Egypt used the African Summit, where President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi handed the rotating chair to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, to underline the need for a balanced approach on Libya.
In Addis Ababa Al-Sisi was keen to press the need for the African Union (AU) to work on finding a resolution to the crisis in Libya. According to a source from the Egyptian delegation to Addis “everyone seemed concerned about the lack of a resolution to the conflict in Libya but [Egypt] was particularly keen to stress the need for a diplomatic approach that takes into consideration the multifaceted nature of the conflict”.
The source added that Egypt would not wish for any attempts to impose any “one-sided approach” which would only “keep the conflict going with no end in sight”.
According to this source, the message Egypt conveyed to African partners during the summit is that any resolution to the conflict needs to recognise that Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the Libyan government of national accord (GNA), cannot be dealt with as “the sole leader of Libya”.
“We understand that Al-Sarraj is still perceived by international and regional organisations, including the AU, as the head of the internationally recognised government of Libya but we argued this approach needs to be revisited given the presidential council of Libya which put Al-Sarraj in the position in the first place has all but dissolved, casting Al-Sarraj’s legal status in a new light.”
Egypt is accused by some African states of siding with Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). According to one African diplomat, some African leaders openly raised their concerns over Cairo’s position during the summit.
The Egyptian source said President Al-Sisi was “very clear in arguing that Cairo is cooperating with Haftar to stop the spread of militants in Libya”, something that poses major security risks to Libya’s neighbours.
According to the source, Al-Sisi told his African interlocutors that Cairo had been “open” to find ways to work with Al-Sarraj until he signed a military agreement with Turkey “that opened the door for Ankara to transfer militant terrorists from Syria to Libya”.
The transfer of terrorists to Libya is an issue Egypt’s delegation to the UN in New York is following closely as the UK and Russia continued their wrangling over a draft British resolution to the UN Security Council which the UK hopes will reduce the scope of the military conflict in Libya.
Late last week Russia objected to the draft referring to “the concern of the UN Security Council over the growing interventions of mercenaries in Libya”. The Russian delegation insisted mercenaries be replaced by “foreign terrorist fighters”.
South Africa, currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council, is heavily involved in the negotiations in New York where the Egyptian delegation has been trying to convince members of the Security Council that it is unhelpful to focus on Haftar’s resort to external support while turning a blind eye to the growing number of terrorists Turkey is transferring to Libya to aid militias that support Al-Sarraj.
Haftar is accused by the Al-Sarraj camp of employing Russian and Sudanese mercenaries alongside his troops.
An informed Cairo-based western diplomat says Al-Sarraj is trying to instigate legal proceedings against Haftar, accusing him of war crimes against civilians in Tripoli which Haftar’s forces have been besieging since April.
During talks with members of the UN Security Council and of the African Union Peace and Security Council UN Libya Envoy Ghassan Salamé stressed the need for more commitment on the part of all concerned players to implementing the Berlin Conference’s resolution on ending support for the military conflict in Libya.
Last month Germany hosted a meeting on Libya in which all key players participated. Attendees agreed to work on halting all forms of military support to the warring factions.
A UN source said this week that Salamé is “really frustrated” over “the failure of all the key players to do what it takes to stop the infiltration of arms and militants to Libya”.
In a statement before the UN Security Council late January and in his statement to the African summit this week in Addis Ababa Salamé said commitments made in Berlin to secure a truce amounted to nothing more than ink on paper.
In private talks, the UN source said, Salamé blames the countries that support Al-Sarraj and those which support Haftar equally.
According to the Egyptian source, Cairo conveyed a message to Salamé that it is unrealistic to talk of a serious truce in the absence of pressure on Turkey to stop direct military intervention in Libya under the banner of a military agreement.
Egypt, he said, is willing to use its influence on Haftar if there is equivalent pressure on the other side.
“The trouble is that there is an obsession in some African and international quarters that Haftar is the only problem of Libya. What we are saying is that this is not true at all,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cairo this week hosted a meeting on the management of the economic situation in Libya. The conference, based on the Berlin agenda, discussed wealth-sharing and the management of resources in Libya.
According to the Egyptian source, Cairo believes it necessary to end the economic grievances that stem from the Al-Sarraj camp’s “control of the central bank of Libya”.
The Cairo meeting, he said, “started a process that will take time before it yields any serious results, but at least the process has been initiated”.
The Berlin Conference offered a three-part — military, political and economic — agenda for the management of Libya.
President Al-Sisi has repeatedly said Libya constitutes a national security dilemma for Egypt and this week in Addis Ababa, according to the same source, he told his interlocutors time and time again that he is not in a position to take any chances with security along Egypt’s borders with its western neighbour.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.