Dbeibah tries to strike a balance between Egypt, Turkey in Libya

New Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah visited Cairo on Thursday, in a symbolic move aimed at reassuring Cairo, given his close relationship with Ankara.

During their meeting in Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi stressed his country’s keenness to continue supporting Libya and consolidating the foundations for peace and stability in the neighbouring North African country.

Dbeibah expressed his country’s appreciation and pride over Egypt’s efforts to resolve the Libya crisis and its support for Libyan institutions in their combat against terrorism and extremist groups. He also stressed, on this occasion, his desire “to establish a comprehensive partnership with Cairo drawing inspiration from its (Egypt’s) development experience towards establishing successful models for Libya”.

Dbeibah is perceived as working to strike a balance between Egypt and Turkey, in a way that spares him the need to choose between both. At this stage, he is likely to be divided between his known loyalty to Ankara, which contributed to his rise to power in Geneva, and his interest in not sparking an early clash with Cairo, which is not without influence in Libya.

Ahmed Aliba, a researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo, said that Egypt benefited from its past experience in dealing with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s government. It was initially led to believe that the Sarraj government’s formation in accordance with the Skhirat Agreement would ensure stability. What happened, however, was that the situation took a dangerous turn as Sarraj succumbed to the militias’ extortion schemes and surrendered to pressure from Turkey.

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Aliba added that Cairo showed early on a great deal of readiness to cooperate with the Dbeibah government. This stance was expressed by President Sissi in his call to the new prime minister (as well as to the president of the presidential council, Mohammad al-Menfi), and then by receiving Dbeibah before he announced the formation of his government.

This, in Aliba’s view, confirms that Egypt will not repeat its past experience of keeping its political distance from western Libya, and placing its bets only on the eastern camp. It is hence likely to exert tangible influence on the new Libya government while it ensures that elections are held on time before the end of this year.

The Egyptian leadership has already showed its support for Dbeibah by dispatching a diplomatic and security delegation to Tripoli a few days ago. The purpose of the delegation’s visit was to make logistical preparations for the reopening of the Egyptian embassy in the Libyan capital and the Egyptian consulate in Benghazi, so as to facilitate the movement of citizens between the two countries.

Cairo also approved, Thursday, the resumption of flights from Libya to Egypt, with service already starting from Benina airport in Benghazi to Burj Al Arab airport in Alexandria. Service will also be launched next week from Mitiga airport in Tripoli to Burj Al Arab.

Dbeibah is expected to search for common ground between Egypt and Turkey even if there is no direct communication between both countries. To do so, he will try to take into account the interests of each country and to dispel Cairo’s fears of his potential bias towards Ankara.

Observers say that both Egypt and Turkey do not want a direct clash. This choice was reflected by the willingness of Turkish forces not to violate the red line drawn by Egypt in Sirte and Jufrah in the middle of last year, after Cairo threatened to militarily intervene in Libya if that line was breached.

Aliba explained that the “two countries are able to forge a political consensus, in a way that does not pose a dilemma for the new government, or spark a new clash between them. So if Ankara harbours serious intent to escalate matters, it will not be able to do so, as both the internal and external environments are not propitious for that kind of behaviour and will oppose any disruptive action with strict measures.”

There is now talk in Egypt of the exit of all foreign forces, not just the forces affiliated with Turkey.

According to United Nations reports, there are about ten foreign bases on Libyan soil and thousands of mercenaries dispatched by Turkey, Russia and other countries.

Cairo favours an end to the manifestations of armed escalation and promotes continued engagement in the political process under the auspices of the United Nations, at the same time that it wants attention paid to vital issues, such as unifying the military institution and strengthening the central state structures.

Egyptian efforts are currently advancing on parallel tracks, the most important of which is exhorting Dbeibah to appoint qualified ministers who are not known for Turkish loyalties. Cairo is also keen on preserving the achievements of the Military Commission (5 + 5) and building on the ceasefire to enhance the level of security and stability. It prioritises work, as well, to make the necessary arrangements for holding elections on time.

The Arab Weekly sources learned that Cairo is greatly interested in infrastructure projects in Libya. The Libyan economic commission chaired by Egypt and the U.S., and emanating from the Berlin track, has been relatively successful in creating the proper atmosphere to correct many of the mistakes that led to billions of dollars being spent without beneficial results to the Libyan state.

On the economic track, there were a series of reforms introduced recently, including the unification of the foreign currency rate (as there were previously six exchange rates), unifying the budget for the first time in years without waiting for the formation of a new government, and holding a meeting of the Central Bank’s board of directors to set sound monetary policies, even if it was against the will of its governor Saddek Elkaber.

Egypt expects Dbeibah to focus on the service and development sector, based on his experience as a businessman and considering the desire by Libyans to improve their living conditions and their feeling that the Sarraj government has spent huge sums of money on Turkish interests and those of armed militias and their leaders.

A high-level Libyan delegation has arrived in Cairo from Tripoli, on Thursday, to discuss boosting cooperation between the two countries, with a focus on the economic aspects, and the rehabilitation of the infrastructure that was destroyed by war for over ten years.

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