Libyan diplomats in Cairo break ranks with Sarraj government

If confirmed, the defection would not be the first to rattle the GNA.
Sunday 22/12/2019
A 2016 file picture shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Cairo.  (AFP)
Headlong into tension. A 2016 file picture shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - The legitimacy of Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord is being tested after members of the country’s diplomatic staff in Cairo reportedly broke with the government.

The diplomats, an official statement issued December 13 bearing the seal of the Libyan Embassy stated, said they were defecting from the Government of National Accord (GNA) and declared their loyalty to the rival Tobruk-based parliament, which is allied with the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The diplomats said they parted ways with the GNA because they disagreed with a maritime demarcation agreement the GNA signed with Turkey, which would grant Ankara greater access to Mediterranean waters and is believed to be unconstitutional.

The GNA denied that any of its diplomats had defected and said the statement had been forged by an unknown group that stormed the embassy and attempted to extort its staff.

The Arab Weekly spoke to witnesses and an embassy employee present on the day of the alleged extortion who cast doubt on the GNA’s account.

The witnesses, residents of buildings near the embassy in Zamalek district, said they did not notice any absence of embassy security forces or struggles between them or another group.

The embassy employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he noticed no abnormal activity at the embassy while he was at work that day. He said he believed diplomats had defected.

The embassy announced on December 14 on Facebook that it was suspending operations because of “security reasons.”

Tunisian media reported that Libyan diplomats had arrived by sea at Tunis, in preparation for transfer to Tripoli. This probably referenced the Egypt-based diplomats. The GNA denied that any diplomats had been expelled.

This could lend credence to the defection story because Egypt would likely be unwilling to expel diplomats who had expressed loyalty to the LNA, which Cairo is aligned with, to the GNA, which could file criminal charges against them.

If confirmed, the defection would not be the first to rattle the GNA.

In April, media shared a statement bearing the seal of the Libyan Embassy in Cairo expressing support for the LNA’s advance towards Tripoli aimed at “eliminating terrorist militias.”

In February 2018, Libyan diplomats in Cairo called for Libyan Ambassador to Egypt Mohamed Abdel Aziz to be dismissed because they refused to work with any official assigned by the GNA, which they accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and “terrorist organisations.”

The statement charged that Abdel Aziz had been managing the embassy with non-official diplomats and employees, or others who were suspended when former ambassadors Saleh al-Darsi and Tarek Shuaib served from 2015-18.

The embassy source explained there had long been a power struggle within the mission, with most members loyal to “former ambassadors Darsi and Shuaib, who were appointed by the government of Abdullah al-Thani, affiliated to the Libyan (Tobruk-based) parliament and the LNA before the formation of the GNA” and a second smaller faction that is supportive of the GNA, including Abdel Aziz.

“Therefore, the embassy has more than one Facebook page, each of them managed by a group,” the employee said.

“The seals of the embassy are carried by some loyal to the LNA and others loyal to the GNA. Therefore, the statement of defection may not be accurate in saying that the entire diplomatic mission had defected. However, in fact most diplomats at the embassy split from the GNA,” he added.

Libyan Embassy officials in other missions have reportedly defected. In August, Libyan Ambassador to the Central African Republic Hussein Mahmoud said he had defected from the GNA and expressed the diplomatic mission’s support for the LNA’s declared objective of rooting out terrorism and militias in the capital. The Libyan Foreign Ministry said Mahmoud no longer represented Libya and that he defected after his request for another term was rejected.

Former Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Abdel Hamid said the defections would probably encourage more missions to defect from the GNA, especially as the LNA continues its push to take control of Tripoli.

He said the United Nations and foreign countries would most likely reconsider their recognition of the GNA if defections continued.