Egypt pushes diplomacy to contain losses in Libya

In recent months, Cairo has shifted its approach to reach out to different Libyan players and has been able to correct some of its past mistakes, hosting several meetings between Libyan rivals.
Wednesday 17/02/2021
A 2014 in fil picture shows the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli, Libya. (AFP)
A 2014 in fil picture shows the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli, Libya. (AFP)

CAIRO – Egypt is moving to contain its losses in Libya by engaging in diplomacy in the western part of the country, especially after the failure of Cairo’s two candidates, Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, to lead the new executive authority.

Egypt is trying to remedy its recent losses by dealing positively with the new head of the Presidential Council Mohamed al-Menfi and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, by speeding up the process of reopening its embassy in Tripoli and its consulate in Benghazi in support of the new leaders, in a message that seems intended to emphasise that Turkey will not be alone in western Libya.

On Monday, Cairo announcedan Egyptian delegation to Tripoli had arrived as part of technical preparations for the resumption of its diplomatic presence and to take advantage of the available momentum for a political settlement.

The new authority sent positive messages about its willingness to deal with all countries without exception, which will facilitate Egypt’s diplomatic moves. But the authority’s strong links with Turkey means that Cairo will only get what is approved by Ankara, which refuses to withdraw its forces and mercenaries from western Libya.

The latest visit by an Egyptian delegation to Libya came to examine logistical procedures and arrangements for studying the right timing for the resumption of work in both the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli and the Egyptian Consulate in Benghazi.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called both Menfi and Dbeibah to conratulate them on assuming the executive authority, in preparation for holding general elections on December 24. During the calls, the Egyptian president promised to provide the two Libyan leaders with the required support and assistance.

In January 2014, the Egyptian foreign ministry evacuated all employees of its embassy in Tripoli after the kidnapping of four diplomats who were later released, but the embassy remained closed and Cairo concentrated its efforts on eastern Libya.

Egypt’s diplomatic disengagement in Tripoli helped provide a favourable climate for Turkey to increase its military, political and economic moves in cooperation with the former president of the Presidency Council and head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj and was able to establish its presence in western Libya.

The weak Egyptian presence in western Libyan diminished Cairo’s chances of strengthening its relations with a broad political class in Tripoli, and it recently began to notice the dangers of this policy.

In recent months, Cairo has shifted its approach to reach out to different Libyan players, and has been able to correct some of its past mistakes, hosting several meetings between Libyan rivals.

A high-ranking Egyptian diplomatic and security delegation visited Tripoli before the end of last December and met with a number of officials headed by Bashagha affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Justice and Construction Party to discuss details of reopening the Egyptian Embassy in Libya.

Mohamed al-Salak, a former spokesman for the head of the Libyan Presidency Council, said that the Egyptian delegation’s current visit “is part of Cairo’s openness to the whole of Libya, which is quite evident in the number of recent visits from Tripoli to Cairo or vice versa. All of this is part of Egypt’s efforts to implement its vision which aims at preventing foreign interference in the North African country.”

“Cairo seeks to provide more support for the political process in Libya, to preserve the unity and integrity of the Libyan territories, and to respect all international efforts and initiatives and the resolutions of the Security Council.”

The current climate appears favourable for the political process to proceed as a growing national consensus emerges among senior Libyan officials in the east and west of the country. This, however, does not mean that there will be no major challenges in the next phase.

Dbeibah must form a government before February 26, provided that he submits his work programme to parliament for approval during a plenary session on time, in preparation for the new government to formally start its work.

If the House of Representatives fails to approve the new government due to political divisions, the United Nations Political Support Mission will refer the matter to the members of the Political Forum (the 75th Committee) to carry out the task instead.

The government’s efforts collide with disagreement over the plenary session’s venue. The parliamentary bloc in the west demands it be held in Tripoli or Sabratha, while the eastern bloc is calling for it to be held in Tobruk or Sirte.

Salak stressed that the pro-foreign interference entities in Libya have become weak and unable to obstruct the political process, which calls for optimism in facilitating the task of forming the new government.

Egyptian sources revealed that Cairo is determined to increase its presence in western Libya through its diplomatic mission and openness to all Libyan national forces. Libya, according to these sources, is going through a watershed moment that requires Egypt’s presence.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Arab Weekly that “Ankara’s military and security role must be reduced, as the continuation of such a presence represents a major obstacle to bringing security and stability to Libya. The new executive leadership in Tripoli has given significant attention to ending foreign interference in the country, notably the role of mercenaries who were deployed by Turkey to carry out security tasks in Ankara’s favour. ”

The same sources pointed out that the opening of an Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli includes a message of political support for the new UN envoy in Libya Jan Kubis. Such a message, they said, would contribute to the success of Kubi’s mission and encourage other countries to make similar moves.

Egypt is working to prevent Turkey from exploiting the current transitional phase to arrange a favourable environment for permanent control of Islamist organisations that are more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a grim scenario for Egypt that calls for increased diplomatic action by Cairo.

A spokesman for Libya’s Popular National Movement, Nasser Saied, explained that Cairo’s political pressure on Turkey in Tripoli comes through openness to all parties except for terrorists and mercenaries, whom Cairo wants to dislodge.

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, he pointed out that the Egyptian delegation’s visit comes amid great challenges that fall upon the new government, the most important of which is its role in dislodging mercenaries, releasing prisoners held in prisons since the fall of longtime ruler Muammar Gadhafi’s rule, and the return of the displaced who deserted their homes due to the deteriorating security situation.

These challenges call for more diplomatic moves by Egypt because the aforementioned files concern many parties and it is difficult to solve them without great cooperation and coordination with regional and international powers.