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A two-pronged démarche

Cairo is seeking to secure its strategic interests in both the Gulf and Libya, writes Dina Ezzat

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 3 Dec 2019
GCC summit (archive photo)
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Egypt is lobbying both the Arab League and the African Union to press the Libyan government of Fayez Al-Sarraj to pull back from the maritime and military agreements it recently signed with Ankara.

According to official sources, Cairo wants the Arab League and the African Union to tell Al-Sarraj that signing any agreements beyond his limited jurisdiction as head of a temporary government could result in them withdrawing recognition from his government.

“We have been monitoring Turkey’s growing influence on Al-Sarraj and following the weapons and militants Turkey has been sending to Libya. We have spoken to him about it. This military agreement, though, is taking things too far,” said an Egyptian official.

On 27 November Al-Sarraj and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed two memoranda of understanding in Istanbul facilitating maritime, military and security cooperation. The move was instantly denounced by Cairo which is worried not only about Ankara’s growing influence over Al-Sarraj but Turkish exploration for natural gas in areas that Egypt says fall well outside Turkey’s territorial waters.

Greece, which together with Egypt and Cyprus is planning to build a natural gas network in the east Mediterranean, was also quick to protest the agreement between Al-Sarraj and Erdogan.

Earlier this week the foreign ministers of Egypt and Greece spoke about their concerns over the Al-Sarraj-Erdogan deal. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri also discussed the issue with UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé.

On Sunday Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Athens would seek the intervention of NATO — both Greece and Turkey are members — over the deal which he insisted is in violation of international law.

Egyptian sources say the illegality of the deal forms the basis of Cairo’s own diplomatic offensive in Arab/African quarters against the deal.

The message Cairo has been relaying to Arab, African and Mediterranean capitals is that any maritime cooperation deal between Turkey and the Al-Sarraj government cannot be recognised as an agreement between two sovereign states.

The remit of the Libyan prime minister is laid out in Article 8 of the 2015 Skhirat Agreement. It does not include the power to sign international agreements which is the prerogative of the Presidential Council, not its chairman.

“Al-Sarraj is actually in a fight with a good part of the Libyan people. He depends on the Islamist militias that Turkey is supporting to keep control of Tripoli and cannot claim to be the head of a sovereign government,” says the Egyptian official.

Al-Sarraj, who controls most of the western part of Libya, is in political and military conflict with the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar that controls most of the eastern part of the country. Egypt has long supported Haftar in his fight against Islamist militias which Cairo says are terrorist groups.

Berlin was supposed to host a conference in November to explore a possible ceasefire between Al-Sarraj’s supporting militias and the LNA. Preparations, though, have taken longer than expected and diplomatic sources say the chances of the conference happening before the Christmas/New Year holidays are shrinking.

“If it doesn’t happen by mid-December I think we are talking about the second half of January but with this recent deal, well, I don’t know what will happen,” said one diplomat.

The Egyptian delegation to the preparatory meetings for the Berlin conference had repeatedly stressed the elected Libyan House of Representatives must be part of any political roadmap for the future of Libya. Egypt has also pushed the line that the LNA must be consolidated in a way that ensures it is representative of all the Libyan people.

Cairo has played a central role in the unification and training of the LNA.

“We can’t take any chances with Libya. We share a long border which Libyan-based militants have repeatedly tried to infiltrate,” says the Egyptian official.

“Nor can we allow Erdogan to meddle in our trilateral natural gas plans with Greece and Cyprus. It is a serious national security issue.”

Since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 Libya has been prey to a proxy war between regional and international players fought via a host of militias. Turkey, at political loggerheads with Cairo since 2013, has been actively supporting Islamist militias operating on Libyan territory, as has Qatar.

The diplomatic offensive on Libya coincided this week with the opening of a second diplomatic front as Egypt seeks to ensure any rapprochement between its Arab Gulf allies and Doha takes Cairo’s concerns into account.

In June 2017 Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar after accusing Doha of interfering in their domestic affairs.

Concerned that the dispute was undermining the Gulf Cooperation Council, Kuwait and Oman have tried to mediate to end the crisis, efforts that in the last couple of months have been backed by Washington which desperately wants its Gulf allies to mend fences.

An informed diplomatic source says Cairo is now seeking guarantees that any plans for Arab Gulf countries to reduce the pressure on Qatar will go hand in hand with efforts to ensure Doha halts its support for “political adversaries that aim to undermine the stability of Egypt”.

“We are moving towards a reduction of tensions within the GCC but it is going to be a slow process, dependent on the willingness of the parties to show good faith,” said an Egyptian diplomatic source.

Last month GCC member states all took part in a sports tournament hosted by Doha and next week in Riyadh Qatar will attend the 40th GCC summit, with the level of representation expected to be high.

Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Garallah said earlier this week he is hopeful the summit will see “a new page being turned in Gulf relations”.

The Egyptian diplomatic source says “Egypt has been informed” by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its closest Gulf allies, that the GCC summit that convenes on 10 December will see “handshakes and the announcement of good intentions”.

“Coordination has been conducted at the highest level and Egypt has been offered reassurances that its key concerns will be accommodated as part of any deal to re-integrate Qatar in the Arab fold.”

According to the source the restoration of full diplomatic ties and the resumption of trade and other forms of cooperation with Doha will be accompanied by an end to Qatari media attacks against Egypt “and its political leadership”.

Qatar, he added, will also be expected to reduce the room for manoeuvre it has afforded the Islamist political groups it hosts.

The source would not say whether Egypt intends to follow other GCC member states should they restore diplomatic relations with Doha.

“That is a decision that will be made solely on the grounds of Egypt’s national interests. We have made our voice heard and now we are waiting to see what Qatar does rather than what it says.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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