On 12 November President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is expected in Paris where he will take part in a conference on Libya hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron. The conference is taking place in the run-up to Libyan elections, scheduled for 24 December, which many hope will place Egypt’s long troubled western neighbour on the path to stability.
“This is an important meeting at a crucial moment for Libya,” said a Cairo-based foreign diplomat. The objective, he said, is “to make sure that the poll is held on time and result in the election of a president and new parliament that can work together to bring stability to Libya”.
Egyptian government sources say that for Cairo the issue is also about “maintaining the territorial integrity of Libya, not just on paper but on the ground,” and add that “this requires a political regime that is inclusive and free of excessive foreign influence.”
Yet despite most concerned capitals vouchsafing their support for the elections to be held as scheduled, a number of diplomatic sources expect that the process will encounter last-minute delays.
On Monday, as the Libyan electoral committee started the process of registering presidential candidates, Macron called Al-Sisi ahead of the Paris meeting to discuss the situation in Libya, according to a presidential statement issued by Cairo.
On the same day, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri was discussing Libya with his American counterpart Antony Blinken in Washington as part of the two-day Egyptian-US strategic dialogue that opened this week.
In press statements Blinken stressed the commitment of Egypt and the US to supporting the Libyan elections and the removal of all “foreign forces and mercenaries” from Libya.
“I don’t think we disagree with the US on what needs to be done to get Libya on the path of stability. Nor do we disagree on the importance of Libyan stability for the southern Mediterranean and North Africa,” said the Egyptian government source.
Regional stability, according to statements made by Shoukry and Blinken in Washington this week, is an objective shared by Cairo and Washington, though it is one that begs the question of what can be done on the Palestinian-Israeli front.
For the last six months, Egyptian and Cairo-based foreign diplomats have argued that Washington greatly values Cairo’s role in holding the line between the Palestinians and Israel. It is no surprise, they say, that Blinken’s first visit to Egypt came in spring this year, after Egypt had managed to mediate a halt to Israel’s war on Gaza, and was followed by US President Joe Biden’s first call to President Al-Sisi, seven months after Biden entered the White House.
In press statements in Washington this week, Blinken underlined the significance of Egypt’s mediation and praised Cairo’s commitment to work further to secure stability. He also praised Egyptian-Israeli relations which he said “had never been stronger”, as demonstrated by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Egypt in September — the first visit by an Israeli prime minister in a decade.
Blinken’s remarks came as a meeting of the Egyptian-Israeli Military Committee was in the process of agreeing an increase in the level of Egypt’s military presence around Rafah beyond that agreed in the 1978 Camp David Accords.
A second Egyptian government official said that while Egypt began expanding its military presence in the area five years ago, with tacit Israeli approval, the official agreement shows how committed the two countries are to working together on joint security concerns.
This cooperation between Egypt and Israel, he added, could help support regional stability at a time when the US appears keen to disengage from the Middle East.
Egyptian and Cairo-based foreign diplomats agree that to some extent Washington is seeking to reduce its regional involvement on the back of Egypt’s crisis-management capacities. But while Washington would clearly appreciate some quiet and stability in the Middle East, they warn that the US may well be unwilling to invest as much as Cairo would like in securing sustainable, long-term regional stability.
Cairo, according to Egyptian sources, has been trying to get Washington to invest in relaunching a direct negotiations process between the Palestinians and Israelis, even if not at the most senior level, since at least May, and it is not yet clear whether Shoukri was able to secure a change in the US position in Washington this week.
The same sources also say that Cairo’s and Washington’s assessment of what constitutes stability, are likely to differ, citing Sudan as an example.
While the US, according to Blinken’s statements during his press conference with Shoukri this week, views the military take-over of power in Sudan as “dangerously destabilising”, Egypt’s position is to encourage Sudanese military leaders to establish a new partnership with a set of civilian figures capable of pushing the situation forward. That said — and the disagreements have never been explicitly voiced in public — Cairo has agreed, according to the same Egyptian sources, to work with Washington and try and persuade Sudanese military leader Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan to move forward on announcing a new civilian government.
The same sources say Cairo is also hoping Washington will relax its objections to the slow process of reintegrating Syria into the Arab security regime. While Washington continues to view Bashar Al-Assad as persona non grata, Cairo’s position is that Al-Assad has won the war with the help of regional and international allies and it serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.
Speaking in Washington this week, Shoukri did not attempt to disguise the disagreements between Cairo and Washington on a number of issues, but he insisted the two countries are committed to working together to promote regional stability.
Egyptian diplomatic sources say Cairo is worried about the level of instability in the region and its possible impact om Egypt’s economic prospects, particularly when it comes to attracting tourism and investments. Dialling down regional tensions, they add, also serves Washington’s plans to reduce any interventions in the Middle East and the interest of European partners who want to see a far more stable southern Mediterranean.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.