While Libyan National Army General Khalifa Haftar and the head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj did travel to Cairo last week to work toward a resolution to the ongoing conflict in Libya, Egypt had to exert significant effort to ensure the meeting even occurred, according to a source in the Egyptian government close to the matter.
Despite reports that Haftar, Egypt’s ally and one of the key military forces in Libya aligned with the Tobruk government, and Sarraj, the United Nations-backed head of the GNA’s Presidential Council, failed to meet one another while in Cairo on February 13 and 14, the Egyptian official confirms that they in fact met twice.
Despite reports that Haftar and Sarraj failed to meet in Cairo, an Egyptian official confirms that they met twice.
Sarraj, Haftar and Egyptian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy — who heads the Egyptian committee on Libya — met briefly on the first day to “break the ice.” This was followed by a second, longer meeting at the Egyptian Defense Ministry that included Hegazy, Sarraj, Haftar and Tobruk House of Representatives (HoR) Speaker Aguila Saleh, who arrived in Cairo on the morning of the second day.
Despite these meetings, Haftar refused to hold direct talks with Sarraj, according to remarks both sides gave to the press. It was a stance that forced Hegazy and Egyptian officials to conduct indirect negotiations.
At the end of the two-day meeting, Egypt’s hopes for a trilateral declaration were dashed. The three Libyan leaders requested further time to speak with their allies within Libya and refused to release a joint statement, which Egypt had intended to introduce as an official document titled “Cairo Understandings” that would have served as a future cornerstone in resolving the power struggle into which Libya was plunged amid the political and security vacuum left by the Libyan revolution and subsequent fall of former President Muammar Qadhafi.
Egypt was thus forced to release a brief statement, which the Libyan parties insisted should be drafted to reflect Egypt’s view of their stances rather than any mutually accepted commitments.
Released through Egypt’s Defense Ministry, the statement affirmed “the continuation of Egyptian efforts with Libyan counterparts to end the political deadlock.” It is careful to articulate that it only represents what Egypt “determined” to be the common ground shared by Libya’s leaders that “could be translated” into subsequent steps, including the formation of a joint committee composed of members from the HoR and Tripoli-based High Council of State tasked with reviewing amendments to the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) — the agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco and brokered by the UN in December 2015 that created the GNA. Once the amendments are approved, the Tobruk government would then give a vote of confidence to the GNA, which would be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections no later than February 2018. The heads of the LNA, HoR and GNA would remain in their current positions pending the new elections.
In the absence of an announced meeting and a joint statement, the talks in Cairo did not produce any tangible change in the Libyan leaders’ positions, excepting the suggestion to form a joint committee to review amendments to the LPA, which Egyptian officials who participated in the talks told Reuters that Haftar and Sarraj agreed to.
“The two sides have agreed. I have doubts about the implementation as the atmosphere between them is … tense but we hope the opposite happens,” one official said.
Even before the meeting in Cairo last week, the possibility for a resolution in the Libyan conflict had increasingly been hitched to amendments to the LPA, both within the country and internationally.
Egypt’s aims for the Cairo meeting were not limited to direct negotiations and the issuance of a joint statement.
Nonetheless, Egypt’s aims for the Cairo meeting were not limited to direct negotiations between Haftar and Sarraj and the issuance of a joint statement.
According to Egyptian officials who spoke with Mada Masr earlier this month, Egypt had set three principal aims for the two-day meeting, some of which appear to have been successful. First, the Egyptian government intended to reassert itself as the most important Arab actor in Libya after a prolonged absence. Second, Egypt intended to ensure that any potential resolution to the Libyan conflict be carried out under its supervision and enhance Haftar and Saleh’s position when necessary.
Egypt’s third focus centered on limiting the influence of international parties on the resolution discussions and enhancing the role of countries neighboring Libya. There was also a desire to change a perception which has emerged of Egypt that paints it as a biased party and stumbling block on the road to reconciliation, due to its military and political support of Haftar and his allies.
Time was of paramount importance for Egypt in pursuit of these ends, according to government sources. Egyptian officials moved quickly to invite all counterparts, despite Haftar’s tarrying and a lack of any firm commitment from any other parties. The haste was tied to a number of reasons but principally to Egypt’s wish to hold the meeting before the annual Arab League summit — which will take place in Jordan at the end of March — so that it could introduce a resolution consolidating new agreements and then garner unilateral Arab support from those countries that support Haftar and Saleh (Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) and the government of Sarraj (Algeria, Tunisia and Qatar).
Additionally, Egypt wanted to emphasize its role within an initiative launched by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, which envisaged holding a trilateral summit between Egyptian, Tunisian and Algerian officials in Algiers.
The trilateral initiative was celebrated in an editorial published in Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper on February 20 titled “Egyptian-Algerian-Tunisia Troika,” which reiterated multiple times that Egypt does not intend to take over control of the Libyan reconciliation process.
Time was also a crucial element in the international calculus, amid fears that the escalation in the militarization of the conflict between the East and West governments could open a proxy war between Russia, which supports Haftar, and NATO, who announced last week that it is prepared to offer military support to Sarraj.
The Egyptian government official and European diplomats in Cairo say that Haftar initially attempted to avoid participating in the Cairo meeting altogether and then was slow to agree on a specific date. As late as one week before the meeting was to be held, Haftar had to tried to back out, according to the Egyptian government official, before submitting to Egyptian and Russian pressures and arriving in Cairo late on Monday February 13.
European diplomats in Cairo, who spoke to Mada Masr over the last two weeks, say that Haftar had expressed discomfort at a tangible yet limited change in Egypt’s position centered on an increasing openness to the primary two parties in the conflict and illustrated by having hosted delegations from the Tripoli and Tobruk governments.
Egypt possesses a degree of resentment for Haftar due to what officials feel is his retreat from the basic understandings that had been integral to their provision of support to him.
Sarraj travelled to Egypt in mid-January on a visit that, according to diplomatic sources, secured an agreement to hold a meeting Haftar under Egyptian sponsorship. Following the meeting in Cairo, Sarraj made a series of positive public remarks that appeared to dissipate tension with the LNA leader ahead of an Egyptian-led summit.
In a speech at a meeting of the African Union’s High Level Committee on Libya, held in Brazzaville, Sarraj praised the LNA for its fight against the Islamic State and near liberation of Benghazi. The head of the Presidential Council then petitioned the African Union and international community to take immediate measures to lift the arms embargo on Libya and to offer technical support in training security and military forces.
Haftar, however, seemed to attempt to disrupt Egypt’s plans for reconciliation, as his media office published a statement on the same day as the Brazzaville summit that denied that there were any preparations for a joint meeting between him and Sarraj in Cairo or anywhere else.
Egyptian and European sources, however, confirmed that a prompt Russian intervention forced Haftar to attend the Cairo talks in the end.
While Egypt continues to support Haftar and has worked to guarantee a larger political role for him in Libya’s future, a European diplomat in Cairo says that the Egyptian government is no longer “solely obsessed with” the removal of Islamists from Libya. Egypt is increasingly aware that the LNA will be unable to impose its control over western Libya, in light of the continued arms embargo and in the face of strong opposition from militias loyal to the GNA, most notably in north western Misrata.
The change in Egypt’s position is most notable in the statements it has issued concerning Libya over the last two months, repeatedly confirming, on one hand, the need to maintain the unity of the Libyan state and regional security, and rejecting any move to marginalize other actors in the conflict on the other.
This posture was reiterated in the Tunis Declaration which Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Tunisian and Algerian counterparts signed earlier this week. Many Islamist factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party and the Salafi leader and head of the Islamist Al-Watan Party Abdelhakim Belhadj, have responded to this change in position with qualified support for Egypt’s efforts to secure reconciliation.
“Haftar promised to provide Russia a naval base on the Mediterranean, probably in Barca, in return for increased Russian military support to Haftar.”
On the other hand, the Egyptian government official says that Egypt possesses a degree of frustration with Haftar due to what officials feel is his retreat from the basic understandings that had been integral to their provision of support to him. Haftar “rushed” to strengthen broad military cooperation with Russia without enough consultation with Cairo, the official says, despite Egypt having offered to facilitate between the two parties.
Further, the official believes that Egypt is being sidelined in the talks between Moscow and Haftar on a range of issues.
“Haftar promised to provide Russia a naval base on the Mediterranean, probably in Barca, in return for increased Russian military support to Haftar in order to allow him to increase the land under his territorial control. [This would also entail] a promise by Russia to secure American and European approval to guarantee a role for Haftar in any future political arrangements in Libya,” he says.
Haftar visited Moscow twice in the last year and boarded the Russian aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov in January, after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the ship to anchor off Libyan shores as it made its way back from a mission to support Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. On board, Haftar held a video conference call with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, in what is the most publicly visible sign of Russia’s increasing support for Haftar.
Any frustration felt toward Haftar did not prevent Egypt from attempting to secure support from the United States for him, as US and Libyan sources revealed last week that there had been “undeclared efforts exerted by Egypt to establish direct relations and contacts between Haftar and the new US administration led by President Donald Trump, which is reconsidering how to deal with Haftar as the strongman in Libya.”
The Egyptian official news agency prominently highlighted the remarks that Trump’s Middle East campaign advisor Walid Phares gave to the local “Libya Al-Hadath” television channel earlier this week, reporting that Phares said, “The Trump administration will deal with the national Libyan military institution led by General Haftar. This army is the one officially acknowledged by the administration, despite international political disagreements and suggestions to build another army.”
Phares’s comments represent a potential change in the US position on Haftar, as the previous US administration had offered military support to militias supporting Sarraj in their battle against the Islamic State in Sirte last year.
“There is a preliminary understanding between generals in Cairo and in Washington on how to address the situation in Libya.”
In a similar direction, another Egyptian source close to the issue tells Mada Masr that Egypt’s attempts to steer reconciliation efforts between Libyan players coincide with a possible meeting in Washington DC between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Trump.
“There is a preliminary understanding between generals in Cairo and in Washington on how to address the situation in Libya, as the final common target between Cairo, Washington and Moscow is to quash all militias with an Islamist background. Not only the Islamic State, but every militia similar to it: everyone without exception,” the source says.
According to two Egyptian diplomatic sources, the United States has openly asked Egypt to participate in a military force to intervene in Libya, but Egypt has responded that the Egyptian Armed Forces “would not show enthusiasm” at the prospect of the continued presence of ground forces in the neighboring country. Egypt has also stated that it prefers to direct any intervention through joint African-Arab peacekeeping forces, with the condition that these forces would be mandated by the UN to intervene “when necessary” without having to set up a prolonged presence inside Libya.
The Libyan issue will surely occupy a primary position in Shoukry’s diplomatic visit to Washington DC on February 26, a visit that also aims to secure an official invitation for Sisi to travel to the White House.
Translated by Mai Shams El-Din