While the European spotlight is on Putin’s war in Ukraine, a powder keg threatens to explode a few miles from the Italian coast. Now is the time to deal with Libya. In your interest and ours. The comment of the ambassador Stefano Stefanini.
The countdown has begun in Libya.
On 31 July the mandate of the UN mission (Unsmil) expires, which has earned the country a year and a half of respite and a hint of a return to economic-commercial normality.
The UN gave hope but failed to untie the knot of political division. The exit of the United Nations will leave a vacuum of international initiative that Russia, Turkey and others – who have never left – will rush to fill. The UN was trying, with the strength of diplomacy and persuasion, to lead Libya on the path of national reconciliation and peace.
The conflict of interests between Moscow and Ankara, no longer harnessed, leads in the opposite direction of the proxy war actively encouraged by the presence on the ground, especially of the Russian mercenaries of Wagner.
What happens in Libya?
As long as there is no war, it makes little news, unlike what unfortunately happens elsewhere. The landings are hidden. The gas arrives bringing its small brick (4%) to our energy needs. Since it was enough to reassure us, on the political side, Italy had settled into full support for the UN special representative, Stephanie Williams .
It wasn’t a wrinkle as long as the process was on track. Peaceful sleep and a clear conscience on this side of the Strait of Sicily. The derailment began in December when the elections that represented a key step could not be held. The UN control room has gradually failed. Libyan actors resumed acting off the cuff – arguing and trying to get their shoes off. National reconciliation remained in the starting blocks. Deadlines for both Unsmil and Williams are approaching. There are no international B plans.
In recent months, an (almost) war-free Libya has returned to openly divide itself. It had never been united but for a short time it had shown itself to be united with the interim government of Abdul Habib Dbeibeh . Too bad Dbeibeh doesn’t hear about transience. He wants to run for elections that are not held, on the strength of populist donations with a large hand. Meanwhile, he is holding power in Tripoli.
From Tobruk, Fathi Bashaga , on the basis of a dubious majority of parliamentary votes, proclaims himself Prime Minister and gives life to a parallel government, not recognized by the United Nations, theoretically the arbiter of the transition practically earthenware vessel between iron vessels. Only Russia recognizes the Bashaga government. The Russians remained firmly planted in Libya, with the loyal Wagner mercenaries just being thinned out because they were called to lend a hand to Mariupol and the surrounding area. Russia, Turkey, Egypt and others are not letting go of the stakes planted with weapons on Libyan soil.
There is no war but it has just been avoided to a certain extent. A couple of weeks ago, Bashaga had attempted the coup. He had arrived in Tripoli overnight, with a handful of ministers in tow, to reclaim power. The stealth entry would not have been much of a takeover of the new national unity government. But Dbeibeh did not step aside. The various militias in the capital were on the alert. Welcomed by gunfire rather than fireworks, Bashaga had the sense to hurry off. Not too far though. He is quartered in Sirte. That is, he remained in Tripolitania from where, better than from Tobruk, he tries to credit his government as a national expression, not just Cyrenaica, disputing that of Dbeibeh.
Legitimacy is fragile for both.
The reality is the tug of war between the Tripoli-Misurata axis, which squares on Dbeibeh, to those of the Cyrenaic Benghazi-Tobruk axis. The latter continues to report to the alleged strongman of Benghazi, Khalifa Haftar . Bashaga, from Misrata, should have been the unifying figure in the reconciliation process. Instead, it was co-opted by Haftar.
The latter had tried to take Tripoli with arms, Bashaga with politics. Both failed. They have thus returned to the starting point. With the complicity of their respective international sponsors, Turkey on the side of Tripoli, Russia and Egypt on that of Haftar. It is above all the Russians who blow the fire because they have more to lose from the reconstitution of a Libyan national envelope. Turks, Egyptians and other actors (Emiratis, Qataris, Algerians, French) are more willing to sit in a political-diplomatic bazaar.
Little is said about Libya.
The European Council has just concluded with its eyes spasmodically focused on Ukraine, on the grain that does not leave the Odessa silos, on Viktor Orban who is making headlines out of friendship with Vladimir Putin , on the Russian machine of destruction advancing in Donbas. Rightly. But forgetting Libya is a luxury that Italy cannot afford. Both because of the intensity of relations between the two countries, which leads the Libyans to look to Italy as a European side and privileged interlocutor, and because instability in Tripoli and Benghazi means headaches for Rome.
A rift in Libya between two governments, even if without going back to civil war, must worry us about security, energy supplies and geopolitics. Do we want Russian bases a hundred miles from Sigonella these days? On the immigration front, what to expect when Russian and Ukrainian wheat will not arrive in Libya, as in the rest of North Africa? Time to think about it.
Italy cannot continue to hide behind the United Nations – the UN has tried, it has done its best but has failed in its final objective; the EU is on the run; the American cavalry will only arrive if there is to be counter-terrorism, and only for that.
The only political way out is a negotiation to arrive at a single Libyan executive with power-sharing formulas. It is up to Italy to take the initiative. Not unreasonably, bringing the Libyans to the table, seeking synergy with Paris, pulling Europe with him. But someone has to push in the right direction. In the Libyan interest and in ours.