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León: The Professional

Meet the man behind Libya’s peace deal. But did he become entangled in the same networks of money and power that have plagued this war-torn country?


BEIRUT — In the beachside Moroccan city of Skhirat on Dec. 17, roughly two dozen Libyan political leaders crowded onto a stage, raising their clasped hands above their heads in a gesture of unity and triumph. They had achieved, they hoped, a diplomatic breakthrough: These men and women had signed a power-sharing agreement designed to bring an end to the chaos that has gripped their country for the past five years.

But amid the Arab diplomats, U.N. mediators, and Libyan officials gathered in Morocco, one man was missing: Bernardino León, the former U.N. special representative for Libya, who had served as the architect of the agreement signed in Morocco. After countless hours browbeating both sides to accept its terms, even handpicking many members of the new national unity government that will now try to assert its authority in Tripoli, he had stepped down after his mandate expired in November.

León’s critics accuse him of having become entangled in the same networks of money and power from which he was supposed to extricate Libya. In his last month in office, it emerged that he had accepted a lucrative job to head the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) Diplomatic Academy, while mediating a conflict in which the UAE is a key supporter of one faction.

U.N. officials defended León against charges of wrongdoing, even while acknowledging privately that the episode had hurt the world body’s credibility. Watching the events in Morocco play out from afar, the former Spanish diplomat saw a validation in his role as an honest broker in the fact that both sides had consummated a deal that he had drawn up.

“There is a saying in Spanish: ‘Proving that you are an honest person is the most difficult thing in life,’” he said. “But my question was to everyone: Where is the biased element of the agreement? Where it’s not working? And then let us address that point.”

Libya occupies a strange place in the public imagination. Events there are often used as political ammunition: Republicans have used the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi to accuse then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of negligence or worse, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized on the chaos there as evidence of the folly of overthrowing autocrats elsewhere, such as his Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad. The symptoms of Libya’s collapse — from the Islamic State’s nightmarish rule in the city of Sirte, which has featured crucifixions and public beheadings, to the more than 200,000 refugees who have set out from there on the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe over the past two years — are also rocking the global order.

But for all of Libya’s importance, the actual political dynamics between the country’s two rival governments — one in the west, one in the east — have received scant international coverage. Even the power-sharing deal signed last week was a decidedly second-tier news event. Nevertheless, the agreement has the possibility to ameliorate — or exacerbate, its opponents would say — some of the problems that are at the top of the international agenda in the Middle East.

The agreement was signed by what León called a “coalition of moderates” within both of the country’s two rival parliaments. Those legislatures are the General National Congress (GNC), which is supported by a militia alliance known as Libya Dawn and is based in the capital city of Tripoli, and the House of Representatives, which draws support from a military effort known as Operation Dignity and is based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The Dawn bloc includes the Muslim Brotherhood’s Libyan affiliate, while Dignity incorporates military-supported secularists such as Khalifa Haftar, a general and former Qaddafi confidant who has launched a sweeping campaign against Islamist groups. Majorities in both parliaments seem to support the U.N.-brokered deal, but neither body has officially endorsed it, as both are headed by hard-liners who have scuttled parliamentary approval.

The new agreement forms a unity government drawn from both camps, which León hopes can establish its authority in Tripoli and present itself as a unifying body that both sides can agree to work under to re-establish security and rebuild the country’s neglected institutions. He uses a metaphor of building a shared home where both sides can resolve their differences.

“Let’s try to get something that will be a small hut; it’s not going to be a big house,” he said. “And this place, [both sides] can go there to solve Libya’s issues. But I don’t think building the perfect house, where all of them go — this is not possible today.”

Critics of the agreement, however, fear that its inability to bring more Libyans on board has already consigned it to irrelevancy. Important groups have yet to endorse the deal — not only hard-liners, but some tribal groups and local councils have yet to be won over. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an organization whose entire raison d’être has been to support negotiated solutions to global conflicts, has come out strongly against the deal, warning that the new unity government will likely add a third power center to the mix rather than replacing the other two — further complicating an already incredibly complex conflict.

“[T]here are risks associated with a precipitous rush to anoint a government without consolidating domestic support,” reads the ICG’s harshly worded statement, which goes on to warn that such a unity government “is likely to be stillborn if prematurely recognised.”

For León, such criticisms miss the point. U.N. mediators had tried for months to broaden the base of support for the unity government; he had led negotiations that collapsed in October on just this issue. Two months later, with diplomats still unable to win others over to their cause, they were faced with the choice of forging ahead or allowing the country to continue its spiral into chaos.

“In Libya, you can solve 60 percent or 70 percent of the problems. If you do this, it’s huge progress,” he said. “And solving 100 percent is impossible. So ICG and others are right: This is not solving all the problems, but is that really an option? I don’t think so.”

Ironically, León’s new job presented yet another obstacle to a long-term agreement. Leaked emails in November revealed that the U.N. envoy was in the process of being hired to a more than $50,000-per-month position as head of the UAE’s new Emirates Diplomatic Academy, which is charged with professionalizing the country’s diplomatic corps, even as the negotiations over a Libyan power-sharing agreement dragged on. The UAE is one of the key supporters of the Dignity bloc, even reportedly shipping arms to its Libyan allies in defiance of a U.N. Security Council-endorsed arms embargo there.

The revelation has undermined some Libyans’ confidence that León was a neutral arbitrator. The GNC demanded an explanation from the United Nations, while the head of the Islamist-backed body said the timing of the appointment “represents a disregard for the Libyan people’s blood.” Mohamed ElJarh, a Libyan writer and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, said that he believes current U.N. envoy Martin Kobler and the international community worked so hard to quickly push through the agreement in Skhirat in order not to allow those opposed to the deal to exploit the controversy.

“It has given the hard-liners in the GNC the perfect excuse to request that the whole political agreement is reconsidered, given that the leaks seemed to show that León favored one side over the other,” ElJarh said.

León, for his part, maintains that he kept the senior U.N. leadership fully informed about his job talks, and he points to the fact that his mandate was extended several times as proof that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had faith in his objectivity.

“The story was used in a moment that was critical for Libya and created a bad appearance,” León said. “And it was very easy for this story to move at a very high speed, while the truth — and we are seeing today an agreement that has survived from when I left — this will require much more time.”

León also discounts some reports of foreign meddling in Libya. The New York Times published leaked emails indicating that the UAE was shipping weapons to its allies in Libya at least through August — including one email in which a senior Emirati diplomat warned bluntly: “The fact of the matter is that the U.A.E. violated the U.N. Security Council Resolution on Libya [prohibiting arms shipments] and continues to do so.” UAE officials declined to comment on the story to the New York Times. 

León said, however, that he has received personal assurances from Emirati officials that they were not shipping arms, and he said he remains confident that the UAE’s sole commitment was to a diplomatic solution in Libya.

“I don’t think that the UAE is interested in war or conflict in Libya,” León said. “If not, I would not go there. It couldn’t work.”

Whether or not the UAE is keeping the military option open, it has publicly expressed support for the agreement signed in Morocco. And the UAE has been joined by all the other key regional players in the conflict — Egypt, which also supports the Dignity alliance, and Qatar and Turkey, the backers of the Dawn bloc. The former U.N. envoy sees hope for a broad regional rapprochement in this fact: If rivals such as the UAE and Qatar, Egypt and Turkey, and the United States and Russia can agree on a power-sharing agreement, there just might be a chance that they can collaborate on resolving the Middle East’s other burning conflicts.

“The most difficult part of the process has not been the Libyans; it has been the outside actors,” León said. “They know that by supporting the agreement today, that this is a precedent. And what will come all over the region.”

It’s not hard to see what he means. The Egyptian government has staunchly resisted integrating the Muslim Brotherhood into the domestic political scene in Cairo. Is that stance undermined if President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acquiesces to a power-sharing deal with Islamists next door in Tripoli? Turkey and Qatar have battled accusations that they are in league with dangerous jihadis. Could their willingness to join forces with secularist foes in Libya suggest the possibility of working with elements of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria?

León hopes that the answers to those questions are pursued. For now, though, he’s waiting to see whether the fragile agreement reached last week holds together.

“The option is Somalia, or this,” he said, pointing to the rampant warlordism and fragmentation of the East African country. “It’s simply the acceptance that there is no alternative — and this is good news.”


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