Why Haftar was in Cairo

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 17 Apr 2019

Ahmed Eleiba writes on the significance of Khalifa Haftar’s visit to Egypt

Al-Sisi  and Haftar
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi during his meeting with Khalifa Haftar in Cairo

Amid Operation Flood of Dignity waged by the Libyan National Army (LNA) against militias in Tripoli, army commander Khalifa Haftar landed in Cairo on Monday for a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

A statement by Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi confirmed Egypt’s support “of efforts to combat terrorism and extremist groups and militias in order to achieve security and stability for the Libyan citizen”.

Cairo’s support of Haftar’s military operation is based on the notion that eradicating Libya’s terrorist environment will help establish the basis for a stable, civil state.

Cairo also understands the urgency of sealing this chapter in Libya to embark on rebuilding and developing the country to meet its people’s aspirations, the presidential statement said.

Haftar’s visit to Egypt is telling in a number of indicators, particularly due to its timing. That the LNA commander arrived in a foreign country amid his ongoing military operation, launched on 4 April, is proof of critical developments on the battleground.

However, anti-army parties will exploit the visit politically — much as they did after Haftar visited Saudi Arabia prior to launching Flood of Dignity — giving rich material to the media orchestrated by the Qatar-Turkey axis that is hostile to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Possibly Haftar’s visit to Cairo aimed at providing a clear picture of the nature of the military operation. This was felt in Cairo’s reaction to developments in Libya. On 6 April, following a meeting between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Shoukri said at a press conference: “Egypt supports a political solution in Libya and setting aside a military solution to reach a climate conducive to holding elections.”

Shoukri described Libyan events as “clashes” and an “escalation”, saying “Egypt is extremely worried about clashes that erupted in parts of Libya,” and calling on “all parties to exercise self-control and halt the escalation”.

The tone, and wording, of the presidential statement on Monday following the Al-Sisi-Haftar meeting were somewhat different. It is believed Haftar was in Cairo to provide a comprehensive picture of the military operation, report an assessment of what it has accomplished in its first 10 days, and evaluate international reaction towards Flood of Dignity, particularly those of European countries of influence on the Libyan stage.

It is clear Cairo considered the motive of Haftar’s operation exactly as he stated it in his first statement released following the launch of the operation. Haftar said Operation Flood of Dignity aimed at “fighting terrorism and cleansing Tripoli of the militias controlling it”. The operation’s motive won it Cairo’s support, as clarified in Monday’s presidential statement.

An anti-terrorist operation in Libya would definitely win Egypt’s support for strategic reasons, obliging Cairo to be updated on security developments in its neighbouring country, and more so now because Egypt has suffered from the deterioration of security conditions in Libya.

Terrorist networks functioning in eastern Libya are in close proximity to Egypt’s western border through which terrorist elements entered Egypt. The majority of terrorist organisations based in the east of Libya were eliminated thanks to successful LNA operations and Egypt’s logistical support.

In the same context, Cairo stressed it supported the anti-terrorism operation in western Libya, especially after LNA figureheads revealed terrorist leaders from Al-Qaeda and other militias on Egypt’s list of terrorists were camping in west Libya.

Cairo also declared its intention to intensify its efforts towards uniting the Libyan army and security apparatuses to minimise the chances of division within their ranks, exacerbated after the spread of militias and legitimising their presence on the security and political fronts.

Haftar’s visit in Cairo was also aimed at winning the support of allies for the operation. This required listening to Egypt’s vision regarding the operation and exchanging views, especially since the operation’s field developments have revealed it was different than military operations the LNA conducted in the east and south.

In light of the likely scenarios for Flood of Dignity, it is important to determine whether it will go all the way or seize a certain point by which to push the warring militias towards a serious settlement.

After all, the operation will cast a political shadow on the following transitional phase, raising the concern of Egypt, being a principal party in Libyan settlements since Libya signed the UN-backed Skhirat Agreement in Morocco on 17 December 2015, all the way to the Palermo and Paris talks held on 13 November 2018 and 29 May 2018, respectively.

Worth noting, Haftar’s reception in Cairo was attended by head of Egyptian General Intelligence Major General Abbas Kamel, indicating the current situation in Libya concerned Egypt politically. Haftar did not receive a military reception.

If anything, the manner in which Cairo received Haftar stressed that the capital is striking a balance between its political support of Haftar’s military operation and other political considerations related to the path of a Libyan political settlement.

This could not have been more evident than in the presidential statement that stressed the goal of establishing a civilian state in Libya.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Why Haftar was in Cairo

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