by Leonardo Brembilla
Until a few months ago, nobody would have believed it possible: yet yesterday a peaceful and smooth transfer of power took place in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the outgoing Government of National Accord (GNA), formed in 2015 after the signing of the Skhirat Agreement, transferred power to the new Government of National Unity (GUN) led by Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah. The new government had been endorsed by the House of Representatives only a few days before.
The ceremony marked a historic breakthrough in the complex Libyan scenario and represented a consequence of the rapid evolution of the situation on the ground over the past months. In 2015, Libya was split in two: on one side Tripolitania, under the control of the GNA, recognized by the UN and the international community; on the other side Cyrenaica, governed by the House of Representatives, based in Tobruk, and under the military control of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
In 2019, the tension between the two rival administrations turned into open conflict when Haftar decided to attack Tripolitania. Haftar’s forces quickly reached the outskirts of Tripoli, but the intervention of the Turkish military in support of the GNA forced the LNA to retreat to the city of Sirte in central Libya. The stalemate that followed allowed Special Representative of the UN for Libya, Stephanie Williams, to negotiate a ceasefire that was signed last October in Geneve.
The ceasefire allowed the UN to bring the parties to the negotiating table, creating the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). In February, the members of the LPDF elected Mohammed Ahmed al-Manfi President of the Presidency Council and Abdelhamid Dbeibah head of the Government of National Unity. The government was then endorsed by the House of Representatives, becoming the first unified government in Libya in more than 6 years. The new government, whose main goal will be to lead the country to the presidential election that will take place next December 24, faces a very complicated situation.
On the occasion of the handover ceremony, the Istituto Affari Internazionali, an Italian think tank based in Rome, organized a meeting with Ambassador Pasquale Ferrara, Special Envoy of the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Libya. Ferrara talked about what he said was “an unexpected development until a few days ago”. He highlighted the importance of finally having, after a long time, a government legitimized by parliamentary vote. “This represents a change of gear in the extremely difficult Libyan transition” said Ferrara. “We went from a widespread belief that only a military intervention could resolve the situation to a new centrality of dialogue and diplomacy”.
The turning point was the ceasefire, that made it clear to everyone that the solution to the stalemate could not be brought about by force and allowed Stephanie Williams to build an inclusive dialogue that involved not only the parties in conflict but also members of civil society, youth and women included. The Dbeibah government is an interim government, but it still bears great responsibilities, as it will have to face significative challenges in only seven months: it will have to lead the country to the presidential election, complete the implementation of the ceasefire and facilitate its monitoring by the UN, and finally ensure the population has access to basic public services such as electric energy.
The main challenge lies however in the need for a process of reunification of national institutions, in order to allow the country to regain full sovereignty. Only a strong central government, argued Ferrara, can free Libya from the presence of foreign military forces and start what he called a “new decolonization”.
Italy can do much for Libya: on the one hand, through economic cooperation and assistance to those institution, such as municipalities, that are closer to the needs of the population; on the other hand, contributing to the necessary state building effort, that include building up the ability to carry out an effective border control.
In this respect, “we have the right instruments”, said Ferrara, referring to European missions Irini and EUBAM. Both missions, that see a significative Italian involvement, could operate in the interest of all parties: from the European Union, that aims at playing a more incisive geopolitical role, to neighboring countries such as Algeria, worried about the porosity of the frontier. However, at the center of the Italian action, concluded Ferrara, there must be the interest of the Libyan people, that have not known peace for years but finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.