sessions, social media, radio programming, youth-led outreach, town-hall meetings, street theatre, etc. This will be particularly important in Libya’s fragmented political environment.

    Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference set up an active website, twitter feed, and media outreach strategy. Their leadership gave frequent interviews and comments to the press, which helped the Yemeni public and the international community keep up-to-date in a fluid and highly politicized environment. While valuable, this type of communication only goes so far in a country with extremely low internet usage rates. Yemen needed more active outreach outside Sana’a into various cities and towns around the country by the dialogue members, political parties, and other movements represented. Several NGOs convened town-hall meetings and outreach tents, but survey research demonstrated that even with these efforts, few people had any idea what was actually being discussed.

  • Define a clear decision-making process. In Yemen, a legal framework that set the parameters for the dialogue and empowered the dialogue’s preparatory committee to take decisions contributed significantly to its success. With UN assistance, the preparatory committee labored over drafting elaborate rules and procedures (92 pages in total), which delineated how decisions would be made. The committee had to reach consensus on each and every point, and while this was a painful process at the time, it was effort well-spent and set up a clear process to overcome inevitable impasses.

    Reflecting on her experience, Cathy Shin, former advisor to UN Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar, noted, “While it took time for the preparatory committee to come together, it was guided by its very specific mandate to come out with precise outputs (the size of the delegation, drafting procedure rules, role of international community, and media budget). Each decision was made in a series of discussions based on options, and they did not come to a final decision until consensus was reached. This negotiation was not an easy process, but a genuine one.”

  • Set a timetable, but with flexibility. There is a tenuous balance between the urgency of moving forward versus time needed for consensus. Yemen faced this predicament, and Libya’s precarious security situation necessitates quick action. Yet shortchanging this initial phase would mean rushing to meet artificial deadlines, undercutting the opportunity for consensus-building and undermining the very objective of the exercise.  Libya’s preparatory committee has outlined a three-month timeframe to complete the first phase of the dialogue, which does not seem realistic given what they need to achieve.

    The NDPC should anticipate that the process of selecting the 200-250 members will take longer than initially proposed. In Yemen, the preparatory committee formulated an elaborate allocation of delegates from each of the primary political parties and other formal political movements (such as the Houthis in the north and the Herak in the south), representatives of independent youth, women, and civil society—but making those final decisions took months longer than anticipated. Even if expedited slightly, the time spent helped develop consensus within the preparatory committee. Despite the complex preparations, Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi ultimately had to weigh in on the final selection; since he has enjoys a high level of credibility, his decisions were accepted. Without such a figure in Libya, clearly defining a transparent selection process and ensuring acceptance of its members, could be the difference between success and failure.

    This inherent tension will be ever-present in Libya’s dialogue, but some flexibility must be allowed in the timetable to ensure that sufficient confidence-building measures are incorporated. Manal Omar, Associate Vice President for Middle East and Africa at the US Institute for Peace, noted that “Libya’s decision-making thus far has been dominated by the political necessity of moving quickly, but this has undercut the GNC and other institutions because the mandate or authority (like that of the GNC president) was not clearly defined at the outset, consensus was not reached, and ultimately they had to return to the drawing board.” Rather than setting unreasonable timelines that will necessitate an extension later, Libyans should anticipate and incorporate into their planning the additional time needed for consensus-building and inclusive consultation that will be necessary to reach decisions that will be accepted by key elites, security forces, and the population—a kind of temporal pressure valve.

The first phase in Libya’s dialogue hopes to formally commit the major players to the fundamental idea of a unified, peaceful future for the country—particularly those responsible for destabilizing the political and security environment—including militia forces, separatist groups, and other potential spoilers. As such, the preparatory phase must ensure that the effort has the broadest possible buy-in among various stakeholders throughout the country. In an environment where most Libyans lack trust in the government, the prime minister, and the General National Congress (GNC), this process can serve as a unifying backbone to facilitate necessary compromise and foster some momentum.  If Libya’s powerbrokers and stakeholders can muster the requisite political will and leadership, the National Dialogue could lead the country in the right direction toward a more peaceful, stable, and democratic future.

Danya Greenfield is the acting director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the co-chair of the Yemen Policy Initiative, a joint effort of the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy.

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