By Muhammed Magdy
Egypt has for the first time hosted a delegation from western Libya, which may point to the possible marginalization of eastern military commander Khalifa Hifter in upcoming peace talks.
Members of the Egyptian Committee on Libya, which is made up of current diplomats and intelligence officers, visited Sept. 14 the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Hifter, in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi. The visit has raised questions about the reasons behind this surprise move.
It was the second time in a month that a high-level Egyptian delegation meets with Hifter. On Aug. 18, Hifter had met with a delegation headed by the head of Egypt’s military intelligence agency, Maj-Gen. Khaled Megawer.
Observers have linked the Sept. 14 visit to the latest Egyptian moves in the Libyan file after Cairo hosted talks with a delegation from western Libya on Sept. 7.
Analysts believe that the meeting may point to a marginalization of Hifter in favor of his ally Aguila Saleh, head of the Tobruk-based parliament.
According to the Egyptian Middle East News Agency (MENA), the Sept. 14 meeting focused on common issues between the two countries and the latest developments on the regional and international levels.
The Egyptian delegation has, according to MENA, stressed the need to resume the political process and enforce a cease-fire in Libya.
On the same day, the Egyptian delegation met with Saleh to discuss “the need to reach an urgent political solution to the Libyan crisis,” parliamentary spokesman Abdallah Abaihig said in a press statement Sept. 14.
He added, “The two sides also tackled the situation in Libya and ways to end the conflict. The Egyptian delegation stressed the need to return to the political track and enforce a cease-fire in Libya.”
In this context, Egyptian member of parliament Mustafa Bakri told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian visit to Libya aimed to find out about the Libyan positions on the latest round of negotiations held in Cairo.
“The delegation included Egyptian experts and researchers and members of the [Egyptian] Committee on Libya tasked with collecting data on the latest political developments and the recent demonstrations,” he said, in reference to the protests that erupted in Tripoli and Benghazi.
On Sept. 7, Cairo hosted a delegation from western Libya, made up of members of the parliament and the High Council of State, for the first time since relations between Egypt and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) deteriorated after head of the GNA Fayez al-Sarraj signed two agreements on security cooperation and maritime jurisdiction areas with Turkey in November 2019.
During the talks, the two sides agreed on the need to announce a road map to end the transitional phase in Libya, set a date for elections no later than October 2021, in addition to resuming flights between Cairo and Tripoli.
Bakri said, “The Egyptian Foreign Ministry and the Egyptian intelligence agency have received instructions from the political leadership to find common grounds between Libya’s [rival] parties that would pave the way for a political solution based on the Cairo initiative.”
LNA spokesman Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Mismari refused to comment to Al-Monitor on Hifter’s position on the negotiations taking place in Cairo and Morocco. However, during a press conference Sept. 16, Mismari said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
The two parties [LNA and pro-government forces] are committed to a cease-fire in order to give a chance to the political solution that Libyans seek. … We will continue to fight to achieve sovereignty for our land.”
The Egyptian efforts have coincided with talks held in Morocco between representatives from the Tripoli-based High Council of State and from the Tobruk-based parliament, with the aim to reach a comprehensive agreement on the mechanisms needed to assign sovereign positions and unify them.
Bakri, the Egyptian member of parliament who is close to the authorities, said that Morocco aims to create a new agreement dubbed “Skhirat 2” in reference to the Skhirat Agreement that Morocco brokered in December 2015.
These Moroccan efforts are in contrast with the Egyptian-sponsored talks that seek to build on the Cairo initiative aimed to reach a Libyan-Libyan solution.
Rokha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, believes the Egyptian delegation’s visit to Libya comes as part of the latest efforts to unify Libya’s rival parties.
Hassan told Al-Monitor that the Libyan rounds of talks in Morocco and Egypt may be an attempt to pave the way for a larger political dialogue in Geneva to form a presidential council made up of three figures representing the three Libyan provinces in the west, east and southwest.
Meanwhile, Sarraj announced Sept. 16 that he will step down by the end of October. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) described Sarraj’s decision as a “courageous” step, saying in a Sept. 17 statement, “Building on the statements issued by [Sarraj] and Speaker of the House of Representatives [Aguila] Saleh on 21 August 2020, and recent meetings between key Libyan parties in Montreux in Switzerland, Morocco and Egypt, we have an opportunity to restart the fully inclusive intra-Libyan political dialogue, which the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) intends to move forward with at the earliest opportunity.”
But, Hassan added, “Theoretically, these [Moroccan and Egyptian] steps are aimed at peace, but their implementation on the ground may prove difficult,” referring to the complicated situation that has resulted from Hifter’s offensive launched against Tripoli in April 2019.
According to Hassan, the offensive has proved to be a major mistake that later led to Turkey’s intervention in the Libyan crisis by sending Syrian mercenaries to Libya, further complicating the situation.
After Hifter suffered a series of setbacks in his offensive against Tripoli, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced in June, in the presence of Hifter himself and Saleh, the Cairo initiative, which calls for UN-supervised elections for the three provinces within 90 days.
The initiative was widely welcomed by the international community, while observers saw it as an Egyptian plan to reduce Hifter’s influence in Libya in favor of Saleh.
On Hifter’s role and future in the ongoing negotiations, Hassan believes there is a will to include new faces different from the figures that are currently leading the Libyan scene.
“Egypt’s interests lie in the need to achieve stability and reach a peaceful solution in Libya, and it [Egypt] does not depend on figures or specific people,” Hassan added, explaining that if need be, Egypt is ready to witch its alliances with another figure.
Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst for Libyan affairs at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor, “Hifter does not support the leadership role that Saleh is seeking to fill [in eastern Libya], and he has not backed the Moroccan-led talks. He also refuses to support any diplomatic solution that aims to isolate him.”
Gazzini added, “Cairo has indeed shown signs to isolate Hifter while at the same time improving Saleh’s image. This has led to a dispute between the Egyptian authorities and Hifter.”
She added, “I don’t think anyone is ready to abandon Hifter officially — at least as a military leader — as long as there is tension and the threat of war in Libya. But what is certain is that there is no room for Hifter to play a pioneering political role in Libya, and he is not part of the [plans] of his closest allies, like Russia and the United Arab Emirates.”
However, Bakri believes “the LNA is needed to dismantle the militias and play an important role in achieving stability on the border with Egypt. This is why Cairo will not let go of its leader [Hifter].”
Muhammed Magdy is an Egyptian journalist currently working as a senior editor for judiciary affairs at the Al-Shorouk daily newspaper. Previously, he was the deputy head of the news section at Masrawy.
Down but not out, Haftar still looms over Libya peace process
By Aidan Lewis
His assault on Libya’s capital has collapsed. Foreign powers have tried to sideline him. But military commander Khalifa Haftar still sits astride oil terminals, with enough fire power and political sway to thwart any plans for peace.
Having failed in his bid for national rule, Haftar, 76, is now severely diminished. His troops have been driven out of western Libya, while in his eastern stronghold foreign powers that backed him are making overtures to rivals.
But his role in partially lifting an oil blockade over the past week shows that he remains a linchpin in eastern Libya, where he has built up a security apparatus over the past six years.
Foreign countries are now promoting talks to push warring factions towards a unity government. But diplomats say Haftar’s role bedevils negotiations, as it has done for years.
“That’s the big missing piece of the puzzle – what to do with Haftar and how to engage him,” said one Western diplomat.
Libya has been without strong central rule since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, and rival camps have set up parallel administrations based in the east and west since 2014. Haftar, a Gaddafi-era military commander who spent two decades in the United States, gradually took control of the east.
After gaining support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and France, he launched an assault to capture Tripoli last year.
But the advance collapsed in June this year after his enemy Turkey reinforced the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) withdrew to a front line running south from the city of Sirte, in the centre of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline.
Both of Libya’s rival administrations are funded by oil exports, and both have been crippled since Haftar’s LNA and its allies imposed a blockade that shut the main eastern oil terminals eight months ago. Since Sept. 19, oil has gradually resumed flowing, demonstrating Haftar’s lasting relevance.
But both the oil restart and the halt to fighting are on shaky ground. Haftar said the blockade would initially be lifted for just one month. His deal with a deputy prime minister of the Tripoli government provoked a backlash in western Libya, where many fear it will give the LNA more control over revenues.
The military truce, meanwhile, has yet to be converted into a formal ceasefire, and is holding partly because of the risks of a regional conflagration, with Turkey looking to consolidate gains and Haftar’s foreign backers determined to contain it.
Publicly, the LNA says it is committed to a unilateral ceasefire it announced in June, but won’t withdraw from Sirte.
“In the presence of Syrian and Turkish mercenaries and threats of an attack on Sirte, of course the Libyan army won’t leave,” said Khaled Al-Mahjoub, an LNA spokesman. Western countries have proposed a demilitarised zone around Sirte. The LNA’s willingness to accept that could depend on decisions by foreign backers and Russian military contractors deployed alongside it, analysts say.
Since fighting eased in June, internal divisions have emerged on both sides, with protesters in both the east and west demonstrating against corruption and failing public services.
In Tripoli, a dispute burst into the open within the GNA between the prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, and the interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, both key contacts for the government’s Turkish backers.
Sarraj says he plans to step down next month, but manoeuvring by factions that have gained power under his watch makes it tricky to find a successor.
In the east, international powers looking beyond Haftar have resurrected Aguila Saleh, the head of a rump parliament who was previously sanctioned by the EU and United States.
In Sirte, the LNA’s control has stirred resistance along tribal lines, prompting Haftar’s forces to make arrests.
But Haftar retains military and financial power, and may use it to try to reassert himself politically, said Mohamed Eljarh, an expert on politics in the east.
“I think Haftar is not happy, this is why I think there is the possibility of him trying to do what he does best – sabotage these attempts at political talk through military action,” he said.
U.N.-led talks, running in awkward parallel to talks between Turkey and Russia as well as talks in Morocco this month between members of rival Libyan parliaments, aim to replace the GNA and plan a roadmap for elections.
Some Western states want Haftar confined to military talks. But France is still pushing for him to have a political role. One French diplomat said Paris was trying to appear less pro-Haftar and work with European partners to counter Turkey.
Another said Haftar was crucial to a political solution.
There are no signs the UAE, Haftar’s most committed backer, is withdrawing support, two Western diplomats said.
“Sure they’re being slightly tougher with him,” said one. “But the fact is that nobody is reducing support for the LNA and nobody is genuinely turning the screw on Haftar.”