Egypt nudges closer to new Libyan government

The meeting between the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and  the head of the Libyan Presidency Council, Mohammed Menfi, in Cairo, Thursday, indicated that Cairo has moved closer to the country’s new authorities at the expense of its allies in eastern Libya, especially the commander in chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who last visited Cairo months ago.

Experts say Egypt is trying to compensate for its failed bet on the parliament speaker Aguila Saleh and former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to win the race for leadership of the new executive authority by nudging closer to the Government of National Unity (GNU), thus capitalising on its improving relations with Turkey.

Cairo could be about to lose Saleh, once its most prominent ally, who may quit as parliamentary speaker in line with the political agreement that stipulates that the speaker of parliament be from the south while the head of the Presidency Council is to be picked from the east and the prime minister from the West.

Since his failed attempt to seize Tripoli, Haftar’s political and military influence in the east has declined. His ties to Cairo have been tense for months and this would seem to reflect international moves, led by Washington, to end Haftar’s role on the Libyan scene.

The spokesperson for the Egyptian president, Ambassador Bassam Rady, said on Thursday, that President Sisi stressed “Egypt’s full and absolute support for the new executive authority in Libya in all fields and in all bilateral, regional and international forums, to ensure its success in managing the current stage until elections.”

Menfi pointed out during his meeting with Sisi that Egypt has always been the most decisive factor in the quest for the settlement of the Libyan crisis in political, military and economic terms.

Political sources said that Menfi’s arrival in Egypt, his second foreign visit after France, reflects the importance he places on developing relations with Cairo to create a new balance which allows the new government greater flexibility of movement without being bound by any specific external agendas.

The sources told The Arab Weekly that Cairo’s reluctance to cooperate with the previous Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez al-Sarraj and consequently its close relationship with both Haftar and Saleh, created the impression that Egypt chose to distance itself from the western part of Libya, which opened the way for Sarraj to establish closer ties with Turkey.

The Egyptian government knows that there are close links between Ankara and Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibah, who visited Cairo last month, links that are also shared by many members of the new government. This factor is expected to prompt Cairo to try to improve its political position and shield its new relationship with Tripoli from any Turkish influence.

Egypt has already announced the practical step of reopening its embassy in Tripoli and its consulate in Benghazi, signalling its desire to develop relations with the GNU and boost diplomatic relations with it.

On Friday Menfi is scheduled to go on from Egypt to Turkey, indicating his determination to benefit from the new calm in relations between Ankara and Cairo, as a prelude to political reconciliation. The Libya crisis is thought to be one of the main items on the agenda of the Egyptian-Turkish reconciliation process.

Egypt has insisted on the exit of mercenaries and foreign fighters from Libya, and this demand has become closer to being met following major developments in relations between Cairo and Ankara.

On Thursday, French media reported the start of the withdrawal of Turkish-dispatched Syrian mercenaries from western Libya.

Observers have downplayed the impact of the withdrawal of these fighters on Turkey’s influence in Libya, especially since the military cooperation and controversial maritime border demarcation agreements remain in effect.

The visit of the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Italy to Tripoli on Thursday suggests European concern about the continued role of Turkey and Russia in the country.

Ahmed Aliba, an expert at the Egyptian Centre for Thought and Strategic Studies, said, “The common denominator in the Presidency Council’s visits abroad, to France, Egypt and Turkey, is to [seek] support the political roadmap amid interest in overcoming election obstacles and facilitating the task  of holding the elections and supporting the central authority of the state and unifying its official institutions.”

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, he pointed out that Egypt is looking at the reunification of the army without consideration of individuals. Cairo supports building unified Libyan armed forces with nationalist principles in marked contrast to the Sarraj government, which relied on the support of armed brigades and foreign fighters.

He explained that the Egyptian government did not intervene and seek to impose its viewpoint in the meetings of the Military Committee (5 + 5) that took place recently in Hurghada on the Red Sea in Egypt. Cairo limited its role to presenting its experience whenever the two parties needed it to do so.

Observers say that it is in Tripoli’s interest to make sure agreement prevails between Cairo and Ankara, so that the new Libyan authority can more easily settle its internal crises and avoid having to choose between Egypt and Turkey.

Egyptian sources ruled out the idea that Cairo would abandon Haftar and Saleh even if it wants to show at the present time that it is not aligned with either, “because their role has not ended yet. There is the issue of unification of the military establishment that requires cooperation with the field marshal to find a successful way to achieve this task about which Haftar was not previously enthusiastic as he thought it would undermine his role.”

Egypt believes that this step is necessary to consolidate the pillars of the state and preserve its unity. It takes the view that it is also necessary to find a formula that addresses the situation of Haftar, who commands a number of professional officers and soldiers from the east and the west. Any forced exit could negatively affect the situation.

The same sources told The Arab Weekly that the relationship between the Libyan military establishment and Egypt is good, “which allows it continue talking about the army’s unification, and that is the logical approach to put in place in the approved Libyan National Army hierarchy”.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Arab Weekly and reproduced by permission.)