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Is Cairo trying to counter Ankara by warming up to Tripoli?

December 31, 2020 at 7:30 am

People carry a crossed out image of President of Egypt Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi during a protest against him following his intervention threat at Martyrs Square in Tripoli, Libya on 21 June 2020. [Hazem Turkia – Anadolu Agency]

For the first time in about six years, an Egyptian delegation visited Tripoli, Libya, in an attempt to improve relations between Egypt and the Government of National Accord (GNA) – Libya’s only United Nations (UN)-recognised government in the war-torn country. The two-day visit focused on technical issues like the reopening of the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli, which closed in 2014, and the possibility of allowing Libyan Airlines to land in Cairo instead of Alexandria, where all Libyan flights have been landing for over seven years.

Such a visit is a huge breakthrough for Cairo and Tripoli, which have been on opposite sides since President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi came to power seven years ago.

Since 2014, at the start of Libya’s second civil war that effectively split the country into two under two competing authorities, Cairo has been suspicious of Tripoli, long before the GNA came to power in March 2016. Cairo is very sensitive to the idea of an Islamist-dominated authority running Libya right on its doorstep. This pushed President Al-Sisi to side with the Libyan parliament in eastern Libya, and to back General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

Once the GNA became the only internationally-recognised government in Libya, by UN Security Council Resolution 2259 in December 2015, Egypt, like other countries, recognised it as the only government in troubled Libya. However, that did not stop Cairo, like other regional powers, from jockeying for influence through other potential local actors in Libya, who keep popping into the chaotic political scene every now and then.

When terror groups dominated Benghazi and most of eastern Libya up to the Egyptian borders in 2014, Cairo became even more agitated by the security threat coming from its western neighbour. At that critical time, General Haftar and his LNA appeared on the scene to be met with Cairo’s cheers. He needed Egyptian support as much as Cairo needed him to, at the very least, secure its vast western borders.

READ: Is Libya heading in the wrong direction, with potential for another war? 

The turning point for the worse in Cairo-GNA relations came when the LNA launched its attack to dislodge the GNA from Tripoli, in April 2019. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among other countries, sided with the LNA, thus further alienating the GNA. The GNA further angered Cairo by being dominated by Libyan Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and welcoming armed militias within its ranks, including its military fighting force that helped repel the LNA. This, in turn, alienated Cairo, which became even more distrustful of the GNA.

The deteriorating relations between Tripoli and Cairo sunk even more when the GNA, in November 2019, signed a security and maritime deal with Turkey – Cairo’s arch regional rival since Al-Sisi became president.

Turkey’s large military backing of the GNA, including the supply of drones, military hardware and Syrian mercenary fighters, helped defeat the LNA last June, pushing it back to current positions of Sirte-Jufra. The ever-worried President Al-Sisi declared that the Sirte-Jufra line is a red line for Egypt and crossing it might prompt him to send his troops to defend the LNA-controlled regions, including Libyan oil fields. Turkey responded by expanding its ties with the GNA, despite Al-Sisi’s threat.

Is Egypt's decision to send its army to Libya ‘a declaration of war’?

Is Egypt’s decision to send its army to Libya ‘a declaration of war’? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

After the LNA offensive ended in defeat, Cairo sought to normalise with Tripoli again, while contemplating its next step concerning the LNA and Haftar. Does Cairo see the defeated Haftar differently now, or it is just positioning itself for what could come in the Libyan mess? The answer is not yet clear, but Cairo is undoubtedly reconsidering its position given all that happened in Libya since the summer.

The military 5+5 commission, representing the GNA and the LNA on 24 October in Geneva, produced a ceasefire across Libya, while political talks in Tunis made some progress  – however minimal.

The GNA’s powerful and potential transitional Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha visited Cairo on 5 November, breaking the ice in the bilateral ties. It was the first time that such a high-ranking GNA official visited Cairo. Winning Cairo’s support is essential for any political figure in Libya.

Cairo seemed ready to reconsider its policy towards the GNA, despite everything that happened, and the GNA only welcomed this as a good sign that Egypt might be willing to apply the brakes on its ally Haftar, should he consider another attempt to take Tripoli – although very unlikely now.

In reality, Cairo sensed that the stalled political process in Tunisia is likely to produce some agreement that would include the GNA continuing in its position until the elections planned for December 2021. This means another year of the GNA, which Cairo thinks is too long to be absent from Tripoli.

READ: Human rights take a back seat as Cairo-Paris axis strengthens 

The group of 75 delegates expect to resume their discussion on 4 January. The group, set up by the UN mission to Libya, is tasked with naming a new transitional government to replace the current GNA power structure. In Libya’s precarious political landscape, such a new GNA could well last for another five years, as deadlines are never respected in Libya where agreements have always been difficult towards any alternative. A case in point is the current GNA, which was supposed to last for a maximum of two years, but ended up in office for five so far.

The Egyptian delegation’s visit to Tripoli last week, although dominated by technical issues, is highly critical for Cairo. There are those in Egypt who believe that cutting ties with the GNA and openly supporting the LNA was a big mistake. Desperate for security and military help, and to defend itself against the LNA, the GNA welcomed Ankara’s offers at the expense of Cairo. In return for military assistance, the GNA signed a maritime borders deal and opened the country to potential permanent Turkish presence in at least two military bases in Libya – something Cairo can never accept.

Security-obsessed President Al-Sisi still does not trust the GNA given its links with his declared enemies – the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey and its accommodation of militias in Tripoli. But in the end, having some presence in Tripoli is always a plus.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.