Protests across Libyan cities in the last few days are an important warning sign to all Libyan political leaders that the people are fed up with the continuous delay in holding parliamentary and presidential elections, a much needed step towards restoring Libya as an integrated state ruled by its citizens.
Some protests became violent – and part of the Libyan parliament building in the eastern city of Tobruk was set on fire – something strongly condemned by Egypt, the UN and other key regional and international partners.
The situation in Libya is so fragile that any one incident of violence could easily devolve into a wider confrontation and serious, renewed fighting between the divided parts of the country as was the case nearly two years ago. That’s why the first priority right now should be taking all measures necessary by the UN and all parties involved in Libya to calm the situation down and ensure that there is no return to direct military confrontation between rival Libyan government and institutions.
Meanwhile, UN-led talks among rival Libyan parties should continue in Geneva, Cairo and Libya with a view to agreeing on a clear timetable to hold fair and free elections after missing the original 24 December 2021 deadline.
However, as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi rightly noted in statements on Sunday, the key problem in Libya is that some of the local parties involved in the infighting there are not in charge of their own decisions. Instead, decisions are being made by outside regional parties who have no right to be involved in Libya in the first place.
“When your destiny is not in your own hands, but in the hands of others outside, you only have yourself to blame,” Sisi told the editors of Egyptian newspapers at a news conference. “Each outside party has its own interests and goals which it is seeking to achieve. It is only to be expected that some of these interests and goals will oppose and contradict each other, resulting in more differences among disputing parties.”
Since the removal of Libya’s late leader, Muammar Al-Gaddafi in 2011, and the chaos that ensued in Libya, Egypt’s stand has been principled and consistent: Libya must restore its own united national government and preserve its territorial integrity. Al-Sisi has also repeatedly confirmed that stability and security in Libya is a top national security issue for Egypt.
As a neighbouring country, with joint borders extending over 1100 kilometres, interaction and family ties that extend over thousands of years, Egypt is no stranger to Libya. The many clans of the Bin Ali tribe live in both western Egypt and eastern Libya, intermarrying and considering themselves one people with the same customs, traditions and national dress. Millions of Egyptians have also worked in Libya since the 1950s and 1960s, providing much needed expertise to build previously nonexistent institutions, including the judiciary, and an efficient health and education system, besides workers who came from all over Egypt to spread construction projects all over Libya. Meanwhile, many generations of Libyan intellectuals recall with passion the years of their education at various Egyptian universities.
However, after 2011, the country has turned into a failed state where many extremist terrorist organisations from all over the world found a safe haven. IS, Al-Qaeda, Egyptian terrorist groups such as Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, Al-Jihad, the Muslim Brotherhood and Sinai-based terrorist groups, all flooded into Libya, knowing that there was no central government to deter their activities or military training. The Afghanistan scenario before the 11 September 2011 terror attacks in New York and Washington was being copied in Libya. Egyptians will also never forget or forgive the merciless slaughter of 21 Christian Egyptians by IS terrorists in Libya in 2015, though our military promptly responded at that time.
The new Egyptian president took a firm stand after taking office in June 2014, strengthening control over the lengthy desert border and preventing terrorists from infiltrating into Egypt, smuggling weapons that were stolen in huge quantities from Libyan army depots after the fall of Gaddafi. When the western government in Libya backed by the Muslim Brotherhood felt that its influence was waning and that it might lose its tight, forceful grip on power in western Libya, it sought immediate help from Turkey, and its leader Recep Tayyeb Erdogan whose lengthy stay in power and frustration over the rapid collapse of his Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt, had obviously encouraged his illusions over reviving the unwelcome rule of the former Ottoman Empire.
During renewed infighting between the eastern and western parts of the country, Al-Sisi affirmed that any advance towards Egypt’s border by foreign troops was a red line that no regional country should ever consider crossing. This clear warning was one of the key reasons why fighting stopped later in June 2020, opening the door to a new round of UN-led negotiations among the warring parties.
No one said holding elections would be easy in Libya, but maintaining the ongoing fragile peace and preventing renewed fighting must be a top priority. The frustration of millions of Libyans over the delay in holding elections, and the lack of basic services, mainly electricity, is legitimate and understandable. Yet, renewed fighting and violence will only create deeper rivalries among Libyans, delay any timetables for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and militias from Libya and holding elections, and further increase the suffering of the Libyan people.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.