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Why the Turkish-Libyan MOU has enraged Libyans and regional countries

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hold a joint press conference with Libyan counterpart Najla El Mangoush in Tripoli, Libya on October 03, 2022 [Fatih Aktaş/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hold a joint press conference with Libyan counterpart Najla El Mangoush in Tripoli, Libya on October 03, 2022 [Fatih Aktaş/Anadolu Agency]

On Monday, 3 October, Tripoli received a large, high-level Turkish delegation headed by Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and included Turkiye's Energy, Defence and Trade ministers. In a news conference following the talks, it was announced that both sides have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on hydrocarbon between the two countries Cavusoglu described the deal as a "win-win" for both sides.

The MOU gives Ankara the right to prospect for oil and gas in Libya's territorial waters in the Mediterranean Sea. Libya's Foreign Minister, Najala El-Mangoush, standing next to her Turkish counterpart, Cavusoglu, explained that the MOU is not a legally binding "agreement" and can be cancelled within three months if any party decides to withdraw from it for any reason. But that has not calmed suspicious Libyans.

The very fact that such a document has been signed has ignited a fierce debate among members of the public, who took to social media to express their anger and frustration. Most people accused the Government of National Unity of selling out to Ankara and that the MOU was signed covertly, without the knowledge of Oil Minister, Mohammed Aoun, who was on a business trip in South Africa at the time. They allege that he had, on a previous occasion, refused to sign the deal, prompting Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh to appoint Minister of Economics and Trade, Mohammed Al-Huweij, as acting Oil Minister specifically to sign the deal. A few days later, Al-Huweij was forced to appear on TV, defending the MOU as a non-binding document and that it did not harm Libya in any way. He called on conflicting politicians to avoid mixing the economy in their political struggles, further poisoning domestic politics. His boss, Dbeibeh, also came to his defence by claiming that the deal is within Libya's right and that hundreds of such MOUs have been signed before to "promote cooperation with other States."

READ: Turkiye, Libya sign agreements on hydrocarbon, gas

The government was also accused of breaking its commitment, as stated in the political agreement that brought it to power in February 2021, after the United Nations sponsored lengthy talks in Geneva. Indeed, the political roadmap was produced by Libya's Political Dialogue Forum – a group of 75 individuals representing most factions. The roadmap bans the interim government from signing any such deals with other countries. In fact, clause 10 of article six of that document reads "during the preparatory phase, the executive authority shall not consider any new or previous agreements or decisions that harm the stability of foreign relations of the LibyanState or impose long-term obligations on it." The idea here is to make sure that local politicians, most of whom are proxies for foreign powers, do not burden Libya with any long-term obligations until a new government is elected, that has full legitimacy and legal capacity to sign bilateral agreements with other States.

Many commentators also pointed out that the MOU is giving Ankara a favourable economic status, harming any future competition for oil exploration. Turkiye is not the best choice when it comes to oil and gas development. It is not among the world's top oil producers which have the experience, technology and know-how in the oil industry. Other criticisms included questions about why Libya's National Oil Corporation was not consulted before signing the deal with Ankara.

Who benefited from the Libya conference in Berlin? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Who benefited from the Libya conference in Berlin? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Outside Libya, the reaction to the MOU has been one of rejection and condemnation. Greece, France and Egypt have all described the deal as "illegal". The Foreign Minister of Greece, Nikos Dendias, after urgent talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, said the deal is "a threat to regional stability". Athens and Ankara have, for years, been locked in dispute over who has the right to drill for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, thought to be rich in hydrocarbon. Paris, which is supporting Nicosia and Athens in their dispute with Turkiye, issued a statement on 8 October saying that the MOU "is not in accordance with international law of the sea", reiterating its position of 2019 when Libya and Turkiye signed a maritime and security deal granting the latter the rights to explore for oil and gas in Libya's territories, both off-shore and onshore.

The European Parliament also stepped in with a warning to Tripoli and Ankara "not to implement any clause" on hydrocarbon, including the latest bilateral agreement. It also said that the 3 October MOU "foresees illegal drilling activities in other countries' exclusive economic zones, including those of Cyprus and Greece." The recent controversy is rooted in another deal signed three years earlier. In 2019, Tripoli and Ankara signed maritime and security deals by which Ankara provided military support to fend off General Haftar's attack on Tripoli. In June 2020, Haftar was defeated, thanks to Turkish military assistance. That deal, signed by Tripoli's then Government of National Accord, gave Ankara the right to establish military bases in western Libya. Thousands of Syrian mercenaries and hundreds of Turkish troops are still in Libya, despite domestic and international calls, including from the United Nations, to remove all foreign troops from Libya as a way to help national reconciliation that, hopefully, will lead to elections. But this has never happened. The UN estimated that some 20,000 foreign troops and fighters, including Russian mercenaries, are still on Libyan soil.

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Dbeibeh, Libya's current interim Prime Minister, has been accused of being loyal to Turkiye, counting on its military and political assistance to stay in power, despite the fact that he was dismissed by the Parliament and replaced by Fathi Bashaga last February. He has, repeatedly, vowed not to hand over power except to a newly elected government. There is very little prospect that such elections will take place any time soon, after the 24 December, 2021 polls were shelved, without any new date announced.

Turkiye is keen to maintain and implement any deals made with Libya, given its potential. The country is rich in oil and gas, has great potential for other minerals and is strategically located on the southern Mediterranean banks, with a very long coastline and a large Exclusive Economic Zone – far bigger than Turkiye's. In fact, Ankara will never relinquish its influence in Libya where it is already enjoying considerable clout, thereby making it a major player in deciding Libya's future course.

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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