Libya drives wedge between Egypt, Europe

Sunday 26/06/2016
General Khalifa Haftar (R) shaking hands with Faiez al-Sarraj

CAIRO - Libya is at the centre of ten­sions between Europe and Egypt that threaten to turn into a conflict of wills over the future of the restive North African state, political ana­lysts said.

Conflicting political and mili­tary visions for stabilising Libya have formed and are on a collision course, the analysts added.

“Egypt can only offer its backing to the national Libyan army,” said Hossam Sweilam, a retired Egyp­tian Army general. “By doing this, it wants to help the army defend Libyan territories against terrorist groups and also prevent the smug­gling of arms across the border.”

The Islamic State (ISIS), which has been gaining ground in Libya, is one of those groups. The “National Libyan army” refers to forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, which controls parts of eastern Libya. It fought Islamist militias in the east­ern city of Benghazi throughout 2015 and is trying to recapture ter­ritories from ISIS, especially in and around the northern coastal city of Sirte.

The army includes thousands of fighters who were part of the mili­tary of former Libyan leader Muam­mar Qaddafi, according to Ahmed Qaddaf al-Dam, Qaddafi’s former emissary to Cairo.

It does not, however, enjoy back­ing from Western governments, which view it as a destabilising force in the new Libya, especially after the formation of the UN-backed Faiez al-Sarraj government.

This is at variance with how Cai­ro, along with other Arab capitals, views the Libyan army and it is not alone in sharing this view.

Haftar, 73, was one of Qaddafi’s commanders. He is also a sworn enemy of Libya’s Islamists. In 2015, he launched a heavy-handed crack­down on Islamist militias that con­trolled parts of eastern Libya.

This is similar to actions by Egyp­tian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who clamped down on Egyptian Is­lamists in 2013.

“Nevertheless, the lesson West­ern governments are learning is that Libya needs an inclusive govern­ment that contains all political and military forces in the country,” said Samir Badawi, a lecturer at Egypt’s Nasser Military Academy, “but an inclusive government means that Islamists can be part of this govern­ment, which will not be acceptable to Cairo.”

The Sarraj cabinet includes Is­lamist figures, which is why Cairo is at unease, Badawi said. He called this a “red line” for Cairo.

“Libya’s armed organisations pose serious threats to Egypt’s na­tional security,” he said. “This is why our government views the presence of these organisations or their backers in the government with scepticism.”

Europe is reportedly trying to convince Egypt to change its ap­proach to Libya, even as Cairo states its support for the Sarraj gov­ernment.

During a recent meeting in Vi­enna on the ISIS threat, European diplomats reportedly tried to con­vince Egypt to follow their line on Libya. However, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on the sidelines of the conference that Cairo had a “clear vision” for stabi­lising both Syria and Libya.

During a visit to Cairo in April, French President François Hol­lande said Egypt should be the one country most concerned about what happens in Libya.

Analysts said the stalemate over Libya could lead to more tensions. They added that a number of fac­tors, including European economic interests in Egypt and Europe’s need for Cairo’s cooperation in Lib­ya, complicate the situation.

Sisi has allowed European com­panies, especially from Italy, France and Germany, to undertake projects in Egypt worth billions of dollars.

Analysts said Egypt is aware of its strengths when it comes to Libya.

“European governments know very well that they cannot solve the Libyan crisis without Egypt’s coop­eration,” Sweilam said. “Egypt, on the other hand, is aware of Europe­an fears on the situation in Libya.”