The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) rejected Cairo’s ceasefire initiative last week. The militias that back the GNA continue to press eastward, preparing for a showdown in the petroleum crescent in the Gulf of Sirte, and local news reports cite GNA security sources saying Syrian and other mercenaries have been despatched to reinforce Tripoli’s forces to the south.
Turkey, however, which is backing the GNA’s eastward thrust to seize control of Libyan oil storage facilities and terminals, as well as military bases in the vicinity, remains wary of Russia. According to a Turkish official, the main cause for the delay in launching operations in Sirte is the absence of an understanding between Ankara and Moscow. The latter has been pressing for a ceasefire, and supported the Cairo Declaration. Some reports from Libya have suggested that forces from the Russian Wagner Group are still on the ground in Sirte, which is why Ankara is dragging its feet. Yet Yusuf Katipoglu, a Turkish politician close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told the pro-GNA Tanasuh channel that Turkey would launch the offensive soon, regardless of what Moscow might say.
Observers had expected Russian and Turkish officials to get together to discuss the situation. The fact that no meeting has taken place is a sign, they say, of the growing friction between Moscow and Ankara.
It was also reported that GNA head Fayez Al-Sarraj had proposed a deal to Moscow, under which, in return for relinquishing its support for Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Moscow would receive lucrative construction contracts to compensate for the billions of dollars Russia lost with the fall of the Gaddafi regime. The reports add that Al-Sarraj also offered to hand over two Russians held in Tripoli for over a year on espionage charges.
This week, as Cairo renewed its calls for a return to the Libyan political process as the only solution if stability is to be restored to Libya, it encountered a new crisis when pro-GNA militias abducted Egyptian workers and then broadcast video footage of their torture on the Internet.
As news of the incident broke on Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was speaking about the broad regional and international support Cairo had garnered for its peace-making efforts. The Egyptian initiative “is consistent with current international and UN efforts and initiatives,” he said. “It aims to ensure the equitable representation of the three Libyan regions [Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan], and to unify and organise Libyan governing institutions and equip them to perform their duties, and to ensure a just and transparent distribution of Libyan wealth.”
Egyptian MPs urged a swift and strong response to the GNA militias’ abduction and torture of Egyptians. Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said Cairo would not allow the incident to pass unanswered, and would choose where, and how, to respond. Voicing her outrage at the abuse of Egyptian civilians in Libya, Immigration Minister Nabila Makram vowed Cairo would not allow the incident to go unanswered. She hinted at the possibility of recourse to force when she recalled how Egypt avenged the Egyptian Copts who were massacred by Islamic State terrorists in Libya.
GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha’s response to Egypt’s renewed calls for the return to the political process was noteworthy in that he is a leading hawk who opposed the Cairo Declaration. Egypt had “a role to play” in the Libyan political process, he said. On the incident involving Egyptian civilians, he said that his ministry had launched an investigation and would bring the perpetrators to justice. Egyptian MP Mustafa Bakri questioned Bashagha’s credibility. “He’s running a ministry made up of militias and is probably behind the incident himself.”
Libyan sources contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly are divided over whether Bashagha has the ability to resolve the crisis. They note that the men who detained the Egyptians in the video were all from Misrata, which Bashagha represented as a parliamentary member, and that he has strong ties with the Western militias, which he worked to reorganise under his ministry.
A Libyan source in Tripoli told the Weekly: “You need to take into consideration that there are tens of thousands of Egyptians living and working in this part of Libya. Though they are safe in the majority of places, this is not the case in areas that fall under the control of GNA militias that have an antagonistic relation with Egypt.”
Other sources doubt the militias could have acted independently in Tarhouna, which is where the incident occurred, because the strategic city is closely watched by the Interior Ministry.
Libyan commentators report the GNA camp is fracturing over political differences. The latest rift occurred last week, between Interior Minister Bashagha and Vice Chairman of the Presidency Council Ahmed Maiteeq, over the role of Misrata militias in Tripoli, and now in the battle for Sirte. Maiteeq is reported to favour a ceasefire.
It is noteworthy that Bashagha was the only GNA official that Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, mentioned during his speech at the launch of Cairo’s Libyan peace initiative.
“Bashagha personally suffers from the role those militias play in Tripoli,” said Saleh. Subsequently, a number of militias in Tripoli agreed to form a league to defend their interests from the foreign mercenaries that now rival them, and also in the face of the “reform plan” that Bashagha announced recently.
Cairo continues to seek information that will lead to the rescue of the detained Egyptians. It is aware that the broadcast of the video showing Egyptian civilians being tortured is intended to convey political messages. In addition to undermining the Egyptian role in the Libyan crisis, it seeks to frustrate Libyans who have placed hopes in this role. The militias have made no demands from Egypt, but the element of blackmail is clear, especially given the growing tide of Libyan appeals for Egyptian military intervention, and the circulation over Libyan social networking sites of images of Egyptian forces amassed along Egypt’s western borders.
Cairo has made it clear that the forces are there for defensive purposes in light of the spiralling violence in Libya and that it remains determined to play an effective role in promoting a return to an inclusive political process in Libya. Nevertheless, an Egyptian source close to the developments told the Weekly that Egypt must “ready itself for eventualities that could entail the use of military force in the event our national security is endangered”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly