Noura El Hafiane & Mahmoud Gamal
The late quarter of 2020 and the early quarter of 2021 witnessed many changes in Egyptian attitude towards the Libyan issue due to Libyan internal reasons -both military and political- on the one hand, and to regional and international changes, on the other.
This paper will address aspects and causes of these shifts, and likely tracks of the Egyptian regime’s future role in Libya, through the following axes:
First: Shift of Egyptian attitude
The past few months (specifically from early November 2020 to mid-March 2021) witnessed political, security and military moves by the Egyptian regime towards the Libyan issue, which seemed different from the regime’s past stances in this regard.
During this period, Cairo hosted meetings between conflicting Libyan parties to discuss significant files related to the political settlement track, most notably, meetings of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, as well as the meetings that address understandings on mechanisms of arranging a referendum on the draft constitution and general elections, both presidential and parliamentary, in December 2021.
Egypt’s embrace of one of the Libyan political settlement tracks has contributed to occurrence of a qualitative shift in the Sisi regime’s position toward the Libyan scene in terms of Cairo’s openness to all Libyan parties, where its movement has no longer been restricted to eastern Libya that is controlled by Khalifa Haftar, but it has included western and southern Libya as well.
This manifested in the visit of an Egyptian government delegation, including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the General Intelligence Service, to western Libya, the first visit of its kind since 2014 – the period that witnessed a rift between the Sisi regime and the Government of National Accord (GNA), due to the former’s political and military support of Khalifa Haftar.
Observers have unanimously agreed that the Egyptian delegation’s visit to Tripoli had significant indications, especially that it coincided with Cairo’s refusal to be directly involved in the Libyan civil war to avoid repetition of the military operation, known as Operation Flood of Dignity, that was launched by Haftar in April 2019.
The visit came a few days after Haftar had threatened to return back to war. The visit of the Egyptian delegation to Tripoli also sends positive messages to the GNA to the effect that Egypt supports the political option and wants to keep an equal distance from all parties.
During the visit, the Egyptian delegation and the Libyan Government of National Accord discussed significant issues, most notably political, diplomatic and security files, with the aim of overcoming any likely difficulties that may arise in the way of the initial restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, as follows:
1- Activating the political agreements concluded between the two countries, most prominently the Four Freedoms Agreement related to ownership, residence, work, and movement; which was signed in the 1990s in the absence of a complete execution of its provisions on the ground,
2- Reviewing the security situation for re-opening the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli,
3- Activating a number of bilateral security and trade agreements,
4- Re-opening air and sea routes between Tripoli and Cairo.
The Egyptian delegation held a series of meetings with some Libyan officials in Tripoli, including Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Taher Siala, Minister of Defense Salah al-Namroush, as well as Vice President of Presidential Council Ahmed Maiteeq.
The Egyptian delegation headed by the Deputy Director of General Intelligence Service Nasser Fahmi held several important meetings with Libyan Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha, in the presence of Head of Libyan Intelligence Service Emad Trabelsi.
The meetings handled the security challenges facing the two neighboring countries and ways to enhance security cooperation to overcome obstacles facing the Libyan-Egyptian national security.
The two sides also discussed the outputs of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission and emphasized their support to the efforts exerted in political dialogue sessions under the auspices of the United Nations to find a way out of the Libyan crisis through peaceful political means.
The Egyptian delegation also met with Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Taher Siala, where the two sides reviewed mechanisms for boosting and developing Egyptian-Libyan relations in all fields in favor of the common interests of the two countries.
During this meeting, a set of provisions were agreed upon, most prominently the Egyptian pledge to reopen the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli and restoration of its diplomatic activity there as soon as possible, while the Libyan side provided options for resuming the Egyptian Embassy services once again from the Libyan capital.
It was also agreed to overcome all obstacles for ensuring the creation of appropriate conditions for the communication between citizens of the two countries, especially with regard to resumption of flights from Libya to Cairo, in addition to scheduling meetings between experts and specialists from both countries to activate and accelerate the items agreed upon.
Commenting on the visit, the Libyan Foreign Ministry announced that the Egyptian delegation reacted positively during discussion of the outstanding issues between the two countries, which constituted the start of rebuilding trust bridges between the two parties following years of estrangement due to the Egyptian regime’s support for Khalifa Haftar.
The Egyptian side has also confirmed that Cairo was working to restore stability to the Libyan state so that it would not return to the circle of war. On its part, the Libyan side assured the Egyptian delegation that Egypt’s interests will be better secured with the Libyan state institutions that enjoy legitimacy, not with certain individuals.
Following this visit, another Egyptian delegation visited Tripoli for arranging the reopening of the Egyptian embassy and operation of a regular airline between Tripoli and Cairo. In fact, an Egyptian Consulate was actually opened to provide consular services to the Egyptian community in Libya as a preliminary step before the official reopening of the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli after absence for more than six years. Libyan flights to Egypt were also resumed, after a halt for more than a year.
In a remarkable shift in the course of Egyptian-Libyan relations, Prime Minister of Libya’s Government of National Unity (GNU) Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh visited Cairo as his first foreign trip, only two weeks after announcement of the victory of his list at the Libyan Dialogue Forum in Geneva.
During the visit, Dbeibeh held talks with Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, where the latter emphasized Egypt’s support of Libyan transitional phase track, based on Egypt’s keenness on maintaining stabilization of the foundations of peace and stability with the aim of preserving the Libyan potentials.
Sisi also emphasized “Egypt’s full readiness to provide all its expertise and experience for the benefit of Libyans in a way that contributes to putting Libya on the right track and preparing the country to move towards horizons of construction, development and stability”.
In the same context, Sisi announced his full support for the new Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) headed by Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, as the Libyan House of Representatives had granted the GNU confidence by a majority of 132/133 votes.
Sisi emphasized the significance of that step in the course of settling the Libyan crisis, via ability of the new government to manage the transitional phase, achieve comprehensive reconciliation, and unify Libyan institutions … up to the December 2021 elections. He also expressed Egypt’s readiness to provide its expertise in areas that would achieve political stability and development that the Libyan people aspire.
The major change that has affected the position of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime on the Libyan scene appears clearly in the diplomatic moves between Cairo and Tripoli, especially with respect to Cairo’s opening to the Libyan West and not confining its activity to eastern Libya as it used to happen in the past, and the Egyptian attempt to establish contacts with the GNA by virtue of various considerations imposed by interim circumstances, including field and political fluctuations in the Libyan scene, which prompted Cairo to open up to all Libyan parties.
Noura El Hafiane – A Moroccan researcher, PhD in Public International Law and Political Science; Faculty of Law, Economics and Social Sciences Sale, Morocco; November 2015.