Eighty members of the Libyan House of Representatives (LHOR) — more than half of the total of Libyan MPs who have not met in full for well over a year — gathered in Cairo this week, at the invitation of the Egyptian authorities, to discuss ways to resolve the crisis in Libya.
A statement issued on Monday, at the end of three days of meetings attended by Egyptian officials, underlined the central role of the LHOR in determining how to defuse the situation in Libyan and construct a national unity government that could act to usher in a civil, democratic state.
“It makes perfect sense for the LHOR to lead any political process that aims to bring reconciliation, peace and stability to the country. After all, it is the only elected body and cannot be overlooked by regional or international players,” said Aisha Youssef, a member of the LHOR who took part in the Cairo meetings.
Youssef is convinced the “unfortunate failure of all attempts to conclude a political agreement” is a result of “a failure to duly include the LHOR”.
Youssef said the Cairo meetings would return attention to the role of the LHOR and “help the members present in Cairo consider the options for the future of Libya in view of the ongoing political fragmentation and lack of safety and security in many parts of the country”.
According to Youssef, Khalifa Haftar, “the leader of the national army should be at the centre of any proposed deal for Libya given his role in the war against militant militias.”
Youssef, the representative of a city in the east Libya that falls in the area under the rule of Haftar, did not hide her opposition, shared with most of those present in Cairo, for the internationally recognised coalition government led by Fayez Al-Sarraj.
The Cairo meeting convened a little over a week after a military operation led by Haftar to take control of Tripoli suffered a major setback and against the backdrop of international outrage over a military attack on a refugee camp that left over 70 dead. No group in Libya has claimed responsibility for the attack. Instead they have exchanged accusations of who was behind the assault.
The blame game has extended to regional and international capitals which support either Haftar or Al-Sarraj. Tellingly, the UN Security Council has failed to adopt a resolution condemning the deadly attack.
Youssef is convinced the setback Haftar has suffered “is only temporary”.
“I am sure that he will pick up,” she said.
Youssef spoke on Saturday, a day after the Libyan National Army (LNA) announced plans to retake the territory it has lost south of Tripoli, and urged “regional and international support” to help Haftar “move forward”.
Cairo is clear about its support for the LNA’s head Haftar whose forces were essentially assembled under the supervision of Egypt over a three-year period.
On Sunday, during a visit to the Military Academy in Heliopolis, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that Egypt remains firmly committed to supporting the LNA in its fight against terrorism.
Egypt has a more than 1,000km border with Libya and has significant concerns over its porous nature and the infiltration of militants and arms. The consolidation of the LNA under Haftar has helped reduce the infiltration of “terrorists and terror resources”, say Egyptian officials.
Egypt, according to the same sources, remains supportive of Haftar and of a firm on the ground approach to eliminating terror militias.
“Fixing the crisis in Libya will take years,” said one Egyptian official. “We believe that the choice of how to fix the problem, and who should fix it, must be made by elected representatives of the Libyan people. This was the rationale behind the Cairo meetings of Libyan parliamentarians.”
Ziad Akl, an expert on Libya at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says that by hosting the three-day meeting for so many members of the LHOR, Cairo has established itself as a key player in the political process in Libya and sent a clear message to other regional players, most notably Tunisia and Algeria, that they cannot overlook Egypt’s positions.
Both Tunisia and Algeria are less supportive of Haftar and less apprehensive of Al-Sarraj than Egypt.
The Cairo meetings, Akl adds, were about supporting Haftar.
“We are talking about a group of parliamentarians who generally back Haftar, who met in Cairo while Haftar is remains in control of a considerable portion of Libyan territory.”
It would be wrong, Akl insists, to read the Cairo meetings as suggesting that Cairo will discontinue its role in consolidating the NLA or of a growing realisation in Egypt that Haftar is a losing proposition.
Claudia Gazzini, Libya expert at the International Crisis Group, agrees that despite any frustration Haftar’s regional and international supporters feel towards the Tripoli debacle it is wrong to assume they are ready to ditch him or agree collectively on a replacement.
Haftar, Gazzini argues, remains firmly on board, and the Cairo meetings were specifically designed to create a political and legislative setting which marginalises Haftar’s opponents, particularly the government of Al-Sarraj.
She cautions, however, that it is too early to determine what will eventually come of a meeting that did not bring together all the members of the LHOR.
Concerned Egyptian officials say this week’s meeting is a first and Cairo plans to continue working with the LHOR with the aim of consolidating cooperation among Libya’s elected parliamentarians and to eventually bring more on board.
On Tuesday, a day after the meeting came to a close, the governments of Egypt, France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the US called for an immediate de-escalation and a hold to the current fighting and urged the prompt return to the UN-mediated political crisis. “There can be no military solution in Libya,” the statement said. However, “we note our deep concerns about the ongoing attempts by terrorist groups to exploit the security vacuum in the country.” The statement said the signatory countries fully supported the leadership of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ghassan Salamé as he works to stabilise the situation in Tripoli and promote inclusive dialogue.