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Egypt's Libya strategy running into snags, says official

Egypt has formulated an approach to the complex crisis unfolding in its westerly neighbour, but must rally local and international support for its ideas, says Egypt's foreign ministry point man on Libya

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 28 Sep 2014
Salloum land port gate
Egyptians cross from Libya to Egypt through the Salloum land port gate on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011 (Photo: AP)
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Ambassador Mohammad Badr Al-Din Zayed, assistant foreign minister for neighbouring countries’ affairs, is the top Egyptian official dealing with Libya. I met him in his office in the ministry, following his return from Libya.

During our conversation, the ambassador explained that four conferences were held on Libya. The first was a preparatory meeting, held on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Algeria. The second was a coordinating meeting held in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, on the sidelines of the African Summit. Then countries neighbouring Libya held a meeting in Hammamet town in Tunisia.

In the latter meeting, two things were decided. One was to form a security working team, with Algeria acting as coordinator. The other was to form a political working team, Egypt as coordinator.

Then a meeting was held in Cairo on 25 August. At the meeting, Egypt proposed a major strategy for Libya, which was adopted and developed into an initiative by Libya’s neighbouring countries.

This initiative was submitted to the UN Security Council and concerned international organisations. To this day, Zayed told me, this remains the only international initiative formulated on Libya.

“So far, there is no initiative but that of the neighbouring countries. The new UN envoy, Bernardino Leon, spoke about ideas, but not a comprehensive vision. He talked about a ceasefire, then about a dialogue comprising Libyan parties that reject violence. All of which are elements of the Egyptian initiative. So the only proposal that is complete so far, although it will take time to implement, is the initiative I am telling you about,” he said.

A fifth meeting is planned in Khartoum, but no date has been set. Meanwhile, communication with the Libyans continues.

Last Sunday, Zayed went to Tobruk with a delegation from neighbouring countries and met the speaker of the Libyan parliament. “We made it clear that we supported the legitimate institutions in Libya,” he said.

“We must rely on the Libyan parliament and support it, for it is the only legitimate institution in the country. This parliament is elected by the people and there are no real legitimate institutions beside it,” Zayed remarked.

When I pointed out that there is a rival parliament and government in Misrata, the ambassador scoffed at the idea.

“This is a worthless suggestion, and doesn’t make any sense. Can you, for example, recognise a government representing the regime of Colonel Gaddafi? It’s the same thing. This is unacceptable. The mandate of the Libyan General National Congress ended in February. How can it still be a player?” he asked.

Libyan officials have accused Arab countries of fomenting trouble in their country. Prime Minister-designate Abdullah Al-Thinni specifically mentioned Qatar.

Zayed agrees with this assessment, although he refrained from pinpointing any country in particular.

“Unfortunately, there are regional parties — let’s not say Arab countries, for some may be Arab or not — involved in supporting extremists groups ... without care for the future of the Libyan people,” he said.

So why is action not taken against those “parties”, I asked.

“The whole world knows them, and in our international and regional contacts, almost all the countries in the world fully know that these specific parties are playing these roles, and yet no measure has been taken yet. But nothing lasts forever, and international measures may be taken against these countries that impede the restoration of normalcy to Libya.

Whose fault is it that Libya is falling apart, I asked.

“All those who fought in Libya to bring down the regime without contributing to the restoration of normal life and without helping with reconstruction, without propelling Libya down the road to stability and institution building, they are under great international responsibility.”

The Egyptian diplomat, picking his words with care, added: “We hope that at a future stage all the countries of the world will take part in proposing an objective formula for ending the suffering in Libya.”

But, I asked, does Egypt have a strategy for restoring stability and building institutions in Libya?

“Yes, Egypt has a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Libya. But it is running into snags placed by some of the parties trying to undermine stability in the country. But Egypt is relying on the fact that the Libyan people have a say in the matter ... I personally believe that the Libyan people have the ability to change the current equation.

“We must take into account that there are strong bonds between the [Egyptian and Libyan] peoples. Figures show that a large proportion of Libyans are married into and related to families in Egypt. There are Egyptian tribes living all along the borders,” Zayed said.

Does Washington agree with our views?

“As in any foreign policy matter, there is not complete agreement in the views of various countries regarding Libya. The Egyptian position is unchanging, and I will state it clearly: support legitimacy, stop violence, fight terror, and dry up the sources of terror. Those who agree with us in this vision about the future and security of Libya are 100 per cent with us. And those who deviate from these principles, or don’t support them sufficiently, have a position that is obviously different from ours,” Zayed said.

“Egyptian diplomacy will continue and Egypt will keep exerting itself to implement the initiative, because its aim is clear, which is to save the Libyan people.”

Are the Islamists in Libya cooperating with the Egyptian strategy, or opposing it, I asked.

“We are not talking about any party now. What matters to us are the interests of the Libyan people,” Zayed said.

This article was first published in Ahram Weekly 

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