Libya has embarked on a new interim phase, its fifth since the Libyan crisis broke out. As an influential stakeholder in this question, Cairo hopes this one will be the last and that the country will be able to transition to sustainable stability after a decade of conflict. This was probably the central message of the first official meeting between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the new Libyan Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, who visited Cairo last week: his first trip outside Libya since taking office.
During Dbeibah’s visit, Egypt reaffirmed prioritising the successful completion of the roadmap for the current interim phase, which calls for a plebiscite on a new constitution and legislative and presidential elections by the end of the year. Egypt also reiterated its readiness to offer its full support to the National Unity Government as it lays the foundations for those processes, overseeing the implementation of other important requirements of the phase.
Cairo continues to host key activities to this end, such as meetings of the Libyan committee overseeing the constitutional track and meetings between various political leaders and representatives of different components of civil society and political forces. As such efforts indicate, Cairo seeks to implement the principles it established in the Cairo Declaration and advocated in every activity it sponsored or was involved in since then. It hopes to usher in the end of the cycle of interim phases and enable political processes to prevail over armed conflict.
“Strategic partnership” is the term that best sums up Cairo’s outlook on the current interim phase. It is an outlook grounded in the principles of bilateral relations between neighbours and bolstered by the instrumental part that Egypt played in the political process that led to the creation of the new Libyan executive authority. The new leaders in this authority appreciate the value of the Egyptian role in the effort to resolve the crisis. It was by facilitating the necessary agreements that the current phase was made possible. Both Egyptian and Libyan leaders share the impression that this phase will also be characterised by the best bilateral relations so far between Cairo and a government based in western Libya. Concrete signs of this can already be seen in the reopening of the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli and the Egyptian Consulate in Benghazi as well as the resumption of air traffic between the two countries.
Cairo and the new Libyan government also share a number of concerns. Above all, they agree on the need to prevent a backslide into war. Cairo has stressed the need to remove the instruments of civil warfare from Libya, thereby eliminating opportunities for military escalation. Steps to this end include halting all forms of outside military involvement in Libya, dismantling the militias, promoting the unification of the Libyan army and military establishment and equipping said army to perform its inherent functions in the defence against threats and dangers to the country.
Cairo has reiterated this belief frequently, on the numerous occasions it hosted the 5+5 Joint Military Committee, when it also emphasised the need to base the unification and restructuring process on a set of objective standards and controls and to forego the criteria of personified power centres that had prevailed for so long.
Another point of agreement was on the need for solidarity in confronting the security threats and the fight against terrorism. Egypt has been the country most harmed by the regional fallout of the security breakdown in Libya. In addition to the inundation of smuggled arms which ended up in the hands of terrorist groups in Sinai, Egypt suffered directly from the concentration of jihadist groups in the vicinity of the Libyan border.
At one point, an Islamic State franchise had taken up base in Derna and the Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Morabitoun, later followed suit. Egypt was instrumental in the defeat of both organisations. Because of the continuous threat of infiltration from that direction, Egypt has had to upgrade security along its lengthy border with Libya. It was an extremely costly process that entailed major redeployments, installation of expensive hardware, and intensive training in order to build and equip a deterrent force capable of intercepting cross-border threats or threats emanating from the Libyan interior, if necessary.
It also appears that there is another form of support Egypt will provide Libya, namely help in rebuilding the infrastructure that was damaged during the recent battle for Tripoli. Evidence of this is to be seen in Egyptian-Libyan interactions in the period leading up to the current phase and in the fact that the new National Unity Government intends to make reconstruction and development one of its highest priorities. It sees promise in the Egyptian development model. Egypt’s proven experience in infrastructure development, in particular, will be useful for Libya, which needs to act quickly to provide much needed facilities and services from roadworks to energy and other utilities, even as it prepares to draw up a comprehensive reconstruction plan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly