In the first high-level visit of its kind since 2010, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli headed for Libya last week at the head of an 11-member ministerial delegation.
“It was very successful,” a Libyan official told Al-Ahram Weekly, and reflected the great changes that have taken place in relations between Cairo and Tripoli.
The restoration of comprehensive stability in Libya serves Egypt’s vital interests and national security, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said in a National Security Council meeting that convened after the visit.
Support for peace and stability in Libya is a core principle of Cairo’s policy, as has been borne out by a decade of Egyptian actions to address the Libyan conflict, the repercussions of which have cost Egypt dearly. It is a strategic priority that Egypt’s political leadership has emphasised on numerous occasions, the most important being President Al-Sisi’s speech in the Western Zone on 20 June 2020 when he said: “Arab national security, Egyptian national security and Libyan national security are being shaken. We want nothing more than stability and peace for Libya. Our aim is to act rapidly to support the restoration of security and stability in Libya as part of Egyptian national security.”
The high-level delegation’s visit to Libya reaffirmed the importance Cairo attaches to the Egyptian-Libyan partnership.
Despite many provocations Egypt refused to be drawn into Libya militarily and consistently supported de-escalation, though when absolutely necessary it would use the threat of recourse to force as when President Al-Sisi spelled out Egypt’s red lines with regard to the conflict in the east of its neighbour.
Egypt has no rivalries with regional powers that are pursuing their interests in Libya and no problem with the presence of other stakeholders as long as they pursue their interests in a manner that does not precipitate a free-for-all over wealth and resources that could precipitate a resurgence of conflict. In this regard, Cairo believes that an Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement could have positive implications for Libya, but only if Ankara takes steps towards this end. Above all, it must withdraw its mercenaries and cease any actions that foment conflict.
Egypt has a clear vision of what is needed to support the roadmap it helped draw up. The joint Egyptian-Libyan communiqué at the end of the visit highlighted some of the priorities. It spoke of the need “to coordinate efforts in light of the current exceptional circumstances and to formulate the broad outlines for the process of cooperation.” The “exceptional” nature of the circumstances is reflected in Cairo’s unceasing efforts to ensure the durability of the ceasefire and to implement the recommendation of the Geneva security track meeting which called for the removal of mercenaries and other forms of foreign military presence in Libya, for the unification of Libyan institutions, and an end to political and military bifurcation. Towards these ends Egypt has offered, and will continue to offer, its support and expertise in order to help Libyans engage in reconstruction and return to normality.
Perhaps the joint communiqué is best viewed as a new strategic charter for Egyptian-Libyan relations. Given the current situation, it is no surprise that security concerns and, specifically, the fight against terrorism, received the most immediate attention.
As the communiqué shows, the two sides agreed a host of new mechanisms in principle: a joint counter-terrorism database and information system; tracking and exchanging information on terrorist activities; identifying terrorist concentrations; preparing a shared list of wanted or suspected terrorists; conducting joint border patrols and setting up surveillance systems along land and maritime borders. Cooperation will also involve creating a joint counterterrorism force and a joint organisation to combat the funding of terrorist organisations, activities that will require extensive training of personnel.
The joint communiqué makes it very clear that Egypt will be directly involved in counterterrorism efforts in Libya from the ground up.
Perhaps the agreement can serve as an avenue to resolving the crisis in the Libyan military/security establishment, especially given Cairo’s good relations with the general command of the Libyan Armed Forces and the fact Egypt has hosted meetings of the 5+5 Joint Military Commission. That the Libyan prime minister is also the defence minister implies a level of consensus between the political and military establishments in Libya. Of course, at some point, the presidency council, in its capacity as commander-in-chief of the Libyan armed forces, will need to be actively involved in the arrangements. Significantly, Presidency Council Chairman Mohamed Al-Manfi has already signalled his support for the developments.
As the agreement between Cairo and Tripoli makes clear, it is crucial to accelerate steps to reunify the Libyan military establishment, a process in which Egypt has been closely involved since 2016. The still shaky security situation and the timetable of the interim phase make this process all the more urgent.
It is difficult to conceive of elections being held in December if the ongoing rift in security structures continues. Now is the most opportune moment to solve this problem given, firstly, that most other Libyan institutions have reunited and, second, that the momentum of international support for the process is at its height, as evident by the UN Security Council resolution in March calling for an end to institutional division and anarchy in Libya and the restructuring of its security apparatuses.
Of course, many challenges still need to be addressed, not least because of the risks they pose to progress. Some are political and relate to the way local and foreign stakeholders are keeping Libyan divisions alive and maintaining mercenary groups on the ground during the interim period. Another major challenge is that some of the many Libyan militias will seek to exacerbate the divisions on which their survival depends.
One of the lessons learned from the Libyan experience is the importance of neutralising the future impact of regional and international interventions on Egyptian-Libyan relations. The final communiqué recognised this by calling for a “formula for relations between the two countries based on a new vision, informed by developments in regional and international relations and by the political, economic and social changes, and that enjoins them to avert any regional or international interventions, to avoid engaging in any alignments or blocs of a suspicious nature or hostile to either party, and to call for the rapid removal of foreign military formations from Libyan territory”.
In addition to the security partnership, the communiqué mentioned partnerships covering the economy, culture, media, health, education and energy and more than 10 memorandums of understanding were signed. Libyan reconstruction is the major focus of these agreements.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly