Cairo has reaffirmed its support for the Libyan National Army (LNA) in its fight to uproot terrorism in Libya and for its contribution to the drive to rebuild legitimacy and promote political solutions to the Libyan crisis that meet the hopes and aspirations of the Libyan people.
Last Thursday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with LNA Commander Khalifa Haftar at the Ittihadiya Palace. Briefing the press afterwards, Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said Haftar had “updated President Al-Sisi on the latest developments in Libya and explained efforts to counter foreign interference in Libya’s domestic affairs and attempts to smuggle arms and foreign terrorists into Libya”.
The meeting, which was also attended by the Director of Egyptian General Intelligence General Abbas Kamel, was the second between Al-Sisi and Haftar since the LNA command launched an operation to take control of Tripoli over a month ago.
In his press statement Radi said President Al-Sisi had expressed “Egypt’s full support for efforts to combat terrorism and extremist groups and militias in order to realise stability and security in Libya, and for the role the Libyan military institution is playing to restore the components of legitimacy and create a climate conducive to facilitating the formulation of political solutions and the conduct of constitutional processes in a manner that meets the aspirations for a safe and dignified life and a better future for our brotherly Libyan people.”
President Al-Sisi also lauded the role the Libyan military has played in the drive to end terrorism, extremist groups and militias.
The conflict between the LNA, led by Haftar, and forces fighting for the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), are now in their sixth week.
The fighting has left more than 400 dead, 2,000 wounded and thousands of families homeless, according to the UN.
Haftar flew to Cairo as Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Tripoli-based Presidency Council, was meeting with European leaders during a tour to secure support for forces fighting for the GNA.
Al-Sarraj’s trip included meetings with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Against the backdrop of the standoff between the LNA and the GNA militias on the outskirts of the capital Haftar and Al-Sarraj are lobbying for international backing for their respective positions given developments on the ground have put an end to the UN-sponsored process launched more than a year and a half ago.
That process was due to culminate in a National Conference in Ghadames where Libyan stakeholders were expected to hammer out a new settlement agreement. Initially scheduled for January, the conference was postponed until mid-April and then put on hold indefinitely due to the eruption of hostilities on 4 April.
Cairo sees the LNA as an effective partner in the fight against terrorism and extremist militias and believes it must be a pillar of any new political system that emerges in Libya after the anarchy that has prevailed since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
During the past five years Cairo has worked to bolster the LNA and for nearly a year sponsored a series of talks in the hope of reuniting Libya’s military.
Positions on Libya have continued to evolve since divisions in the UN Security Council prevented the passing of a resolution condemning the military escalation around Tripoli last month.
Most recently, NATO members and European foreign ministers held separate meetings in Brussels on Monday to discuss developments in Libya.
Both were attended by Ghassan Salamé, UN special representative for Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), and Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidency Council in Tripoli.
In the meeting with Salamé at NATO headquarters, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed the alliance’s deep concern over the situation in Libya and stressed that he would continue to urge all parties to end the fighting and join again in the political process, as called for by the United Nations, according to a press release posted on the NATO website.
“The secretary-general further emphasised that the current conflict is increasing the suffering of the Libyan people and putting civilian lives at risk. He made clear that there is no military solution to the situation in Libya,” the press release continued.
Reaffirming NATO’s full support of the UN special representative’s work to broker a truce and find a political solution to the Libyan crisis, Stoltenberg stressed that NATO is prepared to help Libya build effective security institutions, including a modern Ministry of Defence and effective security services under the civilian control of the government, at the request of the Libyan government and when security conditions allow it.
The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council statement on the situation in Libya was more sternly worded. It described the “LNA military attack on Tripoli and the subsequent escalation in and around the capital” as “a threat to international peace and security”, adding that it “further threatens the stability of Libya”.
Reaffirming the EU’s commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya, the statement called “on all parties to immediately implement a ceasefire and to engage with the United Nations to ensure a full and comprehensive cessation of hostilities.
[The EU] also calls on them to dissociate themselves both publicly and on the ground from terrorist and criminal elements involved in the fighting, and from those suspected of war crimes, including individuals listed by the UN Security Council.”
EU foreign ministers stressed that all parties in Libya “must protect civilians, including migrants and refugees, by allowing and facilitating a safe, rapid and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid and services to all those affected”.
They reminded Libyan parties that “indiscriminate attacks on densely populated residential areas may amount to war crimes. Those breaching International Humanitarian Law must be held to account.”
Reiterating the stance that there is no military solution to the Libyan crisis, the EU urged “all parties to re-commit to the UN-facilitated political dialogue and work towards a comprehensive political solution to the crisis in Libya as agreed in Paris in May 2018, in Palermo in November 2018 and in Abu Dhabi in February 2019, in order to pave the way for holding national elections.”
It also urged “all parties to fully respect the arms embargo and refrain from any actions that could further undermine the UN-facilitated political dialogue”.
“An element of realism that had been lacking has re-emerged today in the treatment of developments in Libya,” Salamé said in a press conference in Brussels on the sidelines of the EU foreign ministers’ meeting.
Describing Libya as both the victim of its neighbours and a danger to them in terms of the flow of illegal migrants and terrorist infiltrations across borders, he stressed that only a return to the negotiating table will solve these problems.
“There was some illusion a month ago that the shortest path to a solution is a military one. It is clear today that this is not realistic and the shortest way to get Libya out of the crisis is to sit at the negotiating table,” Salamé said.
He noted that the current military impasse — the inability of LNA forces to breach the defences pro-NGA forces have created around the capital — was forcing a more realistic assessment of the situation. He cautioned that the current fighting around the capital only increased the risks of illegal migration, displacement and terrorism and stressed that “the return to the negotiating table is the real solution, not only to Libya’s crisis but also to its neighbours’ worries.”
While regional and international forces agree on the need for hostilities around the Libyan capital to end, the GNA insists any ceasefire be conditional on LNA forces withdrawing to their pre-4 April positions.
The warfare, therefore, could drag on and perhaps escalate unless regional and international mediators can coax the warring parties back to dialogue — an uphill struggle considering the lack of trust between the two sides.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Backing Libyan legitimacy