On 26 August violent clashes broke out in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Sixty-one Libyans were killed and 159 injured, many of them civilians, including children. It was the battle that many had been expecting since 2017 when a militia cartel emerged in the city, exerting control over state institutions and economic and strategic assets such as the Libyan Central Bank and the international airport. The series of security arrangements that the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) had had to negotiate with four main militias in Tripoli in order to be able to operate in the capital initially offered it some protection. Yet these arrangements quickly gave way to a system that allowed these armed groups the near-exclusive ability to capture state resources. It did not come as a surprise when armed groups excluded from this cartel attacked the capital.
The rise of the Tripoli cartel was both aided and affected by the weakness of the governing institutions created or prolonged by the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in 2015. The LPA, a power sharing agreement that was produced after a year-long UN-led mediation process, created a new governing structure for Libya but did not solve the conflict.The Presidency Council and the GNA, both products of the LPA, have their authority challenged in the east and the south of the country, and have appeared (in more than one instance) hostage to the demands of militias in Tripoli, rather than in control of them. Intimidation and kidnapping of ministers and officials working for state institutions and state-owned companies were used by the militias in Tripoli to obtain contracts, favors and cash, together with the extortions of letters of credit from bank officials. Meanwhile the House of Representatives and the High State Council – legislative and advisory bodies respectively that form part of the LPA governing structure – proved unable to unlock the political stalemate by agreeing on amendments to the LPA meant to reinvigorate the transitional phase and reconfigure the institutional framework. Necessary laws to organise a constitutional referendum and the elections have stalled for more than a year and are yet to be issued.
Against this background, the Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Ghassan Salamé, negotiated a fragile ceasefire in Tripoli on 4 September. In a briefing to the UN Security Council, Salamé outlined his priorities for Libya: new security arrangements in the capital, economic reforms, and unlocking the institutional stalemate. In his speech he stated, “The Libyan public has made a clear decision on how this change should come to pass – peacefully and democratically through elections. This was widely reflected during the National Conference consultations.”
Heavily publicized in the Libyan media, though perhaps less covered in the international press, the National Conference Process (NCP) was a series of public consultations conducted between April and July 2018 as part of Salamé’s Action Plan. Run by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue under Salamé’s mandate, the NCP’s bottom-up approach provided a platform for people at all levels of society to engage in the political process and discuss solutions to the Libya crisis. Ultimately, the NCP aimed to find agreement around a grassroots agenda for Libya, focusing on priorities for the national government, security and defense, governance and the transition.
More than 70 meetings were convened in 43 locations across Libya (as well as with diaspora groups outside the country), even reaching remote areas in the far south and isolated former regime strongholds like Bani Walid and Sirte. More than 6,000 Libyans participated overall, with particular efforts made to engage women, internally displaced persons, and youth. The same was true for ethnic minorities: for example, Amazigh communities were targeted through events in Zwara, Yifrin, Jadu, and Ghadames. Each meeting was organized and facilitated by local actors and institutions such as municipalities, community leaders, student unions, universities, civil society organisations, local security and military figures. These public consultations usually brought together key decision and opinion-makers in their communities, as well as members of the public. A significant number of citizens (more than 1,500) actively participated online, through a web platform designed to engage people who were unable – or felt uncomfortable – to participate in person. More broadly, the online campaign received the attention of 131,000 Facebook users and 1,400 Twitter followers.
Although the results are still being compiled, Salamé has highlighted one important line of consensus relevant to the transition that has emerged from the NCP: a broad agreement across Libya around the need for new elections. As suggested in Salamé’s speech, it should not come as a surprise that Libyans want change in their political leadership and see the elections as a means to that end. However, most of what was discussed during the NCP touches on more fundamental issues: the need to end Libya’s extreme centralisation and give more power to local municipalities; the wish for a real discussion around the distribution of resources; and the need to protect the core national institutions (such as the National Oil Corporation that was the target of a recent terrorist attack) that tie Libya’s often disparate parts together.
Few Libyans seem to be under the illusion that elections or even the Constitution will solve their problems. Neither, for example, would address the problem of the militia cartel in Tripoli or Libya’s hyper-centralisation that has allowed this cartel to profit so much. Whilst most focus in the international community is on the short term problems in Tripoli, or immediate political issues such as how to hold elections, a more fundamental and structural conversation is needed. The NCP has started this conversation, and allowed the Libyan people to contribute to its results. Libyan authorities, and the international community, which plays such an oversized role in the country, would do well to listen to them.
 Reports of every meeting are available on a dedicated website in their original form and can be accessed athttp://multaqawatani.ly.