Arab public opinion has held to a large extent the Arab League politically and morally responsible for the disastrous fate that befell Libya in 2011. The League in a hurried way adopted a decision in March 2011 concerning the popular uprising against late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The UN Security Council, at the request of France, followed suit and passed a resolution that was used as a pretext by NATO to intervene. The pretext was that the Libyan army was advancing towards Benghazi to annihilate the popular uprising.
An unrelentless and senseless bombing campaign followed that decimated the Libyan army. After the mission was accomplished, NATO left the country in complete disarray, without recognised state institutions to manage the situation, and the political transition towards a modern and a democratic state. On the contrary, Libya descended into insecurity and almost near anarchy with unattended stocks of arms that were taken by renegade and armed groups.
In the last nine years, neither the international community nor Arab nor African countries have succeeded in restoring political normalcy in Libya, despite several Security Council resolutions from March 2011 till February 2020. The former imposed an arms embargo on Libya that has never been seriously enforced, and the latter, recalling the said resolutions, gave an international and official seal of approval to the Berlin Declaration of 19 January 2020.
At the end of 2015, the Security Council had passed a resolution in support of what is known as the Skhirat Accord that established a “Government of National Accord” in Libya, bypassing — strangely enough — the only elected legislative body in Libya, the House of Representatives, that had been elected in fair and free elections the year before. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, through their control over the Supreme Court, invalidated the elections. The reason is that they lost the 2014 elections after their failed attempt at governance from the end of 2011 till the legislative elections of 2014.
This background explains why Libya has two governments and two legislatures, and two warring military forces. A government in Tripoli, called the “internationally-recognised government”, and another temporary government in Benghazi that few countries have recognised and dealt with.
The United Nations, through various envoys, tried to mediate and negotiate a political framework that could, hopefully, put the country on the road of reconciliation and reconstruction. However, these attempts and plans always failed because the international community and the Arab world had other strategic priorities, till the Turkish wolf entered the arena and turned a local military conflict into a regional one, and almost an international one. The Syrian example was about to replicate itself in Libya. Turkey and Russia, supporting opposing sides in the Libyan conflict, in the meantime are trying to share the pie without getting involved in a direct conflict.
All the while, the Arab League was paying lip service to UN efforts as well as to the Berlin Declaration. Its secretary general participated in its sessions.
Turkish intervention in the conflict was a strategic surprise for the region and the world. It allowed the Tripoli forces to push back the forces of the government in the East, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The retreat of his forces led to an escalation on the ground that could torpedo any chances for the resumption of political talks between the two Libyan governments.
The pro-Tripoli forces want to regain control of all of Libya; that is, to advance eastward, getting closer to the Egyptian borders. On 23 June, visiting a military base not far away from these borders, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the Egyptian army would intervene directly in the Libyan conflict in the case that pro-Tripoli forces, backed by the Turks, advance towards Sirte and Al-Jafra. The two are almost 1,000 kilometres from the Libyan borders with Egypt.
Of course, the Egyptian president talked about such an intervention in the context of a blueprint for the restoration of security and stability in Libya, in accordance with Security Council resolutions, on the one hand, and the Berlin Declaration, on the other hand. He enumerated the objectives of such an intervention, and most of the elements he mentioned do conform with UN resolutions. He stressed the importance of unifying state institutions, in addition to bringing all economic agencies and the oil industry under one command.
The Egyptian position was seconded by a resolution adopted 23 June through an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers, via video conference, that Egypt requested after the announcement of the Cairo Declaration on Libya on 6 June.
The resolution reflected an Arab consensus — save a few reservations on certain paragraphs by Qatar, Tunisia, Somalia and the Libyan delegation to the Arab League. Most of the clauses are in conformity with the Berlin Declaration and resolutions adopted by the United Nations related to Libya.
So far, these developments led to a pause in military preparations by forces loyal to the Tripoli government. In the meantime, the Turkish government is still sending reinforcements as well as Syrian mercenaries.
The spectre of a major military confrontation between Egypt and Turkey has raised alarm bells in Europe and the United States, pushing them to reiterate their demands for an immediate and total ceasefire, and the resumption of political talks in Libya.
The US State Department called — on 26 June — on the warring parties in Libya to cease fire forthwith and resume talks, while condemning foreign intervention, without singling out any country in particular. Moreover, the US administration warned the Tripoli government that the United States is against launching an attack on Sirte and Al-Jafra. This statement came two days after the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Washington of lacking decisiveness in dealing with the situation in Libya. It remains to be seen if the US administration will push hard for an immediate ceasefire on the part of the Tripoli government and its Turkish backers. If both the US and the European Union act in concert in this respect, that could be a turning point in Libya that opens the way for launching a diplomatic and political process that would save Libya from disintegration and avoid a repeat of the Syrian scenario in Libya.
Egypt and most Arab countries have learned the lessons of the fateful years of the “Arab Spring”. Consequently, they have decided to confront Turkey in Libya. They should not back down, whatever the cost.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly