Muslim Brotherhood factor widens rift between Tripoli and Cairo

Criticism of Cairo by the GNA and the State Council was the sharpest attack on Egypt by authorities in Tripoli since the Qaddafi era.
Saturday 17/08/2019
A file picture shows LNA fighters advancing on a road south of Tripoli. (AFP)
Continuing offensive. A file picture shows LNA fighters advancing on a road south of Tripoli. (AFP)

In politics, the same phrase can mean very different things to different people and Libya is no exception.

On the last day of the Eid al-Adha holiday, Egypt called for an end to foreign interference in Libya.

Cairo welcomed the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the forces supporting the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) agreeing at the last minute to an Eid ceasefire. It called on the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to work more with the House of Representatives (HoR) to develop a way to end the crisis. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said eliminating terrorism and extremism and ending support for armed militias were part of the way to end the Libyan crisis.

The HoR welcomed the Egyptian statement but the GNA, as well as the Tripoli-based State Council, took very different views.

They, too, said there had to be an end to foreign interference but the demand was directed at Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated State Council condemned the Egyptian statement as a form of interference in Libyan affairs, accusing Cairo of providing arms to the LNA. It took particular exception to the Egyptian call for UNSMIL to work with the HoR. It was also part of the Libyan political framework under the 2015 Skhirat Agreement, it said.

The GNA’s Foreign Ministry likewise condemned its Egyptian counterpart as interfering in Libyan affairs and accused it of supporting Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, leader of the LNA.

There was nothing new in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s call for non-interference in Libya. In a phone conversation August 4 with French President Emmanuel Macron, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi emphasised his rejection of all forms of foreign interference in Libyan affairs.

Nor was there anything new in the State Council’s accusation that Egypt has been backing Haftar. It did so in July, accusing the United Arab Emirates and France as well.

The difference this time is that the GNA went along with the State Council without reservation.

It was the sharpest attack on Egypt by authorities in Tripoli since the Qaddafi era. Until now, while the GNA has had no illusions about the level of military support provided to Haftar by the Egyptians, it diplomatically ignored it. GNA and Presidential Council head Fayez al-Sarraj has met with Sisi on several occasions, although he was last in Egypt in February.

Cairo has acted entirely diplomatically. While backing Haftar, it recognised the GNA as the government of Libya and tried to mediate peace between the two sides. There was, in February 2017, the abortive effort to bring about direct negotiation between Haftar and Sarraj while they were in Cairo.

Egyptian officials have mentored talks to try to reunite the Libyan Army. There has been a series of meetings during which progress by officers from east and west was made but the devil has always been in the details, the ultimate one being who would be named as head of the united armed forces — Haftar or someone else.

Since the start of the LNA’s offensive to take Tripoli at the beginning of April, though, Egypt has been largely supportive. Shortly after the offensive started, Sisi’s office said he “affirmed Egypt’s support in efforts to fight terrorism and extremist militias to achieve security and stability for Libyan citizens,” which is what Haftar says he is fighting. Egypt has nonetheless continued to call for political dialogue and a ceasefire. Sisi stressed the need of one in his phone call with Macron.

It is possible that Sarraj may try to heal the breach with Egypt. He moved to heal the one with France that occurred when, following his failure to secure French political support against Haftar during his visit to Paris in May, he responded by ending security cooperation with France and ordered European companies, mainly French, to stop work for technical legal reasons.

The order to the companies was quickly watered down and security cooperation with France, which included training of the Presidential Guard, officially resumed in June — at least on paper. The GNA realised that it could not afford to stay on bad terms with Paris.

However, in the case of Egypt, Sarraj has his hands tied. The rift with Cairo is ideologically driven by the Muslim Brotherhood, both through the State Council and some of the forces fighting for the GNA.

Cairo is unlikely to give up on trying to achieve a ceasefire and political compromise but the rift is likely to stiffen its support for Haftar.

The military stalemate in southern Tripoli continues. What little that was observed of the Eid ceasefire ended rapidly as soon as the holiday was over. There were air strikes on Mitiga, the capital’s only functioning airport, in which one worker was reportedly killed, and, for the first time, on the airport at Zuwara, near the Tunisian border, where Turkey-supplied drones were allegedly stored.

The LNA claimed responsibility for the latter attack and was widely accused of the former.

The result has been a particularly critical report from UN Envoy Ghassan Salame. The short Eid ceasefire resulted in a reduction of violence in Tripoli, an August 14 UNSMIL statement read, but there had been breaches.

The statement repeated Salame’s pre-Eid call for a lasting truce during which a meeting of concerned countries could take place to ensure that neither side has the means to continue the fighting and then a return to the UN-led political process to end the conflict.

In a statement at the beginning of Eid, France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States called for a permanent ceasefire and a return to dialogue led by Salame. Russia has also thrown its weight behind a new ceasefire.

Given the animosity on the ground, the ideological commitment to continuing the fight, the belief on both sides that they can win and the willingness of outside players to continue backing their chosen side, the chances of a permanent ceasefire look remote.