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Can Cairo torpedo the UN’s plans in Libya despite its rapprochement with foe Ankara?

March 23, 2023 at 8:15 am

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) meets with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry (R) in Cairo, Egypt. [Mohamed El-Shahed – Anadolu Agency]

Egypt warmly welcomed Turkiye’s Foreign Minister for the first time in a decade that saw relations between the two countries soured over, mainly, what Ankara saw as a “coup” that deposed its Muslim Brotherhood ally, the late President Mohammed Morsi. Mr. Cavusoglu’s visit to Cairo came after his boss, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, while both attended the World Cup in Doha, Qatar last November.

The arrival of Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Cairo on 18 March, and his meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, is seen as a big breakthrough between Cairo and Ankara with regional implications, with Libya being on top as one regional hot spot for both Ankara and Cairo.

The ministers discussed Libya in what Mr. Cavusoglu described as “a little more detail”. He also said that both countries are not “rivals” in Libya. He went on to say that both sides will “intensify” their discussions of Libya and that Cairo and Ankara “should work together for the stability of Libya”.

The two countries back different sides in Libya, with Turkiye providing military, political and economic support to the government in Tripoli while Egypt is backing General Khalifa Haftar, including during his failed 2019 invasion of Tripoli which Turkiye helped defeat. Ankara also maintains military presence in Libya, which Mr. Cavusoglu described as the “most legitimate [foreign] presence” in Libya, meaning that Ankara is not about to leave Libya as Cairo has been demanding for years. Cairo, on its part, is allied to eastern forces in eastern Libya: politically it is a close ally to the Speaker of Libya’s Tobruk based Parliament, Agila Saleh, and militarily providing support to Mr. Haftar.

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How will the two former regional foes turn to “cooperation” in Libya, as Minister Cavusoglu said? How? It is not yet clear, but the biggest test of this would be how both sides deal with the United Nations envoy, Abdoulaye Bathily, as he prepares to launch his proposal into practice.

Last month, Mr. Bathily proposed to the UN Security Council what he called an inclusive “High-level Steering Panel for Libya” to prepare and supervise presidential and legislative elections in the country before the end of this year. How such a panel will work and what legitimacy it will have and how its decisions, if any, will be reinforced to reach elections, remains unclear. Cairo and Ankara, like many other countries, have announced their support for the idea.

Mr. Bathily got a big boost from the UN Security Council. On 16 March, the Council’s rotating president, representative of Mozambique, issued a statement not only supporting Mr. Bathily but also commending Cairo for its “facilitating talks in Cairo” between Libya’s Parliament Speaker, Mr. Saleh and his counterpart, the Chairman of Higher Council of State, Khalid Mishri. They agreed on a constitutional document paving the way for elections in Libya. Notably, the statement commended Egypt’s efforts, which is a kind of big score for Cairo when it comes to its agenda in Libya.

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In his 11 March press conference in Tripoli, Mr. Bathily seemed happy with both Cairo and Ankara’s support. However, Cairo is unlikely to support anything that sidelines its eastern Libya allies, including General Haftar and Mr. Saleh. This means anything both men reject, when it comes to drafting new elections laws, Cairo is likely to reject, and the most contentious point in any upcoming elections laws is likely to be eligibility to contest presidential elections. Current Libyan laws, regardless of election, disqualify any dual citizen from serving in the public sector, unless he renounced his foreign citizenship.

Mr. Haftar is known to hold American citizenship and he is, as is Mr. Saleh, already on the ballot, as both men submitted their candidacy files for the aborted elections of December 2021. They are likely to contest any upcoming presidential poll.

The much welcomed 13th Constitutional Amendment already agreed by both chambers bans holders of foreign citizenship from becoming prime minister. In reality, any election law cannot ban dual citizens from becoming prime minister, but allow the same to be president.

Last Monday, 20 March, Mr. Saleh suggested to Parliament the possibility of giving the presidential candidate two weeks to renounce his second citizenship before being sworn in. He did not elaborate what would happen if the presidential winner refuses to renounces his foreign citizenship.

On the other hand, the Higher Council of State and the House of Representatives are to establish a committee to consider and draft elections laws before adopting them in vote. Should the 12-member committee fail to agree to what Mr. Bathily’s proposal says, then his High Level Panel should intervene to seek consensus. This, in practice, means that both chambers will have no say in the proposed elections laws. However the Parliament, and its Egypt ally, will not accept this and likely to claim that, unless voted on in the chamber itself any proposed legislation is null and void.

Is Cairo, now, in a position to torpedo any agreement in Libya it does not like, and what would Ankara do in such a scenario? While Egypt is unlikely to openly interrupt the UN envoy’s plan, it can ask its proxies and allies in the East to do so. The same goes for Ankara, whose military personnel and Syrian mercenaries are still in Libya, despite the UN’s repeated calls for all foreign troops and fighters to leave Libya. Haftar is also required to cut his links with mercenaries, including the Russian Wagner Group fighters, whose movement inside Libya the General does not control.

The issue of the Russians was on the table when Mr. Haftar received, on 20 March in his headquarters, visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbara Leaf. She reminded the General that Wagner Group has been classified by the US as a “transaction criminal organisation”, citing its destabilising and opportunistic role in Libya and beyond.

The kind of cooperating between Ankara and Cairo, instead of competing, in Libya is unlikely to be settled anytime soon and returning to competition is on the horizon, despite all the nice words coming from both capitals.

This, among other issues, will always have a negative impact on internal Libyan affairs, hampering the UN efforts to lead the country out of its long transitional period. Who holds sway? Only time will tell.

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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.