Egypt extends surprising help to US over Libya crisis

Washington’s active role is tied by analysts to the influx of foreign mercenaries in Libya and wariness about Russia’s growing role.
Tuesday 06/10/2020
A file picture shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (C) chairs a recent meeting at Heliopolis Place with Egyptian Prime Minster Mostafa Kamal Madbouly (L) and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. (DPA)
A file picture shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (C) chairs a recent meeting at Heliopolis Place with Egyptian Prime Minster Mostafa Kamal Madbouly (L) and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. (DPA)

CAIRO - Egypt’s involvement in efforts led by the US State Department, represented by its embassy in Tripoli and the acting UN envoy to Libya, US diplomat Stephanie Williams, has surprised observers of Libyan political affairs, given that the US State Department is known for its support of Islamists in western Libya who are opposed to Egyptian authorities and Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Cairo’s ally in the east of the country.

Over the past few months, a clear rift over the Libyan file has appeared between the White House and the US State Department. While the US National Security Council welcomed Egypt's initiative to resolve the Libyan crisis and the ceasefire, the State Department continued, albeit indirectly, to encourage Turkey to issue threats to attack Sirte.

Cairo is showing unexpected flexibility over the American plan, although many view it with suspicion, especially with regard to the establishment of a demilitarised zone that starts from Sirte and goes to Ajdabiya, which would mean ending control of the Libyan National Army (LNA) over these strategic areas. Not so long ago, the US threatened to directly intervene on the ground to counter Turkey's threats to control that region.

The United States has accelerated its diplomatic moves in Libya and has looked to increase the pace of cooperation with Egypt to control some of the main joints in the eastern region, which is under LNA control.

On Sunday, US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland flew to Cairo for the second time in a few weeks to coordinate with Egyptian officials and to reach an understanding on key arrangements to ensure the flow of oil in exchange for reducing the power of armed militias.

Political sources in Cairo told The Arab Weekly that Washington’s increased involvement in the Libyan crisis, and its direct pressure on both the head of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are linked to American reports on the influx of foreign mercenaries in Libya and wariness about Russia’s growing role and its growing proximity to the oil crescent area, as well as its suspected desire to stop pumping Libyan oil for a long time.

The sources pointed out that the United States wants Libyan oil exports to resume quickly, and has turned to Cairo to benefit from its ties to the various political and military factions in eastern Libya in exchange for pledges to keep the GNA forces away from the Sirte-Jufrah line.

A member of the Libyan House of Representatives, Muhammad Amer al-Abani, told The Arab Weekly that the United States has realised its need to ensure the flow of oil as it moves to impose more sanctions on Iran. It hopes that Libyan oil will compensate for part of the expected disturbances to the global market and their implications on the US economy.

He added that Washington finds cooperating with Egypt to be an opportunity to control this part of the equation because of Cairo’s good connections in the eastern region, where oil is abundant.

He alluded to Egypt's urgent need to provide the right conditions and means for security and stability in eastern Libya, a goal that in sync with the American role, converges on the issue of getting rid of militias and mercenaries and stands in the way of Turkey's persistent military interventions.

The US Embassy in Libya confirmed that Norland met with the head of Egyptian military intelligence, Major General Khaled Megawer, and a number of officials responsible for the Libyan file in Cairo to support the stabilisation of the ceasefire and discuss mechanisms for a political solution.

The US-Egyptian rapprochement raises questions about an indirect alliance between Egypt and Russia in Libya, as Cairo has for many years and until a few months ago been closer to Moscow than Washington in dealing with the Libyan crisis.

Norland thanked Egypt for hosting talks in Hurghada at the end of last month, which were attended by military officers from rival Libyan sides. “We will exchange views on the best ways to support the next Libyan political dialogue forum,” he wrote on Twitter.

The inter-Libyan discussions taking place in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada include talks on expediting joint military committee meetings, known as “5 + 5," holding direct meetings this week, taking urgent measures on some vital files before the end of October by forming specialised committees and transferring the task of securing the oil facilities to the Military Committee.

Norland had requested to meet in Cairo with Libyan Parliament Speaker Aguila Salah in order to hold talks on military developments and political arrangements.

Ahmed Aliba, a researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Thought and Strategic Studies in Cairo, explained to The Arab Weekly that Washington wants to play an active role in the next stage, which is likely to witness changes in the political structure of the ruling authority in Tripoli. This is why it has become more involved in following up on preparations for the coming comprehensive inter-Libyan meeting in Geneva.

Cairo too is working intensely to deal with upcoming arrangements in Libya, as there are many political, military and social delegations from western and eastern Libya taking part in many talks. There are also leaks about a meeting being arranged in Cairo between a number of Libyan forces on their way to Geneva.

Norland's visit to Cairo has military dimensions as well, since the Egyptian capital is going to host in the next few days meetings of the Joint Military Committee aimed at consolidating the ceasefire and developing a new action plan for dismantling the armed militias in Libya.

The Arab Weekly has learned that the United States will play a pivotal role in the arrangements for this meeting, and will support the various parties in implementing its outcomes in practice in order to secure their interests in Libya.

Aliba stressed that Norland's meeting with Saleh concerned arrangements for a comprehensive political dialogue and aimed to give the US a foothold in the preparatory meetings that will take place in Cairo soon, especially the meeting of the Constitutional Committee, which is tasked with providing the legal framework for the next political structures expected to take over the leadership in Libya after the government and the Presidential Council are reformed.