Over two months have passed since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi issued his warning to forces loyal to the Turkish-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and its local and foreign militias not to cross the “red line” of the oil-rich region of Sirte and Jufra. Since then, the situation in Libya has not changed, aside from some temporary incursions around the country.
The Egyptian warning enforced a ceasefire in an area that represents the crown jewels of Libyan territory for the Islamist and unelected, yet UN-recognised, GNA in Tripoli backed by Turkey and Qatar. At the same time, the Libyan National Army (LNA) backed by Egypt and the UAE has held its ground, while maintaining its control of most of the country except the capital Tripoli.
It is against this background that the declaration of a ceasefire by the Tripoli government led by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj on 20 August, with this being accepted by the Tobruk-based parliament, represents a breakthrough in a deadlocked situation. However, despite successful diplomatic efforts led by Cairo, Washington, the EU and others to defuse a situation on the brink of explosion in Libya, there have been various warning signs making it unwise to assume that this ceasefire will necessarily hold.
The ceasefire declaration by the GNA seemed cordial in its wording, and it values the role played by Egypt along with several other regional and international players in brokering it. Among the terms is a call for the disbanding of militias and the preparation of general elections in Libya to take place by March 2021. The GNA in Tripoli has also called for the end of any military presence in the Sirte/Jufra area and its being turned into a non-military zone. This area is firmly controlled by the LNA, and it is the area that Al-Sisi earlier warned that any attempt to occupy it would force Egypt to intervene militarily as a matter of national security.
However, it is unclear whether the LNA or its allies will accept the ceasefire proposal, at least at this stage, since trust in the GNA has been shattered as a result of several other broken ceasefires over the past few years as well as the use of foreign mercenaries and regional allies such as Turkey by the Tripoli government in its fight against the LNA. Moreover, the oil-rich region of Sirte/Jufra is a target for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has been trying to take control of it over the past few months in vain. If left unguarded, it could encourage a sneak attack by Turkey or its allied militias.
Despite the above, prior to an agreement of the ceasefire and as a sign of good will the LNA and Tobruk parliament approved the resumption of oil production and export after a period of stopping production in the region.
Among the reasons for wariness about the ceasefire is the plan by the Turkish and Qatari regimes to force a Muslim Brotherhood regime on Libya by backing the Islamist-leaning GNA in Tripoli. A few days prior to the declaration of the ceasefire, both the Turkish and Qatari defence ministers visited Libya, and in the presence of the GNA leader they agreed to send Qatari military experts to the country and for Turkey to build a naval base in Misrata. Any such moves are totally unacceptable to Egypt, which said that Egypt cannot accept foreign bases in Libya as part of any future settlement.
According to LNA Spokesman Ahmed Al-Mesmary, in July Turkey transported 25,000 mercenaries into Libya, including 17,000 Syrian militants and 2,500 Tunisians who had earlier fought in the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria. In addition to these, it also sent in some 3,000 Turkish military experts.
Prior to the ceasefire declaration, Al-Sisi sent a letter to commander of the LNA Khalifa Haftar last week expressing Egypt’s support for his efforts to bring unity, peace and stability to Libya. President Al-Sisi also ordered the Egyptian army to remain in a state of readiness to meet any possible developments in the region.
The unity of GNA leader Al-Sarraj’s group in the Libyan cabinet remains in doubt as news of disputes between Al-Sarraj and first Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maitiq has surfaced recently. There are factions forming within the Libyan Presidential Council in Tripoli, some of which have joined Al-Sarraj and some of which have joined Maitiq.
Accusations of corruption have also been thrown at Al-Sarraj by Maitiq and Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. Al-Sarraj’s acceptance of the ceasefire may thus be his way of solidifying his position against a wave of objections against his handling of political and economic affairs in the country. It remains to be seen whether both factions in the Tripoli government are in agreement with the ceasefire declaration.
Yet, despite all this the declaration may represent a glimmer of hope that problems in Libya can be settled, providing that the Islamist GNA in Tripoli does not continue to leverage its position against the LNA and Tobruk parliament through its Turkish ties. It is also unclear what the current negotiations will result in, especially given present tensions and the lack of faith between the parties.
There has been a major change in Erdogan’s tone and that of the Turkish presidency towards Egypt over the past week, especially after Egypt ratified its naval demarcation agreement with Greece. The Turkish presidency praised Egypt’s role in reaching a ceasefire in Libya, which is the opposite of what it has been saying over recent months. The change of tone was sudden and appeared incoherent with the years of inflammatory and hostile rhetoric that Turkey has used against the Egyptian state. Suddenly, however, Erdogan seems to have changed his tune, perhaps because he has realised that his grand ambitions for Turkish hegemony in the region may have hit a dead end.
But Erdogan’s motives cannot be trusted. His dreams of an expansionist, neo-Ottoman “caliphate” in the region, encapsulated in his Mavi Vatan or “Blue Homeland” vision of a large part of Southern Europe and the Middle East including countries in North Africa, still lurk somewhere in his deluded mind. Even so, if there is any chance of avoiding further bloodshed in war-torn Libya, then this is a chance that has to be seized, while being wary of any side-deals and attempts by the Turkish and Qatari regimes to acquire by politics and trickery what they have failed to do by military means.
Erdogan’s regime is currently bowing to the reality of the situation in Libya, as imposed by Egypt and the international community. But the Turkish Islamist regime is an untrustworthy partner that is unlikely to honour any long-term deals. Egypt thus remains a bulwark against Erdogan’s and the Islamists’ ambitions of hegemony in the region, and it will not stand idly by until this threat is neutralised. But for the time being, if peace can be attained in Libya without further bloodshed, then so be it.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly