Is Egypt abandoning Haftar in Libya?
Egypt holds talks with the GNA
In an interesting turn of events, a delegation of Egyptian diplomats and intelligence officials visited the Libyan capital on Sunday. Headed by Ayman Badea, the deputy chief of the General Intelligence Service, they met with senior officials of the North African country’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), including Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, and head of intelligence in western Libya, Emad Trapolsi. Egypt is known for supporting GNA rivals the LNA headed by Haftar in Libya.
Bashagha, who visited Cairo last month, said on Twitter that the meeting was “fruitful and constructive,” and described the relations with Cairo as “very important.”
“Fruitful and constructive meetings with Egyptian security delegation today in Tripoli, in which we discussed ways of enhancing cooperation in security and intelligence in a manner that preserves interests of both countries and the region from terrorist and organized crime threats,” he said.
It was the first visit by a high-level Egyptian delegation to the city since 2014, when Libya descended into a civil war between Tripoli-based GNA and the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar.
According to the interior ministry, officials discussed “mutual security challenges and ways to enhance security cooperation.” They also discussed ways to support the October ceasefire deal between Libya’s warring factions, brokered by the United Nations. The delegation also discussed the possibility of reopening the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli “at the earliest time”, said Mohamed Elgeblawi, the GNA foreign ministry spokesman on Twitter. The two sides also agreed on taking steps towards resuming Libyan flights to Cairo, Elgeblawi said.
Does this warming of ties with the GNA signal an Egyptian withdrawal of support of Haftar? Not exactly. It is rather a strategic move by Egypt to maintain peace for now, and prevent the GNA from launching an offensive into Sirte, which could irrepairably damage Haftar’s stronghold in Libya. Egypt also realizes that it needs to cooperate with the GNA in order to gain any foothold in the new interim government that is expacted to be formed in Libya next year, which will comprise of both GNA and LNA officials. Egypt has decided to try to limit Turkish influence on the GNA, and increase its own influence, in order to limit the GNA’s further advance on LNA forces, and maintain a foothold in Libya.
Haftar’s recent threats to Turkey and the Turkish parliament’s approval for extending its military presence in Libya, and recent increased military presence are significant developments that have convinced Cairo to take diplomatic measures with the aim of securing a favourable ceasefire.
Egypt is therefore definitely not withdrawing its support for Haftar, but rather engaging diplomatically to try to gain a more favorable positio
Russia and France step back Haftar support
Another factor that could be forcing Egypt to engage in talks with the GNA is Russia and France’s recent change of stance, and opposition to Haftar’s recent aggressive stance.
France, who is a backer of the Haftar-led LNA, has asked Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of eastern Libya, to “refrain from any resumption of hostilities” and to “focus” on the search for a political solution.
The call comes after Haftar and Turkey traded warnings over the past weekend threatening to sap the UN-led peace efforts to end the infighting and political divisions in the oil-rich country.
In addition to this, there are also signs that Russia, another backer of Haftar is now warming ties with the GNA. Russian foreign minister Lavrov has emphasized the need to prevent resumption of hostilities in Libya. There is a need to encourage the parties to the Libyan conflict to build dialogue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a joint press conference with top diplomat of Libya’s Government of National Accord Mohamed Siala on Wednesday.
“I agree that there is a need to encourage the parties to build dialogue and oppose attempts to return to the bellicose rhetoric, let alone resume military activities,” Lavrov pointed out.
This development of ties goes even further, as Libya may renew an agreement on the economic cooperation with Russia during the upcoming visit of the foreign minister of Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Mohamed Siala, to Moscow, GNA Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq said.
“I hope that the next stage will be a phase of great economic cooperation. Russia has had large economic networks in Libya over the past period during the rule of the previous regime. During the next stage, there [will] be a visit: the Libyan foreign minister will soon come to Moscow, and we hope that the economic agreement between Russia and Libya will be signed and renewed,” Maiteeq said.
The GNA deputy prime minister added that an agreement concluded under the previous Libyan administration of the era of Muammar Gaddafi needs to be upgraded, “so the role of the Libyan-Russian partnership can be enhanced – and this is what the foreign minister will do during his next visits.”
This French withdrawal from hostility towards the GNA, and warming economic ties between Russia and the GNA, both being the largest powers other than Egypt that had been supporting Haftar, would have certainly had a toll on Egypt’s decision to open talks with the GNA, and support the UN peace process. A new reality is forming in Libya where most foreign parties are now opting for dialogue rather than war, which is an optimistic sign for the Libyan peace talks, which will be further discussed in the next section.
Libya peace talks and how they are influencing Egypt
The fourth round of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission started in Geneva on 19 October 2020, chaired by Williams. On 24 October, the participants signed an agreement for an immediate permanent ceasefire throughout Libya, which is still in place, while negotatiations have started to form an interim government that could arrange an election at the end of 2021.
Libya’s Political Dialogue Forum, aimed at bringing peace to the nation, seemed set to falter this week as almost half of those taking part raised concerns over the process to form a transitional government. The UN-led talks have run for less than a month among 75 delegates representing the country’s two rival assemblies and some UN-selected independents.
They have been debating how to move the country forward from the power vacuum and in-fighting left by the removal and killing of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. There are now 74 delegates after Libyan MP Omar Qarmil died in Morocco from coronavirus.
The forum was successful in bringing all sides to the table and reaching a consensus on a new interim unity government to plan a map to parliamentary and presidential elections. Members set a date for those elections to be held in December next year. But on Monday, 30 members of the committee in Tunisia hinted at their intention to withdraw from the rest of the dialogue on Monday. The members rejected new proposals presented by the UN mission to Libya to reduce the threshold of votes needed to appoint the president of the Presidency Council, two deputies and the prime minister. In a letter to the mission, which its leader Stephanie Williams shared on Twitter, the dissenting members said the new proposals are “different formulas for a single content designed or tailored to specific people”. They stressed their rejection of any “attempt to circumvent or ignore the majority vote in the dialogue forum”.
With the year coming to an end and the clock ticking in Libya’s timeline to its planned 24 December 2021 elections, UNSMIL has decided to create an Advisory Committee from within the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). The move comes as the LPDF has failed to agree by the needed majority on one of the proposed mechanisms for choosing Libya’s next interim government, slated to be called the Government of National Unity (GNU), that will guide the country through the 2021 elections.
Addressing yesterday’s LPDF virtual meeting, Acting UNSMIL head, Stephanie Williams said:
‘‘The clock started on 21 December, setting clear timelines as outlined in the road map, which you have adopted in Tunis and for which I congratulate you again. The election date of 24 December 2021 and the path to these elections are an irrevocable achievement and goal from which we will not retreat. I want to emphasize that.”
” Therefore, in my role as the Mediator, I have a professional, personal and moral obligation to address this blockage, preserve this process, and to help lead you to an acceptable compromise which will contribute to achieving the electoral goal, which is the ultimate goal.
It is in this spirit that I have decided that we need to form an advisory committee that will be composed of 15 members of the Dialogue, that will assist us/you in reaching consensus on these contentious issues.”
It is therefore clear that although talks have appeared to stall this month, over an important issue in forming the government, there remains optimism, and willingness from both sides to reach a deal.
The development of talks has influenced Egypt’s move from a military stance to a diplomatic stance, as it aims to consolidate its intended image as a seeker of stability in Libya. Egypt’s insistence on hostility with the UN-backed GNA during the current peace negotiations would place it in a negative light internationally, and would make it appear as a foreign obstacle to stability in Libya. Egypt has therefore realized based on the military situation in Libya, as well as the internationally backed peace talks, that it pays off more to mend ties with the GNA and support a peace process where it would have to share influence with Turkey in Libya, than to remain hostile towards the GNA, and risk renewed hostility, which would lead to Egypt losing even more ground in Libya, and damage the legitimacy of its involvement in Libya.