New UN Libya envoy known for mediation skills and contact with tribes

Stephanie Turco Williams was appointed this week by UN until permanent envoy is chosen

The Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Political Affairs in Libya, United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Williams gives a press statement at the end of a follow-up meeting on Libya, on the sidelines of the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 16, 2020. / AFP / Thomas KIENZLE

Those who know Stephanie Turco Williams, the new acting UN envoy for Libya, describe a seasoned diplomat and creative thinker with a deep first-hand knowledge of the Libyan conflict.

But Ms Williams will face “herculean” challenges in mediating the issues derailing peace in the country.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced this week that she would take the role of acting envoy after her stint as a deputy for former envoy Ghassan Salame since 2018.

Mr Salame quit his position last week for political and health reasons and Ms Williams will fill the interim role until a permanent replacement is agreed to.

She brings diplomatic and regional influence to the position.

Ms Williams is a fluent Arabic speaker with nearly 25 years’ experience across the Mena region, having worked for the US government and the UN in Libya, Iraq, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former US official who worked on Libya, had high praise for the appointment.

"Ms Williams is a creative thinker and has demonstrated her diplomatic skills in many tricky assignments across the region, including in Bahrain in 2011," Mr Fishman told The National.

Mr Fishman worked directly with the new envoy in 2013 when she was deputy ambassador in Jordan.

On Libya, he highlights her success in earning the confidence of different sides in the conflict since she was deputy in 2018.

"She's a real professional diplomat, who worked with all sides in Libya, and spent time in the east with tribal communities," Mr Fishman said.

When asked about her biggest challenge in the new assignment, he said it will be the same as her predecessor faced.

“It is in getting the Security Council and the various viewpoints united around a real ceasefire and peace plan,” Mr Fishman said.

Ms Williams oversaw the Tripoli security talks in 2018 and was heavily involved in the Libyan economic track negotiations, which culminated in the Berlin talks last month.

She said recently that the UN arms embargo has become “a joke", and that "we all really need to step up here".

Ms Williams said Libya was “awash with weaponry” and she advocated more effort at curbing outside interference.

Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group, saw the appointment as a signal for the mission’s continuity and a push for more negotiations.

It is a "display of trust by the Secretary General towards the negotiation tracks that Ms Williams and Mr Salame proposed in early 2020", Ms Gazzini told The National.

But there are “herculean” challenges ahead, she said.

Initial hurdles will include restoring confidence among the Libyans in the UN-backed political negotiations and keeping all international actors in the conflict on board.

But other challenges will come from within Libya, said Khadeja Ramali, a Libyan researcher and author of the newsletter Exploring Libya Online.

Ms Ramali said recent Libyan media coverage accused Ms Williams of planning to move the Government of National Accord outside Tripoli.

There was no evidence that she made such claims.

“One of the first challenges she will face will be scrutiny over alleged comments and overcoming those to gain the trust of the Libyans,” Ms Ramali said.

Former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra is being considered for the permanent UN envoy to Libya, diplomatic sources told AFP.

But it is unclear if there is consensus around Mr Lamamra’s appointment, or if any permanent envoy will be given the post any time soon.