The self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar retreated in the last three weeks from its positions around Tripoli and lost control of the largest airbase in the western part of Libya, Al-Watiya. Last Thursday, 4 June, his forces retreated from another stronghold after the city of Tarhuna fell to the forces of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). The official spokesman of the Tripoli government said that with the fall of Tarhuna, the forces of the GNA “liberated” all of the western part of Libya from the forces loyal to Haftar.
Moreover, Fayez Al-Sarraj, president of the government in Tripoli, promised that the intention of his government is to retake control of all of Libya, implying that their next move is to advance towards the east where the seat of the interim Libyan government is located in Benghazi. In other words, his forces will get nearer to Egyptian borders, and probably in the presence of Turkish military “advisers”. If this happens, it would constitute a major escalation in the conflict with uncalculated regional consequences.
On Thursday, 4 June, Al-Sarraj was in Turkey where he conferred with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish government promised that it would continue providing assistance and aid to the government in Tripoli to safeguard recent successes achieved by its forces in the war against the LNA. Furthermore, it announced that it would start exploration for gas and oil in the territorial waters of Libya in conformity with the agreement it signed last November with the GNA in Tripoli on the delimitation of an exclusive Libyan economic zone in the Mediterranean.
While Al-Sarraj was in Turkey, Haftar and the speaker of the Libyan parliament were conferring with senior Egyptian officials in Cairo. After two days of talks, the Egyptian President, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, announced in a joint press conference in their presence that the talks held by the Egyptian government had led to agreement, translated to a document dubbed the “Cairo Declaration” that dealt with an “initiative” aiming at reaching a political solution for the Libyan conflict in accordance with the Security Council resolutions and the decisions and conclusions of various international meetings on the situation in Libya, namely, the Berlin Summit and other meetings in Paris, Palermo and the United Arab Emirates.
The major highlights of the “initiative” include the reunification of the economic, financial and political institutions in Libya, the fair and transparent distribution of national wealth, and the demobilisation of the various militias operating in Libya, in addition to the exit of foreign mercenaries brought by Turkey, principally from Syria, to fight with the forces of the GNA. The Egyptian president said that the two Libyan officials have called for a ceasefire in Libya to become effective at 6:00am on Monday, 8 June. There is talk of setting up a presidential council, representative of the three Libyan regions, coupled with the drafting of a “constitutional declaration” that sets forth the next steps in the smooth transition towards a stable national government, representative of the Libyan people.
In a nod to the Berlin Declaration of 19 January, the Egyptian president emphasised the importance of complementarity among the three tracks that had been incorporated in this declaration; namely, the economic/financial, the military/security and the political tracks. In this context, he called on Libyan parties to discuss the military aspects of the conflict and how to secure a total ceasefire in the context of United Nations-sponsored 5+5 talks. Furthermore, he proposed an international meeting in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations and attended by the European Union, the Arab League, as well as the African Union, to provide an international framework for the political process whereby the Libyan parties would reach a political solution for the Libyan conflict.
What was striking in the joint press conference was the insistence of the Egyptian president on how dangerous the present situation in Libya is from the standpoint of the national security interests of Egypt. He warned against any attempts to settle the Libyan conflict through the use of military force, stressing that Egypt is closely watching developments on the battlefields in Libya. Some observers would interpret this as a warning to the Tripoli government not to get nearer Egyptian borders with Libya. Similarly, the warning is also addressed, without naming it, to Turkey. Still, I firmly believe that Egypt should never get involved militarily in the Libyan quagmire. Our absolute priority should be to defend our western borders against intrusions and infiltrations from the Libyan side of the border.
The Egyptian president was right, of course, in sending out a warning, so that neither the Tripoli government nor the Turkish government misread Egyptian intentions.
The New York Times in its edition dated Saturday, 6 June, quoted Emadeddin Badi, who is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, as saying that there is “clearly more conflict still to come, but everybody — domestically and externally — is going to recalculate their position”.
I tend to agree with this assessment. Needless to say, everyone hopes that the warring parties in Libya would reason that there could never be a military solution in Libya and, consequently, they opt for a political solution that would guarantee the territorial integrity and independence of Libya. However, the recent military gains by forces loyal to the Tripoli government could encourage these forces to push for launching a major attack against the forces of Haftar throughout Libya. The open question is whether Turkey would oblige or not. The Egyptian warning against military escalation in Libya could, hopefully, be a wake-up call for both the Tripoli and the Turkish governments, in this respect, against such a grave miscalculation. Maybe Russia could play the role of a buffer between the two Mediterranean powers, if need be.
The day the Cairo Declaration was out, the spokesman of the forces of the Tripoli government announced that these forces are advancing towards Sirte, a major stronghold for Haftar forces, as well as Gafra Airbase. Going to press, indications are that the defences of the forces loyal to Haftar would be overpowered.
The balance of power on the Libyan battlefields has shifted dramatically to the advantage of the Tripoli forces, a development that would make it difficult to persuade the Tripoli government to negotiate with the defeated party — at least for the time being.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly