Fifteen years ago, Libya’s former ruler, Muammar Qaddafi, addressed a virtual conference organised by Columbia University in New York, in which he claimed that his government had created the freest country on the planet. Libyans and the rest of the world saw things very differently.
In 2011, the country’s citizens began the slow and traumatic process of turning Qaddafi’s far-fetched Columbia statement into reality. But despite the noble intentions of the nation’s uprising, it has been beset by tragedy. A subsequent civil war has created almost 270,000 internally displaced people and destroyed much of the country’s weakened infrastructure.
Recent months, however, have been the most optimistic in years. In March, the country’s Parliament formed a unity Cabinet, the Government of National Unity, headed by prime minister-designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, ten years after the uprising began. This December, it hopes to hold its first elections since 2014.
Maintaining a UN-brokered ceasefire will keep the vote on track. So will the help of its allies. This week, the UAE reaffirmed its support for the fledgling government. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, received Mohamed Al Menfi, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, a body that currently fulfills the duties of a head of state. Also in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, received Libyan Foreign Minister Najla El Mangoush for meetings to discuss boosting ties. Sheikh Mohamed “emphasised the readiness of the UAE to provide all forms of support and co-operation to overcome existing challenges”, according to the state news agency Wam. This support is much needed.
The agreement on the Presidential Council of Libya is setting the stage for a stable political process that can help the country to transition Libya out of conflict. But after the trauma of the past decade, the journey is still a perilous one.
The country has been wracked by civil war, with foreign powers intervening at various stages. A stalemate ensued after months of fighting and criminals – from people smugglers to terrorists – spotted a new territory in which to base their operations. Libya became a major and particularly dangerous transit point in the journey of migrants and refugees to the EU. Some ISIS fighters, on the back foot in their original strongholds in Iraq and Syria, regrouped in the failing state.
But as the months progress, there is mounting hope that, at the beginning of a new decade, Libya can make the transition out of the chaos of previous years. The new and relatively low-profile Cabinet is pioneering a political process that is starting to extricate the country from the grip of the warring sides, militias and political actors pursuing narrow interests.
The main threat to the new government’s vitality is the risk of it becoming irrelevant. Support from leading regional allies shows that it is anything but insignificant, allowing it to keep the dream of a freer Libya alive.