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How Sameh Shoukry created a storm in his own teacup

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokry gives a speech in the capital Cairo, on July 24, 2022[Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokry gives a speech in the capital Cairo, on July 24, 2022[Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

The Egyptian delegation, headed by Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, withdrew from the 158 meeting of the League of Arab States' (LAS) ministerial meeting on 6 September, a rare Egyptian diplomatic step. The LAS meeting was chaired by Libya's Foreign Minister, Najla Al-Mangoush, as her country assumed the position from Lebanon.

Shoukry's departure from the meeting came as a surprise to many, including his 21 other colleagues and representatives of LAS member states—none joined him on his walkout.

Seeking to explain what happened the following day, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Ahmed Abuzaid, said that his boss left the meeting as a "protest" against Al-Mangoush assuming the chairmanship of the meeting. Why? Because the "mandate" of the Government of National Unity (GNU) she represents has expired, meaning GNU is no longer a legitimate representative of Libya—LAS member. Mr. Abuzaid seemed to imply that his government does not recognise GNU at all, without actually saying it. He went on to question the legitimacy of the LAS ministerial meeting itself, further implying other LAS ministers supported his boss's position. However, Minister Al-Mangoush directly contradicted this when, in her opening statement, she thanked her colleagues for "supporting" her country's right to assume chairmanship of the meeting. Besides, not a single representative of the other 21 LAS members walked out of the meeting, except Mr. Shoukry.

Besides, Cairo never officially withdrew its recognition of GNU as the legitimate government in Libya. Regardless of how legal GNU is, or how legitimate its representation of Libya on the international stage, it is still the only government accepted the world over. On top of that, Libya's ambassador to Egypt, its Consul-General in Alexandria and its Permanent Representative to LAS are all appointed by GNU and report directly to Minister Al-Manghoush as Foreign Minister.

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If the Egyptian government does not recognise GNU as Libya's legitimate government, the normal procedure would have been to stop all contact with GNU, including withdrawing Cairo's ambassador from Tripoli.

Indeed, last February, Libya's eastern-based Parliament appointed Fathi Bashaga as Prime Minister instead of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who lost the vote of confidence in September 2021. But Mr. Bashaga has failed, so far, to be accepted as Prime Minister by any other state, or the UN. He is not dealt with in that capacity, not even by Mr. Shoukry's Foreign Ministry.

LAS's foreign minsters' meeting usually comes after various technical and preparatory political meetings chaired by the same country leading the ministerial meetings, i.e., Libya in this case. Egyptian delegations did not boycott such preparatory meetings, which raises another question as to why Sameh Shoukry chose to act in such an embarrassing way and what is the point he wished to convey? If Mr. Shoukry wished to interrupt the meeting, he has failed and if his message was about LAS unity and solidarity, then it failed to get through.

Sources familiar with what happened point out that Mr. Shoukry wanted to chair the meeting himself, given its importance, bypassing Libya, since Egypt comes next after Libya in the Arabic alphabetical order, as adopted in the LAS meetings.

The 158 meeting is critical because it comes before the LAS-European Union foreign ministers meeting planned later this year, and just two months before the LAS summit to be held in Algeria some time next November. Ms. Al-Mangoush, who chaired the latest Arab foreign ministers meeting last week, is likely to lead both upcoming meetings, whenever they convene.

While Libyans have plenty of complaints against GNU and particularly its Foreign Minister, Al-Mangoush, they rallied behind her, in this case, because they saw the matter as being about Libya as a country, and not about one particular government versus the other. They also saw the Egyptian action as a storm in teacup, but in Shoukry's cup and not their own.

Most Libyan commentators, including the most astonishing critics of GNU, criticised Mr. Shoukry's action, pointing out that what happened is yet more proof that Egypt is siding with one party in the Libyan internal conflict instead of being neutral, as it claims.

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Relations between Cairo and Tripoli seemed to warm up when, in April 2021, Egypt's Prime Minister, Mostafa Madbouly, led a large business and political delegation on a visit to Tripoli where he signed a dozen bilateral Memoranda of Understanding covering labour, economic and diplomatic relations.

While this is not a major stumble by Sameh Shoukry, it is not the first time. Many Egyptian observers and diplomats believe their country's Foreign Ministry is a failed institution, at a time when it is needed the most.

A former Egyptian ambassador to one of his country's neighbours told me that Mr. Shoukry has been "unable to do his job" properly while the country faced serious foreign relations issues, not only with Libya but also with many other African countries. The ambassador points out the Palestinian reconciliation file between Hamas and Fatah, which has been "monopolised" by Cairo's Foreign Ministry without any success over the last three decades. The ambassador, in a sad tone, highlights how Mr. Shoukry mishandled the River Nile water-sharing issue with Ethiopia, leaving it until the last minute, only to "fail" to settle it. He added that Mr. Shoukry's decision to refer the dispute to the UN Security Council was "the most" diplomatic failure of Cairo's foreign policy. The ambassador concluded by saying that "Shoukry's latest stumble is a personal embarrassment and notable failure to a once formidable diplomatic power house".

According to many Egyptian commentators I spoke to, Sameh Shoukry should be fired, given his dismal performance as Foreign Minister for the last eight years – since he was first appointed in June 2014. They claim the man has failed to reform the institution and has mishandled different foreign policy issues that matter to Egypt, particularly its regional ties. They also point out that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, after winning a second term as President, should have replaced Mr. Shoukry as Foreign Minister.

Will Mr. Shoukry boycott any upcoming meeting chaired by Libya? We will know the answer pretty soon.

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

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