Diplomatic distance: Egypt skeptical of French diplomatic play in Libya

With the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by Khalifa Haftar, undertaking key military operations in the eastern city of Derna and the Oil Crescent, the coordination between Egypt and France, two key allies of the “strongman,” has become distant.

While France is leading recent diplomatic efforts for a political solution in Libya, an Egypt skeptical about the inclusion of Islamist figures is consolidating its support for Haftar on the ground.

In May, French President Emmanuel Macron notably chaired a summit in Paris that brought together United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Tobruk-based House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh, High Council of State head Khaled al-Mishri, and Haftar. At the close of the summit, the parties issued a declaration, committing “to set the constitutional basis for elections and adopt the necessary electoral laws by September 16, 2018 and hold parliamentary and presidential elections on December 10, 2018.”

However, no official agreement has emerged in the weeks following the summit.

Instead, violence overtook Tripolitania’s Gulf of Sidra in a struggle for control of several key oil terminals between the LNA a mix of military units and tribal or regional-based armed groups stylized as an “anti-Islamist” force and nominally fighting under Haftar and Benghazi Defense Brigade (BDB) and Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) forces under the leadership of Ibrahim Jadhran. With the LNA retaking control over the oil terminals that have served as key political and economic assets over the weekend, Haftar’s spokesperson announced on Monday that he would transfer control over all the terminals to the Benghazi-based National Oil Company in the east. The internationally recognized western National Oil Corporation, which is based in Tripoli in the west and had controlled the terminals since 2016, dismissed Haftar’s move as illegal, setting up a potentially tense scene between the LNA and the GNA.

While it has engaged with developments on the ground in Libya, Egypt seems distant from the French approach to the resolution to the Libyan Civil War, several diplomats tell Mada Masr. This is despite the fact that the interests of the two countries have been seen to coincide on Libya in the past.

An Egyptian diplomat based in Cairo, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that France “thinks that it can move forward on its own, in light of the close cooperation it has with Ghassan Salamé [the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya].” However, “the situation in Libya is complex beyond France’s expectations.” Ahead of the Paris summit, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed to Macron that Egypt “is not comfortable” with the conference, according to the source. The Egyptian diplomat says that Egypt sees that France exaggerates its assessment of Salamé’s ability to read the situation in Libya.

At the same time, a European diplomat based in Cairo, who also spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that Egypt sees that Salamé is giving in too much to France, diverting from his UN mandate at times, and is even asking for a different UN envoy.

An aide to Salamé, also speaking anonymously, says that Cairo communicated to the head of the UN support mission to Libya that it is playing a parallel role that completes what the UN is trying to do, but it is not part of it.

A main reason for Cairo’s unease with the Paris conference and Salamé’s role can be seen in the comments Sisi relayed to Macron ahead of the meeting regarding the invitation of representatives of “Islamist currents” who are “directly supported by Turkey and Qatar,” after Egypt’s attempts to “neutralize” these figures by including them in negotiations but ensuring they do not reach positions of power, the Egyptian diplomat says.

Cairo’s unease extends to the Dakar conference, a three-day meeting that began on May 11 and was chaired by French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, which brought together 21 supporters of former Libyan ruler Muammar Qadhafi and Islamists backing the February 17 revolution, as well as representatives from the French intelligence.

The Egyptian diplomat explains that Egypt’s approach to Libya is twofold: First, it is supporting Haftar’s efforts in different ways, and second, it is trying to build a political entity that does not entirely exclude Islamists.

Salamé’s aide cites Egypt’s fixation on uniting all factions under Haftar’s umbrella, but says that Cairo “can’t replace a real political process that will have to include a wider portion of the Islamist currents.”

Egypt’s position on Islamists is also complicated by the fact that Haftar has cultivated the support of forces from the Saudi-backed Madkhalist religious group to bolster his military projection in key areas from Benghazi, Ajdabiya (near the Oil Crescent), and Jabal al-Akhdar to the country’s south.

Nonetheless, Egypt has continued to support Haftar on the ground, most recently during the Oil Crescent clashes that were set off when BDB and PFG forces took control of the Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil terminals on June 14.

Jadhran led a three-year blockade from 2013 until 2016 on the Oil Crescent terminals and attempted to sell oil independently of the government, until Haftar’s coalition seized the ports in September 2016 and the Magharba tribe, the dominant force in the Ajdabiya area that had contributed to the PFG’s ranks, withdrew support for its leader.

A high-ranking LNA officer, who was close to the operations in the Oil Crescent and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says Haftar’s forces, supported by the Egyptian Air Force, carried out airstrikes in mid-June to recapture the strategic terminals.

The LNA officer tells Mada Masr that it was not the first time Egypt had helped Libya with military operations. Achieving safety and security in Libya means achieving it for Egypt as well, the source says, adding that Egypt and Libya already had a history of fighting “terrorist groups that were found in both countries.”

Egyptian sources previously told Mada Masr that the Egyptian Air Force conducted airstrikes in October 2017 on the besieged eastern Libyan city of Derna, the site of a current LNA offensive that has come under fire for endangering civilians and is a security concern for Cairo, as several prominent militants have used the city as a base.

The oil terminals, on the other hand, are a key strategic asset for Haftar in his ability to prove to international backers that he can keep the flow of oil uninterrupted, according to Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya researcher at the University of Paris 8.

In Harchaoui’s estimation, one of Haftar’s greatest accomplishments in the four years since the start of the Libyan Civil War was the “relatively smooth, nonviolent manner with which the LNA was able to take the Oil Crescent terminals from blockader Ibrahim Jadhran in mid-September 2016.” Shortly after taking control of the oil terminals, Haftar announced that all oil proceeds would go the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli, assigning the Tripoli-based NOC the task of overseeing production. “Much of the international legitimacy Haftar has today stems from that key accomplishment,” Harchaoui adds.

The possibility of losing the narrative that places Haftar at the helm of a robust Libyan military and defending the oil terminals which serve as a strategic underlying asset could explain Egypt’s involvement, Harchaoui says.

“The Libyan commander’s foreign backers could not afford to let his military weakness become visible for the entire world to see,” Harchaoui says.

However, with the oil terminals back in his control, Haftar has pivoted away from the Tripoli-based NOC and Central Bank of Libya, giving control over the terminals to the eastern NOC and directing oil revenue to the Tobruk government, a move that Harchaoui says runs against French policy.

The government of France, alongside that of Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States issued a joint statement on Wednesday evening expressing their “deep concern” about the transfer of the oil fields to “the control of an entity other than the legitimate [Benghazi-based] National Oil Corporation.” The GNA’s presidential council also condemned the handover in a Tuesday statement.

“France is definitely not in favor of this kind of shenanigans,” Harchaoui affirms. “French diplomats may very well be losing control of what Haftar is pushing for here. In contrast, the UAE and Egypt are entirely capable of encouraging this dynamic,” he says, qualifying that the move may also be explained at a domestic level as aiming to please separatists in the eastern part of the country.

For the Paris-based scholar, however, Haftar’s decision over control of the oil terminals may be a sign of a shifting position on the Paris summit.

“The ‘elections’ play that France has been pushing for will only suit Haftar if he believes he stands a chance of somehow being able to ‘take’ Tripoli via a combination of negotiations and use of force,” Harchaoui says, adding that Haftar’s confidence in being able to enter Tripolitania soon may have been shaken in the days following the Oil Crescent fighting. “In that case,” he says, “the only way for him to hurt and punish the GNA in Tripoli is to make this kind of move.”

In an interview with Egypt’s state owned Al-Ahram Al-Arabi weekly magazine, published as the LNA took control of the Oil Crescent terminals, Haftar reaffirmed his commitment to the election process outlined in the Paris summit, in which national elections would be held by December. However, he also seemed to move in another direction, criticizing the security situation in Tripoli, where the GNA is based, as untenable. “The issue of Tripoli and its security situation continues to haunt Libyans and the international ‎community. ‎Local, regional and international coordination is ongoing to deal with the situation,” Haftar said.

For Harchaoui, Haftar’s actions are “proof he does not believe authentic, valid, peaceful elections will take place by year-end.”

“If Haftar believed genuine, peaceful national elections stood any chance at all of happening by December 10, 2018, he would refrain from single handedly upsetting the core economic institutions of Libya as a nation,” he says.

The Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat, Morocco in 2015, expired at the close of last year, leaving the Libyan Civil War without a definite path toward resolution.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will visit Cairo in the coming days as part of a three-day tour that includes stops in Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus and begins on Thursday.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Egypt’s approach to Libya includes an effort to “build a political entity that entirely excludes Islamists.” It has been amended to reflect that this approach is to try to “build an entity that does not entirely exclude Islamists.”

Asmahan Soliman 
Sherifa Moataz 

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