Egypt’s policy in Libya: A Government of National Accord by other means
Despite gestures toward politically inclusive discussion, Egypt’s wager on the Libyan National Army strongman continues
Courtesy: Egypt's State Information Service website

As various parties return to discussion of political agreements and reconciliation, it might seem as though time stood still in Libya since the end of 2015. A little over a year has passed since the United Nations-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) was signed in Skhirat, Morocco. Rather than stemming division, however, implementation of the deal has been held back by the factions it was designed to tame. Thus, talks have begun anew, and, this time around, Egyptian and Algerian representatives find themselves in prominent assisting roles.

Egypt has maintained an influential position in the conflict, between the most recent talks and the signing of the LPA, wagering political and speculated military support on several forces that have eroded the legitimacy of the Government of National Accord (GNA), the unity government that was produced by the December 2015 deal and is internationally recognized despite failing to be endorsed by the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk. In the last month, however, Egyptian authorities have seemingly marshaled a new policy that opens the door to dialogue with both Libyan governments. Libyan parties also say Egypt is preparing to host a direct meeting between the Tobruk HoR and Tripoli General National Congress (GNC) for the first time in over a year.

Egypt has also recently expended efforts to draw in regional players. Ministers from countries neighboring Libya gathered for a meeting in Cairo, which was also attended by UN envoy to Libya Martin Kobler, and issued a communique on January 21 that emphasizes the importance of their vision to resolve the conflict. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Tunisia on January 24 to discuss the conflict with Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi.

Nonetheless, Egypt has maintained its support for General Khalifa Haftar, the most recent sign of which came during a January 20 meeting between Haftar and Egyptian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy. Haftar heads the Tobruk government-affiliated Libyan National Army that seized control over several oil ports in east of the country, vowed to rid the country of Islamist factions — which would include the western government’s GNC, the parliamentary body that held onto the mandate granted to the 2012 democratically-elected GNC and that is constituted by members of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Justice and Construction Party — and has both contested the GNA and sabotaged it from within, through the Haftar-loyal conduit to the Presidential Council Ali Faraj al-Qatrany.

How does one make sense of these seemingly contradicting policy formations? Has the Egyptian government deviated from its previous stance, or has its wager on Haftar been recast in a new form?

The Government of National Accord: Formation and limbo

House of Representatives and General National Congress representatives signed the Libyan Political Agreement on December 17, 2015 in the Moroccan city of Skhirat, paving the way for what was thought at the time to be the imminent formation of a unified government in the country’s capital of Tripoli: the Government of National Accord.

The LPA made provisions for a new government structure, at the head of which is the nine-member Presidential Council led by Fayez al-Sarraj, a former parliamentarian who was living in exile in Tunis before the GNA was formed. In accord with the agreement, the GNC announced in April that it would “transfer its authority” to the newly formed High Council of the State, which would function as advisor to the HoR and consist of 145 members, most of who are members of the GNC.

After holding its first meeting in Tunis on January 8, the GNA entered Tripoli in March, a step that the Tobruk government had not accomplished since 2014. However, the new government failed to attain a vote of confidence from the HoR, effectively hindering its ability to fully administer the country’s affairs. Several prominent members of the Presidential Council boycotted the parties’ sessions, including Qatrany. Despite the dysfunction, the GNA has embarked on a number of missions, including a military operation conducted separately from Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

Courtesy: European Council on Foreign Relations

Haftar has been Egypt’s principal ally in the Libyan conflict since he announced his opposition to the GNC’s January 2014 decision to extend its term, a position only solidified further when the Libyan National Army launched Operation Dignity in March, 2014 to confront a wide range of armed groups, including the Islamic State, Libya Dawn forces and Misrata militias, the latter two of which backed the GNC. He stated he would not work with the unity government until the militias aligned to it were disbanded and wrested power over Libya’s central oil ports away from the Petroleum National Guard, a force loyal to the western parliament.

Courtesy: European Council of Foreign Relations

Setting Libya’s latest oil struggles straight

Relations have equally become strained in the integration of the GNC into the UN-recognized government, highlighted by the October coup attempt, the most recent development of which is the January 12 statement by the former head of the Tripoli parliament Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell announcing he had seized control of the Defense Ministry and other state institutions, a claim the GNA called a media farce.

Despite the tension, the High Council of the State formed a delegation to spearhead reconciliation efforts with the HoR in Tobruk, and, on January 5, that delegation visited Cairo to hold talks with Egyptian politicians.

Embracing a new policy?

Salah Mito, a member of the Libyan High Council of the State delegation, says the visit was prompted by an invitation from the Egyptian committee on Libya, a body created by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in August and that is headed by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy, who has long cooperated with the Libyan military and Haftar.

“Libya has more parties than the Tobruk government,” Mito said. “It is important that Egypt listens to all parties.”

Cairo Meeting Declaration

A number of Libyan Personalities, preoccupied with the internal situation in their country…

Posted by Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In fact, the early January meeting was preceded by five others with Libyan parties, including the December 13 meeting that yielded the Cairo Declaration. Although it has neither been officially adopted by the HoR, nor added to the country’s constitutional declaration, the signatories asserted that the political agreement, which outlines five amendments to the LPA, “constitutes the solid foundation for the political solution, with some amendments to its provisions and annexes, in order to bring an end to the state of division in Libya since 2014.”

Herein lies the core of the dispute between the eastern and western governments. While the HoR refuses to adopt the LPA before the five amendments are implemented, the GNC has refused to consider any amendments until Tobruk endorses the unity government.

If neither side yields, Mito says, “we would be back to square one.”

But what should be made of the High Council of the State delegation’s visit to Cairo then? Mito says that there was no intention to negotiate, “but it was a show of goodwill and aimed to confirm the readiness for dialogue with all parties.” Discussion of any amendments, he says, must follow the mechanisms laid out in the LPA: include the agreement in the constitutional declaration, and then form a committee composed of members from each government that can discuss the proposed amendments without limitations. “Aside from this issue, the Cairo Declaration was good.”

The amendments proposed in the Cairo Declaration center on article 8 of the LPA and the articles associated with it in the agreement’s appendix, which grant the GNA authority over the Libyan National Military. However, the Tobruk parliament wants to maintain authority over any future military coalition, of which Haftar’s army would be the strongest component.

The Libyan Presidential Council has repeatedly stressed its rejection of any amendments to Article 8 of the LPA.

“In all countries, military leadership falls under the umbrella of political leadership,” says Presidential Council Vice-Chairman Ahmed Maitiq.

Coinciding with the delegation’s visit to Cairo, High Council of State Chairman and former GNC Deputy General Abdulrahman Asswehly travelled to Algeria. Asswehly — who is a member of the HoR but boycotts their sessions — met with Algerian Council of the Nation President Abdelkader Bensalah and Algerian Minister of Maghreb and African Affairs Abdelkader Emssehel to discuss the potential for reconciliation.

Egypt and Algeria’s respective perspectives on the Libyan crisis can be traced to the short-term history of their involvement with their shared neighbor. While the Egyptian government provided refugee status to supporters of former leader Muammar Qadhafi, including his personal delegate and cousin Ahmed Qadhaf al-Dam, Algeria hosted a meeting between rival Libyan parties, in which several drafts were produced in the lead up to the December 2015 LPA.

When Egypt’s bet for a military solution didn’t materialize, it pushed for a political solution in order to lift the UN arms embargo.

Ziad Akl, a researcher in Libyan Affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says the difference in the countries’ policy positions on Libya centers on the fact that “Egypt’s only desire is for Haftar to remain in control of the military, while Algeria is paying attention to its border security and is thus interested in reaching an agreement with the closest power,” which is the Tripoli government and the Bunyan al-Marsous forces loyal to it.

However, this does not mean that Egypt’s policy toward the conflict has remained unchanged, according to Akl. “Egypt bet on a military resolution in Libya at the hands of Haftar’s forces for a long time, a resolution that did not materialize,” he says. “It changed its position toward amending the Skhirat Agreement in the belief that, as soon as an agreement on the amendments takes place and the agreement is implemented, the UN resolution enforcing an arms embargo on the Libyan National Army will end.”

The arms embargo is believed to frequently have disrupted the progress of Haftar’s forces, despite accounts that Egypt violated the agreement by providing the Libyan National Army with weapons. In a BBC interview on January 10, US special envoy to Libya Jonathan Winer said that a UN expert committee report containing pictures confirms the existence of evidence that Egypt is sending arms to Libya.

Arab League envoy to Libya Salaheddine Jamali held a new conference on January 11 to deny the allegation, attributing any breach of the embargo to what he called an “arms mafia” operating between neighboring countries.

Nonetheless, Akl does not think the military struggle is intractable, holding onto the possibility of an agreement to unify the Libyan National Army and Bunyan al-Marsous forces for two reasons. “Neither party can gain complete military control in Libya, as neither has enough power,” he says. “Further, the Libyan National Army under Haftar’s leadership has become a military reality. He has convinced people that it is impossible to get rid of him, and, despite this, that it is also impossible to reach a military resolution, especially given Haftar’s ability to secure resources from Egypt and the UAE in comparison to Bunyan al-Marsous forces. This enables Haftar to continue the battle for a long time.”

Has the Egyptian government deviated from its previous stance, or has its wager on Haftar been recast in a new form?

Mito says the Egyptian government has shown a willingness to host direct negotiations between Libyan parties, a development the Tripoli government welcomes. However, he maintains that what is said in public is different from what is ventured behind closed doors.

Fathy al-Mariamy, the media adviser to the HoR speaker, says that the Tobruk government is “betting on Haftar. Without him, any efforts will fail. There is no power on the ground except Haftar’s that is capable of eradicating terrorism, political Islam and the agents of foreign intervention.”

While acknowledging dialogue will prevent painful fighting, Mariamy threatened that the Tobruk government is prepared to pursue a military resolution if nothing happens. “The Libyan National Army would have no other option but to invade the whole of Libya and control it so that we could return it to our sons,” he says. “We cannot agree with agents who have aligned themselves with foreign intelligence agencies and states that interfere in Libya. If they were to abandon their alliance with foreign parties, we could come to an agreement with them.”

As to exactly what dialogue means, Mariamy says the eastern government will not retreat from its preconditions that all militias, including Bunyan al-Marsous, be dissolved, and that Libya have a unified military under Haftar, incorporating only those with previous military experience.

Amid speculation that the various parties of the Libyan conflict would meet, Haftar has gone back and forth in the media. The Libyan National Army head sat down for an interview with the Italian Corriere della Sera on January 1 and denied any plans to meet with Sarraj. “I, however, started to talk to Serraj two and a half years ago, but without any concrete results,” Haftar said. “Once we have defeated the extremists we can get back to talking about democracy and elections. But not now.”

However, Sarraj was interviewed by Corriere della Sera on January 24 and said that the two men could meet within days in Cairo.

Days after Haftar made his comments to the Italian press, a Libyan National Army warplane bombed a plane that had just touched down at the Jufra Airbase, claiming that it was transporting ammunition and weapons to militias allied with Al-Qaeda. However, the Jafra City Council claimed the plane was carrying a civil delegation from Misrata, one of whom was killed in the attack.

Mito believes that Egypt and Algeria agreeing to a roadmap to end the Libyan crisis could facilitate a political agreement between the various factions. He has set his eyes on an Egyptian, Algerian and Tunisian summit that Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi called for at the beginning of January, saying it could bridge the gap between Cairo and Algeria, though there surely will be tensions. While Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Tunisia on Tuesday, there has yet to be an announced date of a possible trilateral summit.

The Egyptian government’s communication with political factions in Tobruk and Tripoli comes after months of exchange with groups supporting the previous Libyan regime. Thus, Asaad Zahio, the secretary general of the Libyan Popular National Movement, one of the groups supporting Qadhafi, says he was surprised to not be invited to the meetings in Cairo. “Before December, intense communication and continuous exchange was taking place,” he says. “I was, there, surprised not to have been invited to the meetings that Cairo claimed would be inclusive.”

While many involved in the reconciliation efforts are focused on finding a formula that balances the various concerns of those party to the LPA, Zahio calls the negotiations that take the agreement as a starting point a waste of time, “because the Skhirat Agreement produced an unacceptable and illegitimate government, and all reconciliation efforts since 2011 suffer severe shortcomings, namely the exclusion of influential parties that include supporters of the previous regime who possess various competencies.”

“This has considerably marginalized a significant faction of Libyan society,” Zahio says. “In the same manner, Libyan tribes are marginalized, despite their large influence and the fact that their leaders have to offer a solution.”

Translated by Assmaa Naguib

Lobna Monib 

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