A delegation of Libyan tribal chiefs paid a high-profile visit to Cairo Thursday, 16 July, where they conferred with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to discuss the present situation in Libya. Many of them took to the floor to speak about the historical bonds between the Libyan and the Egyptian people, and “mandated” Egypt to intervene in Libya to safeguard its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. They highlighted the dangers of a permanent Turkish presence in their country, and drew parallels between the present and the past when the Libyans suffered under the Ottomans. They vowed to fight the Turks.
The Egyptian president reiterated that the Libyans themselves should be the masters of their own destiny without any interference from outside powers, and that the sole objective of Egypt is a united Libya and a strong national army. He left no doubt that Egypt will not tolerate the permanent presence of armed militias, nor would it accept their presence near its western borders with Libya. In such a case, he added, Cairo would not hesitate to intervene militarily.
The meeting was an occasion for the Egyptian president to elaborate on his previous remarks, during a visit last month to a military base, not far from the joint borders with Libya, in which he drew a line in the sand in the Libyan desert, a “red line” from the strategic city of Sirte in the north to Al-Jafra Airbase, south of Sirte. At the time, he affirmed that an attack by the forces of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) would be deterred by Egypt. Last Thursday, he finetuned these remarks, stressing that the message has been a message of peace, essentially, and with the aim of bringing the Libyan conflict to an end. He added that the reference to a “red line” was never intended as a call to divide Libya into two parts — one to the west and the other to the east.
Moreover, he explained that this line is meant to be respected by the two warring parties in Libya; namely, the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and the Tripoli forces under the command of Fayez Al-Sarraj, president of the Presidential Council.
In other words, it is meant to be a ceasefire line.
Thus, Cairo discourages Haftar from crossing this line to the west, if he plans, by any chance, to counter attack. Earlier, the Tripoli government was afraid that Haftar might think of launching a counterattack to recapture the towns and positions he lost earlier this year in the western part of Libya. On the other hand, President Al-Sisi said that Egypt is not an enemy to the western region of Libya — probably a reference to the GNA. These two messages should be reassuring for the Tripoli rulers. In the meantime, it aligns Egypt, to an extent, with the positions of Algeria and Tunisia regarding the Libyan conflict. This alignment is necessary as well as important if the three countries would weigh on future negotiations by the Libyans to carry out UN Security Council Resolution 2510, adopted on 12 February 2020, that supported the Berlin Process.
It was obvious from the extensive remarks by the Egyptian leader that he wanted to make clear the limited objectives of Egypt in Libya, mainly the defence of our borders with Libya against infiltration by armed militias and terrorist groups in the future. It was the first time in a long while that Egypt has shown, at least publicly, such goodwill towards the Tripoli government, but it is a step in the right direction, albeit in a very indirect way and without naming it. However, the message should not be lost on the rulers in Tripoli. Some would argue, maybe, it is too little too late. But still, I find it relevant and important. I have no doubt that sane voices in Tripoli would find it both encouraging and promising.
Needless to say, the present stalemate on the battlefield is fraught with dangers unless the international community, and mainly the United States and Russia, to step in and send a clear message to Turkey and the Tripoli government that time is up for resorting to military force in Libya. Lately, senior Turkish officials have insisted that recapturing Sirte and Al-Jafra is a precondition for a permanent ceasefire in Libya. And they have called on Haftar’s forces to retreat or else the order to launch an attack on the two strategic objectives will be given. The Tripoli government should think twice before jumping into the unknown by ordering its troops to advance in an attempt to control Sirte and Al-Jafra, thereby putting North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean on the brink.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly