Officials from Libya’s rival House of Representatives in the east and High Council of State in the west gathered in Cairo on Sunday for Egypt-mediated talks, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya announced on Saturday.
According to the UNSMIL, the three-day talks will see the two delegations “discuss legal and constitutional options” to be presented in the long-awaited Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in order “to facilitate the deliberations on the constitutional arrangements going forward.”
At the inaugural session on Sunday, Egypt’s General Intelligence Service Director Abbas Kamel presented Cairo as a mediator open to all parties who are aiming to “resolve the crisis without bias,” emphasizing the need to move beyond differences, according to press statements.
Since 2015, Libya has been gripped by a political stalemate and fierce fighting between armed factions that are seeking to gain control of the country. Past efforts at mediation have failed to put an end to the conflict, which has been fueled by foreign intervention by Turkey, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan which have variously funneled weapons and troops to different sides in a bid for strategic control and influence in the oil-rich nation.
Since the beginning of September, there has been speculation on the arrangements of the UN-led political dialogue forum, which is intended to bring Libyan parties together to work toward the formation of a national unity government following the collapse of the 14-month assault on Tripoli by the so-called Libyan National Army. In the interim, the Switzerland-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Egypt and Morocco have all held high-level consultations with Libyan actors, with talks between Libyan parliamentary bodies taking place in Bouznika, Morocco and Egypt having hosted both a Government of National Accord delegation and military talks between rival sides in the Red Sea city of Hurghada.
In its Saturday statement, the UN mission embraced these parallel efforts, saying they would serve as the basis of an “expanded and inclusive” forum to be held in Tunisia in early November, following “weeks of extensive engagement with key Libyan and international stakeholders.”
While the UN sits atop the official political process, it still has had to contend with both domestic and international parties vying for influence, Emad Badi, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, tells Mada Masr.
“You have a devolved political process of sorts in different capitals, and it is hard to find an overarching strategy through which all of these meetings’ outcomes are going to be unified under one umbrella and one political process,” Badi says. “The UNSMIL will not only have to grapple with Libya’s domestic parties but they will also have to grapple with the capitals where these meetings are being held, many of which are involved in the Libyan conflict or want to have a say in what the political-military landscape will look like.”
While the UN process will play out further afield in Tunis, Cairo has used the high-level talks it has mediated in the recent period in an attempt to play a decisive role in Libya’s political and military future, Egyptian officials tell Mada Masr, with much of this effort centering on extending influence over the restructuring and future leadership of a unified Libyan armed forces.
This aim will be at the top of Cairo’s agenda during the three-day constitutional consultations, according to a Cairo-based Western official familiar with the proceedings. Cairo, the official says, has two aims in the consultations. First, it wants to ensure that there is language in the constitution that will grant the “military institution” a role in state management. For Egypt, this will serve as a bulwark against Islamist factions in the west of Libya, according to the source.
Second, Cairo wants to ensure that whatever constitution is agreed upon will allow for amendments.
“Cairo doesn’t want a constitution set in stone. The situation in Libya is still evolving. Things are not clear yet,” the official says. “There should be room for amendments without significant problems.”
The pliability amendments afford is something Egypt sought in the wake of the 2015 signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in Skhirat, Morocco. Months after the signing, Egypt issued the Cairo Declaration, which proposed a series of amendments to move beyond a political impasse, the most important of which was to the article that granted the GNA authority over the Libyan Armed Forces. Egypt, however, wanted to ensure that the House of Representatives maintained authority over any future military coalition, of which the LNA would have been the strongest component.
Despite the major setbacks the LNA has faced since 2016, Egypt still views certain elements of the military patchwork of former Libyan Armed Forces officers, foreign mercenaries, local militias and Islamists as a key security guarantor along the long, porous border the two countries share. And Cairo has garnered support for its insistence on the LNA’s leading role going forward from key international backers, including the United States.
According to an Egyptian official, during a visit to Cairo last week, the US ambassador to Libya and Egyptian officials discussed the working plan to turn Sirte into a temporary administrative capital alongside the disarmament of militias and the unification of the armed forces under LNA leadership.
However, who exactly will be at the head of the LNA itself remains an open question.
In May, after Khalifa Haftar’s forces lost a key western airbase to forces affiliated with the GNA, Libyan and Egypt sources told Mada Masr that the mercurial field marshal’s international backers – Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates – had decided that Haftar was on his way out. Five months later, Haftar’s standing is much diminished, but he continues to hang on.
“Haftar is playing the role of spoiler now. He made it clear that if he is not on board, there will be no elections in the east,” says the Egyptian official, who adds that it is unlikely that there will be elections before 2022. “I’m not sure Haftar could last this long. He knows he has lost a lot of support, but he still has the key support of the UAE.”
A Libyan political source close to Haftar agrees. “Haftar is trying very hard to keep himself in the picture. Now that he is out of the political scene, he is hoping to stay on in a military capacity. The trouble is that he has very little international support left, now that the Russians are less supportive than before and the Americans are softly pushing him out in pursuit of a new political dynamic in Libya that would allow for the stability of the country.”
At several turns, Egypt has tried to smooth over relations in the east between an unruly Haftar – whose forces have repeatedly fired volleys of Grad rockets across the demilitarization line in Sirte in an apparent attempt to prompt GNA forces to forego the ceasefire – and figures more committed to the political process.
During a September 23 meeting between Egyptian officials, Haftar and House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh, Egypt worked to settle differences between the two figures ahead of the political dialogue forum for fear that conflict might jeopardize the east’s strength and Egypt’s interests at the bargaining table.
Cairo, the Egyptian official said at the time, wanted to ensure that all nominations for senior positions to be allocated to the east in a future national government should be cleared by Egyptian officials. This included a push for Saleh to head the next Presidential Council. During the meeting, Egyptian officials worked to ensure that Haftar would not resist such a move.
Cairo also emphasized that the future leadership of the LNA should be a matter decided by officials in the east, according to the official.
For Badi, the question of the LNA’s leadership highlights the difficult position Egypt finds itself in as a mediator.
“Egypt as a mediator will have to grapple internally with different things. It will have to grapple with its genuine, pragmatic concerns with regard to Libya but also the government’s dependence on Gulf backing for different purposes,” he says. “So, Egypt would not want to have the political or constitutional track be skewed based on the geopolitical influence that the Emirates has on Egypt and then on to Libya. That is a tightrope to balance.”
For now, Egypt appears to be attempting a delicate balancing act.
A second Egyptian official says that for Egypt, the east is now more about Saleh than Haftar. “But we cannot ignore the former field marshal altogether,” he says.
At the close of September, Egypt hosted military unification talks in Hurghada. A Libyan political source close to the meetings told Mada Masr at the time that they were held under Russian supervision, with Moscow holding to its position that Haftar should be kept away from the scene at this stage in the negotiations.
“What starts with Haftar may not continue for long with Haftar,” the first Egyptian official says of the military reunification process.
Egypt also does not seem content in having its diplomatic aims tied solely to the field marshal. A source in the GNA and the second Egyptian official confirm that there are considerations to bring Saleh and Fayez al-Sarraj, the current head of the GNA who stated his desire to resign at the end of October if a new government is in place, together in Cairo. While Egypt is facing competition to host the meeting from Russia, according to the Cairo-based Western diplomat, the second Egyptian official says Cairo is trying to make the meeting happen, but that first there needs to be progress regarding the disarmament of militias.
Sarraj was last in Cairo in 2017 for an icy and ultimately disappointing meeting with Haftar. At the time, however, Egyptian officials felt confident that Cairo had asserted itself as the most important Arab actor in Libya after a prolonged absence and that any potential resolution to the Libyan conflict would be carried out under its supervision.
Three years later, Egypt is working to reassert its position as a leading player in Libya — even if the other faces at the negotiating table will likely change.