Cairo was among the first countries to welcome the ceasefire declarations by the Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) Aguila Saleh, and the Chairman of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Al-Sarraj.
The declarations are in line with Egypt’s peace-making efforts as epitomised in the Cairo Declaration of 5 July 2020, and subsequent developments, most notably President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s delineation of a “red line” from Sirte to Jufra.
According to Egyptian officials, Cairo’s approach has focused on containing the warring parties in Libya as a means to pull the rug out from under Turkey and Qatar. Both states have been taking advantage of the conflict in Libya in order to establish a foothold there, using extremist and terrorist elements as part of a larger scheme to rehabilitate, promote and reposition Islamist forces across the region. Cairo was instrumental in promoting the ceasefire and its efforts have intersected with those of other regional and international powers keen to steer Libya back to stability, a government source told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Cairo believes the progress achieved so far is the beginning of the road to recovering stability in Libya,” the source said. “Cairo will not let anyone derail it or bargain it away. Egypt will remain on the alert, prepared to promote and safeguard everything that serves the interests of the Libyan people and joint Egyptian-Libyan interests. It remains determined to confront any party that attempts to divert this course.”
Egypt’s policy on Libya, said the source, is predicated on a set of clear priorities related to “Libya’s importance to Egypt’s national security and the dangers that arise when the situation there is manipulated”. Egypt, he added, was ready to “handle all scenarios” and “will have no truck with any attempts to reposition terrorists or impose militias on the scene”.
Although combined, the statements released by Saleh and Al-Sarraj form a turning point in the Libyan conflict, they nevertheless reflect different outlooks and principles related to the ceasefire. For example, Al-Sarraj linked the ceasefire to the creation of a demilitarised zone in Sirte and Jufra and the resumption of oil production and export, the revenues from which should be transferred to an account of the Libyan Central Bank abroad controlled by the GNA. He insisted the National Oil Corporation (NOC) should be the only agency with the authority to make decisions pertaining to the production and export processes and that foreign forces and mercenaries, which he did not identify, should be removed from the area. The statement called for presidential and legislative elections in March.
According to the source, Cairo opposes the creation of a demilitarised zone in Sirte and Jufra, fearing it will lead to acrimony over the nature of the force that would fill the vacuum created by the departure of the Libyan National Army (LNA) from the area, and could herald the partition of Libya. Certainly, the motives of some outside powers that promote the notion of a demilitarised zone are questionable. Turkey, for example, wants the LNA to withdraw not just from Sirte but also from Jufra, as Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has made explicit.
On Al-Sarraj’s position regarding oil, a member of the Libyan House of Representatives told the Weekly that the insistence that NOC monopolise decisions on oil production and exports is designed to side-line the HoR, the only elected body in Libya. He warned that excluding HoR from decision making and oversight will work to entrench the current situation in which oil revenues are funnelled into servicing GNA defence and security contracts with Turkey and Qatar. The MP added that the head of NOC is affiliated with the GNA and has been in post for seven years.
Another source believes there is a connection between the visit undertaken by the head of Egyptian Military Intelligence Major General Khaled Megawer to Al-Rajma, the headquarters of the LNA General Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar outside Benghazi, and a subsequent announcement by the LNA regarding the restart of oil production. Other sources in Cairo neither confirm nor deny a link, though observers believe the scenario fits with Cairo’s determination to break the stalemate in Libya within the framework of understandings between Egypt and other powers, most notably the US.
One of the most significant differences between the two sides is embodied by Aguila Saleh’s proposal for an interim phase in which Sirte serves as the temporary capital. He argued that using the centrally located city as an interim capital would overcome the east-west rift, providing the space necessary for the two sides to reach a political accord. Al-Sarraj’s call for elections within six months clearly rules out an interim period. He obviously envisions remaining in power during the interval, which he and his allies would use as a carte blanche to continue to manage the government without checks or balances, and with nothing to restrain them from concluding agreements with outside powers that could be detrimental to the Libyan people. In Cairo’s opinion there is a mechanism for dealing with disputes of this nature: dialogue within the framework of the Berlin process.
It was precisely within this framework that the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) hosted a dialogue meeting between a delegation from the speaker of the HoR and another from the head of the GNA in the hope of overcoming obstacles to the resumption of the political process. According to a source familiar with the track two sessions have already been concluded and another should be held in the coming weeks. He added that some positive progress has been made towards the resumption of the political process, and he believes that the points of difference between Saleh’s and Al-Sarraj’s statements will also be discussed by the participants in the dialogue.
The Libyan National Army (LNA), meanwhile, has shown a degree of resistance to last week’s developments. Its criticisms have focused on Al-Sarraj’s statement which LNA Spokesman Major General Ahmed Al- Mismari described as “dictated from abroad”, a reference to Ankara. Pointing to the ongoing influx of Turkish supplies of military hardware and mercenaries to the GNA, Al- Mismari accused Ankara of preparing for the next round of fighting in Sirte.
A series of events last week illustrates the pressures facing the GNA. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday to protest the fall in living standards and rampant corruption in the Libyan capital. Some protesters chanted slogans against both Al-Sarraj and Haftar. A source in Tripoli said that poor services, especially power outages and water cut-offs, have generated mounting frustration. People were also angered by the government’s indifference to the Covid-19 pandemic, even as infections have soared in the country. Officials in Tripoli are too preoccupied with their political rivalries and the race to win Ankara’s approval, he said, to care about the health of Libyans. Reports of oil revenues flowing into Turkish hands have also fuelled outrage.
A Libyan political source in Cairo told the Weekly that it was likely divisions within the GNA are in part determining developments in the capital. Perhaps, he said, one of the rival GNA factions is plotting to oust Al-Sarraj and restructure the political process.
Cairo, for its part, has not made its position clear with regard to developments in Tripoli. Perhaps it is waiting to see how the situation unfolds.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.