By Khaled Mahmoud
Sisi’s efforts to broker the reunification of the Libyan army are less about stabilizing its neighbor than empowering Khalifa Haftar against shared Islamist foes.
On October 23, Egyptian-mediated talks between the Libyan National Army (LNA)—the military faction led by Khalifa Haftar and which controls most of Eastern Libya—and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli fell apart once again.
These negotiations, stalled for six months, had resumed only one week earlier, reflecting Egypt’s desire to stabilize its western neighbor by mediating a deal to unify the Libyan military. Yet the breakdown of dialogue over who would be commander-in-chief illustrates that Cairo is using negotiations to support Haftar instead.
Haftar has been Egypt’s close ally since January 2014, when he rejected extending the mandate of the General National Congress, which was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood members. That May, Egypt helped Haftar launch a campaign against Islamists, not just extremist groups such as the Islamic State, but also militias in Benghazi.
Cairo has supplied Haftar with funding, arms, and even soldiers—in violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya—but could not ensure him full control. As France and the UN pushed for a security-driven peace process in Libya, in August 2016 Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided to create a committee on Libyan affairs, headed by the armed forces’ chief of staff Marshal Mahmoud Hijazi, to bring together all sides in dialogue.
Egypt not only hoped it could mediate a favorable outcome for Haftar, but that successfully reunifying the armed forces would prompt the UN to lift its ban on weapons exports to the Libyan army, which Egypt blames for stalling Haftar’s progress. The first six negotiations in Cairo between the officers from Libya’s eastern and western regions made steady progress up through March 2018, when officers from both regions agreed to form technical committees to restructure the military.
Although media reports at the time indicated the committees had finalized most of the details of an agreement, the Cairo negotiations remained stuck in place for months, with no official explanation provided. Reports suggested they had stalled because Haftar refused to recognize the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) or to have Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the GNA be the army’s commander-in-chief.
When the latest round of talks suddenly resumed on October 17, Libyan army spokesperson Brigadier General Ahmed Mesmari gave a press conference suggesting this last disagreement had been resolved. He said that the unnamed officers attending the meeting had drafted a final unification agreement for both sides to sign, in which Haftar would remain the general commander of the army, outranking everyone except for the elected president. However, the draft also stated, “the army will be subservient when the Libyan people are satisfied with this,” implying that the army would only submit to civilian control after elections.
Mesmari did not clarify whether the internationally recognized Presidential Council, of which Serraj is the head, would take on the responsibilities of commander-in-chief until elections can be held. The Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in December 2015 states that the Presidential Council at large is the commander-in-chief. Yet Haftar believes that since the LPA expired on December 17, 2017, there is no legitimate government for him to submit to.
In response, Serraj held his own press conference to deride Mesmari’s comments as “irresponsible,” and when he received no clarification on the Presidential Council’s military powers, he refused to attend the October 24 meeting with Haftar, bringing negotiations to a halt once again.
Even if Egypt had been able to mediate a unification of the Libyan military factions, this still would not help subdue extremist threats to its own national security. This would require a separate process of unifying and overseeing policing efforts that are currently managed by a wide range of tribal security brigades, unaffiliated militias, and Salafi forces.
It is not ultimately seeking to reunify a fragmented army to fight terrorism, as it claims, but is pursuing all means possible to give Haftar the upper hand against Libya’s Islamists.
Egypt’s primary goal is to counter the spread of political Islam, particularly in neighboring countries that could pose a threat to national security.
The electoral success of Brotherhood-affiliated political parties in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco fueled Sisi’s fears that they seek to control the Arab world, thereby weakening Egypt’s own regional influence and helping Egyptian Islamists expand their domestic presence. In Libya, he considers the biggest threat to be the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.
Although the movement has lost much influence since its Justice and Construction Party won 34 out of 200 seats in the July 2012 legislative elections, it has members on the GNA’s advisory High State Council, including the council’s president, Khaled al-Mishri, and maintains good relations with Ahmed Maitig and Abdessalam Kajman on the Presidency Council.
In addition, Sisi seeks to control the situation in Libya to confront the potential threat of terrorist groups in western Egypt. Several attacks by Libyan groups have targeted the Egyptian army and police, most prominently on October 19, 2017, when militants who had trained in camps in Libya killed over 50 police officers on the Giza-Western Desert highway.
Al-Qaeda, which has suspected of being behind many of these attacks, is still strengthening its presence in southeastern Libya and building up sleeper cells in Egypt. The Egyptian government hopes that backing the anti-Islamist Haftar, whose forces were able to capture Egyptian-born militant Hisham Ashmawy during a raid in Derna in October 2018, will help eradicate these groups.
In backing Haftar, Sisi further hopes to demonstrate that the model of military rule can provide security and stability. Yet Egypt’s clear favoritism in Libya is more likely to perpetuate division and chaos. Turkey and Qatar have intervened to supply various anti-Haftar militias with money and arms.
Meanwhile, Serraj is reportedly trying to pry negotiations to unify the army away from Egyptian mediation, which is currently its most important tool to empower its ally Haftar and maintain an active presence in Libyan politics.
If successful, this move will expose Egypt’s bias, weakening its credibility as a mediator for potential future negotiations—thus weakening its military influence through Haftar and its ability to act against terrorist threats.
Khalid Mahmoud is an Egyptian journalist focusing on politics and human rights.