With tribal card, Cairo lays ground for potential intervention in Libya

From Egypt’s perspective, the visit aims to underline the strength of Cairo’s relationship with the main Libyan players: the tribes, the army and parliament.
Friday 17/07/2020
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) meets with Libyan tribal leaders, July 16. (AFP)
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) meets with Libyan tribal leaders, July 16. (AFP)

CAIRO – A group of Libyan tribal leaders paid an official visit to Cairo to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The visit was part of Cairo’s efforts to shore up legitimacy for a potential Egyptian intervention in Libya to deter Turkey’s ambitions, and by extension those of its Islamist allies in the Government of National Accord (GNA), which aim to take control of Sirte and the oil fields and terminals.

The Libyan sheikhs’ visit adds to the support already given to Cairo by the Libyan parliament. The latter  on Monday called on Egypt to intervene to defend the national security of both countries. The request submitted by the Libyan parliament, however, requires a full quorum, which is difficult to achieve right now in light of the divisions within the body.

The Libyan parliament derives its international legitimacy from the 2015 Skhirat Agreement, just as the Islamist-controlled GNA does.

From Egypt’s perspective, the visit aims to underline the strength of Cairo’s relationship with the main Libyan players: the tribes, the army, and parliament, whose support could help rival actors achieve ascendency.

The tribal representatives, who gathered in Benghazi before arriving in Cairo on Wednesday evening, are affiliated with tribes from all parts of Libya. The diverse representation is helping Cairo reject accusations levelled by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood that is biased in favour of eastern Libya.

Analysts told The Arab Weekly that support from the tribes, the army and parliament strengthens Egypt’s position and invalidates Turkey’s claims that it had been invited to intervene in Libya by the legitimate and internationally-recognised Tripoli government, which has  limited political, social and military legitimacy.

The timing of the tribal delegation’s visit reflects the pertinence of the Egyptian strategy. On the one hand, Cairo is using this new mechanism to address the international community. The Tripoli government and its Turkish allies deliberately ignored this mechanism because they lacked the right foundation for using it. This is why they rely on militias and extremist figures as a substitute for tribes. Most of the main, proactive Libyan tribes decided not to side with the GNA and are wary of Ankara’s role and ambitions in Libya. In fact, they look at Turkey’s presence in Libya as a re-enactment of a not so distant past of Ottoman occupation that needs to be expelled from their lands.

On the other hand, bringing the tribal card to the foreground resets many political equations, as the international community has not recently engaged with the tribes as much as it should have. The world’s major powers with interests in Libya have surrendered to the GNA’s and Ankara’s dubious discourse, while Egypt kept saving the tribal card and waving it from time to time.

It seems that the time has come for Libya’s tribes to take centre stage with the Libyan National Army (LNA) and parliament in order to confirm that Libya and the Libyan people are a much larger and more significant entity than a handful of scattered militia groups in control of decision-making in Tripoli, and that their decisive role cannot be ignored.

The Arab Weekly has learned that Cairo is also attempting to bring together elements of the Qaddafi regime who still enjoy an important tribal, political and military influence, and who could impact current balances in Libya and push back further against the GNA if they are able to unite under one political cover.

The GNA, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, was able to buy the allegiance of some western tribes, but in the end, these tribes do not represent the main body of the traditional tribes in Libya and are now working for themselves anyway.

In the meeting held in Cairo on Thursday under the slogan “Egypt and Libya, One People, One Destiny,” Sisi called on all Libyan tribes to reconsider the ideological positions of their sons stationed on the battlefronts and urged them to shed infighting and integrate into one unified national army.

Sisi added that he would seek the approval of parliament to enter Libya, stressing that “Egypt is able to change the military scene, and has the strongest army in the region and Africa.”

On June 20, the Egyptian president warned that Sirte and al-Jofra were a “red line” not to be crossed, pointing out that any Egyptian military intervention in Libya will be spearheaded by the sons of Libyan tribes. He also called for as many of them as possible to enlist in the LNA in order to fight off the mercenaries and terrorists and those behind them, an indication of the strength of Cairo’s relationship with Libyan tribes.

Sisi stressed that the “red lines” are also an invitation to peace and an end to the conflict in Libya, but that Egypt will not stand idle in the face of any movements that constitute a strong direct threat to national security in Egypt and Libya, and to security in the region and the world.

Cairo has been intentionally waving the two tools of diplomacy and military readiness to confuse its rivals and appease the international community, amid prevalent double talk as many claim to seek a peaceful settlement without doing anything to reach it.