The Cairo Declaration announced by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on Saturday triggered a variety of reactions from Libyan forces in the east, west and south. The declaration is a political initiative to revive interest in a political settlement process, and to support the UN in making progress on the three tracks of Libyan dialogue launched at the international conference on Libya in Berlin, known as the Berlin Declaration. Meanwhile, escalation continues on the battlefield in Sirte between the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is supported by Turkey militarily, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
The Cairo Declaration was received well in eastern Libya. MPs from the parliament in the eastern zone (Barqa) said Monday it is “a balanced political initiative to resolve the Libyan problem and fighting among brothers from the same country”. They praised “the great effort by the Egyptian government and people and their continuous support of the Libyan state”, but also warned against “rejecting this peaceful political solution or resorting to armed attacks and battles with the help of Gulf states”. The Barqa MPs issued a joint statement demanding “the exit of all foreign military forces and mercenaries from all Libyan territories, especially oil ports, fields and facilities”, warning that “their continued presence will lead to the division of Libyan territories” as mentioned in the Cairo Declaration, which was announced in Cairo in the presence of Parliament Speaker Aquila Saleh and General Haftar.
The 17 signatories of the Barqa statement said: “Parliament is inviting everyone, government, people and institutions, to close ranks in support of the LNA to defend the territories under the control of the interim government in Barqa.” They continued that parliament upholds “the constitutional declaration and its amendments, as well as the principles of the 17 February Revolution, that it is the only legitimate authority in Libya, and the constitutional headquarters of parliament are in Benghazi or temporarily in Tobruk.” They urged all MPs to join parliament, resume sessions and fulfil constitutional and legislative obligations.
Barqa MPs, who are the majority bloc in the parliament convening in east Libya, believe the Egyptian proposal is a great opportunity to pursue their demand of restructuring the political system and redistributing powers among the provinces based on the size of their population. Also, redistributing wealth, since their province contains the majority of the country’s resources and key ports for exporting oil.
In Tripoli, the GNA did not officially comment on the Cairo Declaration, one source told Al-Ahram Weekly. However, some politicians denounced the initiative due to Cairo’s bias in favour of their political rivals. Those rejecting Egypt’s proposal insist the military campaign must continue until they regain control of Sirte and Al-Jufra Airbase, both strategic locations, before returning to negotiations.
In southern Libya, historically known as Fezzan province, there was no comment on the Cairo Declaration, either due to divisions among political and social elements between Tripoli and Tobruk, as well as social sensitivities among locals who seem to be waiting for the outcome of ongoing battles in the north between the East and West.
Meanwhile, a newly established group of economic and financial experts named as the Libyan Economic Salon Group issued a statement calling for redistributing national resources and wealth among provinces and administrative structures, and unifying national institutions. They did not refer to the Cairo Declaration, even though it states these ideas as well.
The Cairo Declaration was announced after LNA forces withdrew from advance positions in Tripoli and areas in western Libya, as GNA forces took over. There are also diplomatic efforts underway, which intensified in the past two weeks due to escalation between the US and Russia in Libya after Washington accused Moscow of directly interfering in the conflict and deploying 14 fighter jets at Al-Jufra Airbase in central Libya, according to the US army.
On the ground, GNA forces continue to gain ground around Sirte where they want to wrest control after LNA forces pushed them out in January, as well as at Al-Jufra Airbase which Misrata withdrew from in 2017. LNA control of both locations was facilitated by Madkhali Salafists in Misrata and Sirte.
Continued battles in Sirte seem to have caused a rift within the GNA after a visit last week by Presidential Council Deputy Chairman Ahmed Maiteeq to Moscow, along with Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Taher Siyala. Both men met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov. The commander of the Sirte-Jufra operations, Brigadier Ibrahim Beit Al-Mal, said on a video recording on social media on Sunday that he received a phone call from Maiteeq asking him to stop the advance towards Sirte, which is a “red line” after a deal was made with Russia. Moscow believes the city that was once Gaddafi’s stronghold must remain in an area under its influence. Beit Al-Mal continued that he also received a phone call from chair of the Presidential Council Fayez Al-Sarraj ordering him to continue military operations to regain control of the Sirte, which Misrata is keen on regaining.
Observers believe that phoning the commander of military operations in Sirte (Beit Al-Mal) is a sign that Al-Sarraj rejects the Egyptian initiative. However, sources at the Presidential Council denied any comments were made on the issue. The local channel February, which broadcasts from Istanbul, quoted Maiteeq as saying he delivered a “clear” message from Russia to Al-Sarraj and military commanders, but did not give any details. He added he did not give orders to any particular party, but did not elaborate, even on red line issues. This prompted the powerful minister of interior in the GNA, Fathi Pasagha, to respond: “The red lines are drawn by the blood of our martyrs,” noting that the “bases of Al-Watiya, Ghardabiya and Jufra, Sirte and all cities in the west and south will come under the control of the GNA led and represented by Al-Sarraj.”
Indeed, the National Oil Corporation (NOC) declared the state of force majeure was lifted at the northwest Al-Zawiyah oil port and Al-Feel and Sharara oilfields in the southwest, which resumed crude oil production Saturday and Sunday.
However, less than 48 hours later, operations in Sharara field were stopped after armed men entered the site Monday and told employees to end activities.
Sharara’s abrupt closure led the Tripoli-based NOC to declare force majeure on loadings of crude from the field, the company said Tuesday in a statement.
“This criminal group dared to enter the field with heavy weapons,” NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla said in the statement.
The forces defending these sites had declared their allegiance to the GNA earlier. The LNA lost control of the southwest region after arriving there in February 2019.
Oil, the lifeline of Libya’s economy, has long been a key factor in the civil war, as rival authorities jostle for control of oil fields and state revenue. Libya has the ninth largest known oil reserves in the world and the biggest oil reserves in Africa.
In a series of angry tweets, Pashagha wrote: “Only a few opportunists who are weak-minded and nervous succumb to diktats. Sirte will remain within the fold of the homeland and under the umbrella of legitimacy, and we will not compromise on the blood of men beginning in 2011, then Al-Bunyan and Al-Burkan. Sirte will return without restrictions, through the determination of men.”
A second tweet added: “The bases of Al-Watiya, Ghardabiya and Jufra and all cities of the west and south will be under the umbrella of the GNA led and represented by Al-Sarraj. I hope we won’t have to call it how we see it. Glory to the brave men, those alive or martyred.”
In a third tweet, Pashagha stressed: “Libya will not be whole again without its East which represents history, hard work and authenticity. We believe in your ability to cleanse your virtuous land from a handful of corrupt rebels who have spilled the blood of your children and planted strife and division among your brethren. Barqa is greater than Haftar; Libya is greater than All.”
Pashagha also told Bloomberg news agency that GNA forces will recover territories under Haftar’s control and will block Russia from establishing a military base in Libya until negotiations are agreed upon. He continued that once Sirte and Al-Jufra base are recovered, the GNA “will be ready to enter political talks with the East”.
Pashagha is a key hawk in the GNA who made great progress on security arrangements, but his efforts were scuttled by the LNA after he was able to gradually begin loosening the grip of militias on state institutions in Tripoli.
Meanwhile, LNA Spokesman Major General Ahmed Al-Misamri said “military operations continue” and will not end until the other side agrees to the Cairo Declaration. Al-Mismari told a news conference Monday that “General Command supports the Egyptian initiative and is part of it, but the other side has rejected it. We hoped the militias would agree to a ceasefire but unfortunately they didn’t.” He continued that this rejection came “even though some parties in Misrata and Tripoli want to come to the negotiating table, engage and work with this initiative since it is critically important, a real and serious opportunity to solve the crisis in Libya”. He did not elaborate on the identity of these parties.
Al-Mismari added that “the international community saw that General Command and the Libyan parliament agreed to this initiative but the other party issued six statements of rejection”, noting that these statements “undercut any patriotic voices who want peace and negotiations. And thus, military operations will continue and not stop until commitment to this initiative is reached or these groups are annihilated and these rogue cities become poor villages.”
He reiterated that General Command will begin a new battle strategy, namely excessive air power, constant air reconnaissance and deployment on the ground suitable for fighting in the desert.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly