Government of National Accord chairman Fayez al-Sarraj met with high ranking Egyptian officials on Monday during a brief stopover during a flight from Turkey to Bahrain, according to two Egyptian officials and a source in the GNA familiar with Sarraj’s travels, as part of ongoing negotiations to reach a political settlement in Libya that is acceptable to the various local and regional actors enmeshed in the country.
The meeting marked Sarraj’s first visit to Cairo since 2017 when Egypt brought together several Libyan figures, including Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in an attempt to amend the Libyan Political Agreement. The 2017 meeting failed to make any headway on Egypt’s plan to bring the LNA under the control of the eastern Parliament.
After Haftar launched an attack on the Libyan capital of Tripoli in April 2019, relations between the western government and Egypt, which has been a pragmatic ally of the LNA, have been strained.
However, the collapse of Haftar’s 14-month assault on Tripoli has changed the political calculus in Libya. Haftar has been largely marginalized by many of his international backers, including Egypt, and the United Nations has reinstated a long-stalled political dialogue process, which is currently ongoing in the Tunisian capital of Tunis.
Sarraj’s brief meeting in Egypt comes in the context of these changing relations, as Egypt had hosted GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha only weeks before. Bashagha had laid the groundwork for the Egypt-Serraj meeting during his visit to Cairo, according to a source close to the GNA interior minister.
According to the Egyptian official, Sarraj had also sent indications of his desire to visit Egypt around the time he made a statement expressing his intention to resign from his position at the end of October if a new government was installed.
The timing of the visit also coincided with president-elect Joe Biden’s US election triumph. There is a belief in Cairo and Ankara, according to the Egyptian official, that there may be a renewed US interest in Libya from the incoming US administration.
“Biden may want to empower Sarraj,” the Egyptian official says, adding that Egypt would not want to run afoul of the US so it is willing to open up to figures in the west further. The official notes that Egyptian officials understand Sarraj’s brief visit was approved by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
A source close to the Turkish presidency says that Turkey is willing to open a new page with Cairo to work on a roadmap to deal with regional issues, including Libya, noting that Egypt can benefit from Ankara’s regional influence by countering increasing Gulf influence that Egypt has grown wary of.
Sarraj wasn’t the only high profile GNA figure to hold meetings with Egyptian officials in recent days, however. Shortly after Sarraj’s departure, GNA Vice President Ahmed Maiteeq arrived in Cairo from Abu Dhabi, where he had met with Haftar’s son, Khaled, and Aoun al-Gerjani, according to a GNA source informed of Maiteeq’s movements and a second Egyptian official.
The second Egyptian official says that the visits of the three western politicians come as part of Egypt’s strategy to open up to the western government after they acquiesced to Egypt’s demand to establish the Sirte to Jufrah border as a red line and demilitarized zone.
All three figures — Bashagha, Sarraj and Maiteeq — presented themselves for political roles in the future, according to the second Egyptian official, who adds that Bashagha and Maiteeq are competing for who will be the next prime minister. For Sarraj, the push to remain on the political scene comes as an about-face after he announced his conditional resignation. According to a GNA advisor familiar with Sarraj’s thinking, after the October deadline for his resignation passed, Sarraj listened to local and international calls to go back on his decision, and he now once again wants to play a role in Libya’s political future.
Maiteeq has opened up to Haftar in recent months, having met one of Haftar’s sons in Sochi, Russia in September and agreed to a plan to resume oil production, which the LNA had cut off since January. The deal was roundly rejected by Maiteeq’s colleagues in the GNA and the National Oil Corporation, the latter of which denounced what it called “secretive” talks that could endanger oil infrastructure.
As the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum unfolds in Tunis, Egypt is also keen to prevent any violence in the east from undermining the talks, which the second Egyptian official says are “not going very smoothly, although Egypt is still keen to coordinate with the UN.”
Hanan al-Barassi, a lawyer and outspoken critic of abuses in areas controlled by the LNA, was shot dead in public in the Haftar stronghold of Benghazi yesterday, after releasing a video in which she said she planned to release a video exposing corruption within Haftar’s family. Shortly after news of her death reached the public, Egypt sent a harsh message to Haftar, stating that “it was not the time to get into unnecessary side battles,” according to the first Egyptian source.
The US embassy in Libya expressed shock over the killing. “The era of missing and murdered civilians must come to an end now,” it said in a statement.
The talks in Tunis, which together 75 Libyan participants chosen by the United Nations to represent an array of political viewpoints, regional interests and social groups, come as the main warring sides discuss how to implement a truce they agreed in Geneva.
Ahead of the talks in Tunis, Cairo mediated several high-level talks between both sides in an attempt to play a decisive role in Libya’s political and military future, with much of this effort centering on extending influence over the restructuring and future leadership of a unified Libyan armed forces.