For Women’s History Month, MEPC is highlighting the outstanding contributions of women on our staff and in the diplomatic world. Ambassador Wafa Bughaighis became the first woman ambassador of Libya to the United States in November 2017. She previously led a distinguished career in the energy sector and held posts in Libya’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. MEPC Executive Director Bassima Alghussein interviewed Ambassador Bughaighis virtually, discussing women’s history in Libya, priorities for US-Libya relations, and the ambassador’s career.
- How did you become involved with diplomacy? What inspired you to become a diplomat?
First of all, I would like to congratulate women all over the world on the occasion of Women’s History Month and recognize the many accomplishments of women worldwide. My original career was in engineering. I studied chemical engineering in the United States and worked in the oil industry in Libya for almost sixteen years.
After the revolution, we had a call of duty to respond and take on new responsibilities as deemed needed. I became the Director of the International Collaboration Bureau in the Ministry of Education in the first executive government after the revolution, where my focus was on restarting schools and engaging with the international community to help us facilitate suitable conditions and environment for displaced families, among other activities. We had high aspirations to rebuild the educational sector at that time. In 2013, I was called by the Foreign Ministry and appointed Undersecretary for Political Affairs. That is where my journey in diplomacy started. After that I was assigned to work in Washington as chargé d’affaires and subsequently appointed as ambassador in November 2017.
- Even before serving as a diplomat, you were breaking barriers in the male-dominated field of engineering. Do you have any advice for women in foreign affairs?
The advice I would give to women entering this field is to believe in yourself and your potential. You must be confident and have a vision that guides you in the pursuit of your goals. Consider the compromises you might have to make and the extra mile that you may need to go. It takes hard work and tenacity. Be prepared for these challenges and keep moving forward towards your goals.
- Is there an accomplishment that you are most proud of?
Maintaining unity at the embassy during a time of great polarization and war in Libya was a major accomplishment, because the division had affected almost every institute and part of Libyan society. This unity in the embassy allowed us to continue our work in a professional manner toward advocating with the US government on support to end the war and encourage the UN peace process. The recent news of the Government of National Unity is an outstanding accomplishment for Libya.
- Can you tell us more about the Government of National Unity?
It followed many months of negotiations between Libyans under the auspices of the United Nations. The latest success was in February 2021 when an agreement was reached to select the Government of National Unity. This is so important for Libya and will set us on a trajectory to lasting stability and peace. The new government has priorities, challenges, and opportunities. Most notably, five women were appointed, including the first woman foreign minister. It signals a path to inclusivity and equity. This is good news for Libyan society, as women constitute half of the population and are paramount to peace building, reconciliation, and conflict resolution.
- Could you tell us more about your work with the UN-backed Commission to Support Women’s Participation in Decision Making after the revolution?
This movement was started in July 2011 after the uprising. Women were the backbone of the revolution, supporting the uprising that ended forty years of dictatorship. However, when the dust settled women were brushed aside, in spite of their important role. Women had participated in every single aspect of the revolution: forming NGOs to care for the vulnerable, advocating for the revolution in the media, participating in the first political body, leading demonstrations, and serving as doctors and nurses tending the wounded. Yet, there were no women in the formation of the initial government.
After that, we started gathering together and having discussions. A resulting initiative was a commission to lead campaigns all over Eastern Libya (the liberated part) that educated women about their political rights, including participating in leadership, voting in elections, and running for parliament. Following the liberation of Tripoli in October 2011, we expanded and strived to be inclusive of women throughout the country. This work played a central role in women’s mass participation in the 2012 elections. I am proud to say that we did not only work on educating women, but also educating men on women’s right to participate in political decision making. We noted that after participating in many international events that often there were only women in the room. It is important for men to support women’s right as well. This was the recipe for our success.
- Are there other historical Libyan women leaders who inspire you?
I am proud of the contributions of women throughout Libyan history. In the modern era, after Libya became independent in 1951, there were women pioneers who led progressive action by promoting education and creating feminist NGOs. In 1963, they began a campaign for women’s rights and led demonstrations. I would like to specifically name Hamida al-Enezi, a leader in this effort. Through her work women secured the right to vote in 1964, attended sessions of parliament, and became involved in multiple sectors of the government. The history of feminism and women’s movements in Libya serves as an inspiration today.
- What is one fact Americans should know about Libya?
Libya has the longest coastline on the Mediterranean (1770 km). It is a beautiful and important North African country with lovely beaches, ancient archeological sites, and a desert with many tourist attractions. Its progress to stability will reflect positively on the entire Mediterranean region and in the near future, Libya should be on the itineraries of tourists and businessmen.
- In what areas are there opportunities to promote increased cooperation between the United States and Libya?
We look to the United States as a credible partner that has supported us during the formation of the Government of the National Unity, by supporting the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, and diplomatic efforts with countries that were fueling war in Libya through proxies. US diplomacy played a major role in ending the conflict and helped us to be where we are today.
Priorities for cooperation with the United States are two-fold: the economy and security. Technical assistance is being sent to support the goal of elections before the end of the year. There are a range of other issues that constitute challenges. Libya is a country with rich resources, but conflict has deteriorated the economy and financial security. One of the areas we would like support from the United States is on reforming financial policy. The other major issues are revitalizing the energy sector, electricity in particular, and confronting and fighting Covid-19. We are struggling to secure vaccines and rebuild medical infrastructure. Medical and PPE supplies are needed.
In terms of security, we hope that the United States will continue its support by exerting diplomatic pressure on countries intervening negatively in Libya to leave Libyans alone for their pursuit of self-determination. We are calling for all mercenaries in Libya to depart. US diplomacy and leadership is crucial to persuade countries that have forces and mercenaries in Libya to depart. I must also mention counterterrorism, which is one area where we have a successful partnership.
- How do you expect the Biden administration to impact US-Libya relations?
I believe that the Biden administration will enhance engagement, positively impacting our relations. Hopefully, the administration will consider Libya among its foreign policy priorities in terms of Mediterranean regional security, as Libya has a long coastline on the southern flanks of Europe and NATO bases. To that end, we are already seeing strong statements and messages by high-ranking US officials expressing support to the Libyan political road map that led to the creation of the Government of National Unity, which will hopefully lead the country to national elections by the end of the year. Increased US cooperation with its allies and a return to multilateralism are also positive signs. Thankfully, continuous diplomatic engagement does not entail any use of military force.
- What opportunities are there for greater commercial partnerships between American and Libyan companies?
Commercial partnerships are essential for Libya’s short and long-term stability and security. We need to enhance and diversify the economy, create jobs, and generate more revenue. Libya is rich with natural resources where there can be great investment, foremost the oil and gas industries. There is also great potential for wind and solar renewable energy investment. Prime Minister Dabaiba is committed to making Libya an attractive destination for foreign investment, reforming policies, and diversifying the economy.
There are also tremendous opportunities for commercial ties in education, health, technology, and communications. The portfolio for investment is expansive and I hope to see partnerships with more American companies in the very near future. Some companies are already present, with several having invested in the oil sector since its discovery in late 1950s.