The official statement issued by the Egyptian presidency following Libyan Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah’s visit to Cairo last week offered a glimpse into a shared agenda for the Libyan interim phase launched when the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) approved a new executive authority on 5 February.
In welcoming the prime minister, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi congratulated the new Libyan leadership for its success in reaching “a promising beginning of a new era in which all government institutions in Libya will work in harmony and in a unified manner”.
Since the Berlin Conference on Libya in January 2020 Cairo has been working towards working the reunification of the Libyan state through a political transition process capable of ending years of conflict that had solidified into mutually antagonistic political and military institutions and power centres.
The new phase brings the possibility of reunification closer, which is why Egypt, together with the UN which is sponsoring the political process in Libya, hope regional and international stakeholders will work to push the agreed roadmap forward. For its part, Cairo will continue to support and host activities related to the holding of general elections and a plebiscite on a new Libyan constitution before the end of the year.
The reunification of the Libyan military is a central issue discussed in Cairo in the framework of institutional reunification. It is an issue on which Cairo began work before the Berlin Conference. Indeed, Egypt achieved major inroads towards this end in 2016 and 2017, inroads that the Berlin Conference adopted as a “frame of reference” for the military establishment within a unified Libyan state.
Members of the LPDF with whom Al-Ahram Weekly has spoken are optimistic. As one put it, “with the current phase, the opportunity is at hand more than ever to reshape the Libyan political landscape, support the National Unity Government and end divisions despite the persistence of many challenges.”
Foremost among the challenges is the risk of military escalation given the continued foreign presence, mercenaries in particular, in Libya.
According to another source, “the 5+5 Joint Military Committee (JMC) ran aground on the polarisation that prevailed under the Government of National Accord, but now the National Unity Government holds out a real opportunity for progress on the various tracks.”
He believes that, rather than being addressed head on, reunification of the army will be advanced indirectly, first by restoring political and military calm and achieving logistic priorities such as reopening the coastal road between Benghazi and Misrata, ending one of the greatest manifestations of division in the country, and by dismantling the militias and deporting foreign mercenaries.
According to informed sources in Cairo, Egypt broadened the scope of its local alliances in Libya in the period that followed the Libyan ceasefire in October 2020 in order to demonstrate its determination to pursue Libyan crisis management in a fair and impartial spirit.
Cairo’s openness to Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, in particular, was informed by the understanding that he is key to handling the militia question. Cairo fears that the continued presence of militias in Tripoli will jeopardise the work of the National Unity Government and perhaps reproduce the situation whereby the Government of National Accord often had to defer to the militias that controlled the capital.
Last week’s visit by an Egyptian delegation to Libya to meet the new political leaders, as well as Bashagha, were in part a continuation of Cairo’s efforts to minimise opportunities for the militias to rebel against the new government. The assassination attempt against Bashagha this week amply demonstrated the way in which the Tripoli militias see the new political direction in the country as a threat to their interests.
In the presidential statement issued during Dbeibah’s visit to Cairo President Al-Sisi also reaffirmed Egypt’s willingness to lend its help and expertise to setting Libya on the path to stability, reconstruction and development. As Dbeibah, himself, said during the meeting: “The Libyan people are looking forward to establishing a comprehensive partnership with Egypt with the aim of creating successful models inspired by Egypt’s development experience that has been achieved in recent years under the president’s able leadership, especially with regard to restoring security and stability and launching development and reform processes.”
As a Libyan source told the Weekly: “The Egyptian development experience seems most appropriate for Libya as it strives to overcome the scars of armed conflict because of its demonstrable success in expanding the country’s infrastructure.”
A source in Tripoli close to Dbeibah also told the Weekly that Tripoli is particularly keen to open up trade and finance with Egypt and to benefit from Egypt’s experience in the energy field.
According to the source, three Egyptian companies are currently in the country to evaluate the condition of the electricity grid in western Libya. The Libyan and Egyptian chambers of commerce have also exchanged frequent visits, and civil aviation authorities in both countries have agreed to resume civil air traffic.
The source believes that the reopening of the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli and the Consulate in Benghazi, and the prospect of growing travel and movement of goods between the two countries, will increase opportunities for commercial and economic exchange in general.
He added that the new Libyan government is eager to cater to the interests of the forces that support the political process in Libya, especially Egypt, and this will promote stability in a country that has been torn by conflict for a decade.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly