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Egypt-Libya: Diplomatic map redrawn

Cairo is opening a new page on Libya

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 17 Feb 2021
Diplomatic map redrawn
The Egyptian delegation with Siala
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It may only be a matter of weeks before Egypt sends an ambassador to re-open the Egyptian Embassy in Libya. According to informed sources, the new ambassador is likely to arrive in the Libyan capital by spring.

Already this week Egypt sent a diplomatic-executive delegation to meet with Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Taha Siala. A statement from the office of Siala said the delegation discussed the preparation to open the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri in a telephone call with Siala last week said that Egypt is set to re-open its embassy in Tripoli shortly.

The intention, according to one source, “is not just to reopen the embassy but to re-launch Egyptian-Libyan relations on all fronts, with an eye on full engagement based on mutual interests and the recognition of shared concerns”.

“The decision has been taken, and the new authorities in Libya have been informed by Cairo that Egypt will send an ambassador within two months or a little more,” said a Libyan source.

Last week Egypt welcomed the election of a new head of the presidential council, and a new head of government in Libya, as per the UN sponsored process.

Less than 48 hours after the elections were concluded President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi congratulated Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah upon his election as prime minister of Libya. The high-level contact was announced in Cairo by the presidential press office.

Ahead of the elections there was much speculation that Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the National Council in the east of Libya, and Fatehi Bashagha, the interior minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), in the west, were Cairo’s preferred candidates.

In the wake of the elections, Cairo, according to the same informed sources, decided that it would work with whoever was elected to build new bridges, a process made easier by the fact neither Dbeibah nor Mohamed Al-Menfi, the elected head of the presidential council, fall in the category of political figures to which Cairo has taken exception.

“What we are seeking to do now is start a new page on which all elements of Libyan society — with the exception of militia hardliners — are present,” said the same Egyptian source.

“We are entering a new phase in which we hope Libya can work its way to stability. This is key for us, given we have such a long and difficult border with Libya. We want to work with the new political leaders of Libya to help secure stability and move towards a conclusive electoral process.”

According to the roadmap set by the UN mission on Libya, elections should take place on 24 December this year.

“An extension is possible, but not a long one. Though this is our target we might need a few more weeks to compete the necessary preparatory work, not just in terms of security but in terms of logistics. The concept of elections is not a familiar one in the Libyan system,” the Libyan source said.

In Hurghada last week, Egypt held a meeting between representatives of Libya’s national and state councils. The meeting agreed to a referendum on a draft constitution and the chairman of Libya’s High National Election Commission, Emad El-Sayeh, confirmed the commission was ready to hold the referendum.

In the months ahead Egypt wants “to help the Libyans with their political process and help relaunch the Egyptian-Libyan relationship on solid basis”, said the Egyptian official.

“There was an idea to re-open the embassy and have it headed by a charge d’affaires but the plan now is to send an ambassador as a strong message of engagement.”

It is seven years since Egypt pulled its diplomats from Tripoli. The Libyan capital was falling under the sway of militias and mercenaries who had already executed over 50 Coptic Egyptians who had been working in Libya. In the wake of the massacre the Egyptian Air Force conducted retaliatory sorties against militant targets.

In the years that followed, Cairo worked mainly with political and military figures from the east of Libya.

“The idea was never for us to split Libya into east and west. Though it was an idea floated by some regional players we were never on board,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

“But it was perfectly legitimate for us to work to secure our borders which were being infiltrated by terrorists and militants who were conducting attacks in Egypt and providing assistance to terrorist groups in Sinai.”

As part of its strategy to consolidate security in the east to protect Egypt’s western borders Cairo worked with the Libyan National Army, under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan general who had defected to the US during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi.

“The LNA was never a group of militias,” said the diplomat. “It was a combination of diverse military elements, some with previous experience and some who received training in Egypt and elsewhere. The idea was not to have a militia run by Haftar but to form the nucleus of a possible army that could be enlarged to include soldiers and officers from across the country once order and stability returned to Libya.”

Egypt supported the Haftar-led military operation that basically cleared the east of Libya of militias and, later, Haftar’s failed attempt to take control of Tripoli.

Informed government sources say Cairo was never fully convinced Haftar would be able to deliver Tripoli, despite generous financial support from the UAE and considerable logistic and military backing from several states, including Russia and France.

Last year, sources say, Egypt decided that enough was enough and that an open-ended military operation was in the interests of neither Libya nor Egypt.

“It was never our attention to be perceived as encouraging a civil war in Libya. We just wanted the militias out, and we wanted Turkey, which was supporting militias in the west of Libya, to realise we would not turn a blind eye to its attempts to control Libya,” said the diplomat.

After President Al-Sisi spelt out that the Jufra-Sirte corridor was a red line that could not be crossed, “things changed,” continued the diplomat.

“The message reached its destination and all attempts to support militia activity beyond the line were suppressed.”

Now, he argues, with a new US administration that has already sent Turkey clear warnings over Ankara’s attempts to expand its hegemony around the eastern Mediterranean, it is unlikely that Ankara will “go back to its games in Libya”.

“With an embassy in Tripoli Egypt will be better placed to support the march towards stability and away from all sorts of foreign intervention.”

For Cairo, Libyan stability is not just about securing Egypt’s western borders but also about the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Sahel and Sahara, extending to the situation in Sudan and East Africa.

In the coming weeks, government sources in Cairo say, Egypt is expecting to send and receive high-level official delegations to and from Libya and will work “closely and constructively” with the new UN envoy to Libya, Ján Kubiš.

The national council of Libya is set to convene in Sirte within days to give a vote of confidence to the new political dispensation. Once this is done, the Libyan source says, meetings and diplomatic exchanges will start to roll.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

 

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