Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt continues to back Haftar

Cairo is no closer to securing a greater share of power for its allies in the UN-sponsored Libyan National Unity Government, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Libya’s prime minister-designate and head of the Presidential Council Fayez Al-Sarraj on Saturday. During the meeting, Al-Sisi said that a political solution to the Libyan crisis is “inevitable”.

Presidential Spokesman Alaa Youssef said Al-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s support of the Libyan Presidential Council and other institutions, including the national army, noting that these institutions must be preserved in order to restore security in Libya and fight terrorism. Al-Sisi also underlined the need to end the arms embargo on the Libyan army.

“Cairo only seems able to view Libya from a single angle, that of Khalifa Haftar. But this isn’t going to work for Libya, not now nor in the foreseeable future,” said a European diplomat who follows developments in the tribal, conflict-affected North African country.

Haftar was a military officer under former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who defected from the ranks and sought refuge in the US before returning to the region. He has long been promoted by Cairo as a potential military head of state. Most informed sources say he is currently based in western Egypt, close to the Libyan border.

Egypt has posited Haftar to many leading Arab and Western countries as the answer to the Libyan quagmire, a “strong man” capable of defeating the Islamists who control most of the west of the country and of keeping Libya’s unruly tribes in order. And there was a time when Cairo’s arguments won support in Europe.

“For a while, yes, we thought that maybe General Haftar could be the Sisi of Egypt, someone from the military with popular support who would keep his country intact, stable and relatively secure,” said the European diplomat.

“But we soon realized Haftar is none of these things. He is just another general from the Middle East who thinks he is entitled to rule his country without any clear plan for political dialogue, socio-economic development or power-sharing.

“It was soon clear that Haftar does not have any serious public base unlike, say, Sisi in the summer of 2013. And despite the generous military, financial and technical help he is receiving from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and others, including several European countries for a while, he has been unable to improve the performance of his militia and make it look like the base of a national army.”

Diplomatic sources say Haftar’s lacklustre performance is now impossible to ignore and the claim that he somehow heads a “national Libyan army” rings increasingly hollow.

“He is just the head of a militia, and it is not even a powerful one as is shown by his seeking refuge in Egypt,” said a North African diplomat in Cairo.

Yet Cairo continues to insist that the Tobruk Parliament, which used to be the sole legitimate representative of Libya until the announcement of a UN-sponsored national unity government in December, and Haftar are entitled to assume power in Libya.

A UN diplomat who has worked closely with successive UN envoys to Libya says that almost five months after the signing of the Libya National Unity Government, Cairo is still trying to slow down the UN-sponsored political process in the hope of expanding the role of its allies in Libya at the expense of Islamists there.

The Egyptian authorities, say many Western and North African diplomats, are “too obsessed with their own endless crusade against the Islamists”. Said the North African diplomat, “Egypt is a strong country. It should not be seeing the ghosts of the Muslim Brotherhood everywhere.” He added that Cairo’s “endless anti-Islamist crusade” has effectively denied Libya the chance of benefitting from the UN-sponsored national unity government.

An Egyptian official who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly said Cairo has “no intention of allowing political power in Libya to go the General National Conference, Libya’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Egypt’s resistance to the idea is not simply about the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, but also about the very close ties “I could even say affiliation” the General National Conference has with Ankara and Doha who are, “as far as we are concerned, regional spoilers”.

The official added that during his recent talks in Cairo, Al-Saraj discussed with Egyptian and with Egypt-based Libyan political figures ways to expand the share of the Tobruk Parliament and the Haftar “army” in any political power-sharing mechanism.

Some Western diplomats have suggested Egypt would not be overly concerned if Libya split, and the Eastern regions fell under the rule of Haftar, should Cairo’s allies not gain a bigger share of power in a united Libya. But it is a scenario most Western capitals, especially those of southern Europe, are apprehensive about, even though it would leave control of most of Libya’s crude oil in the hands of a new ally.

Almost all other North African countries are opposed to any division, particularly Algeria. Haftar was once described by a retired Algerian diplomat as a worse version of Gaddafi. Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco are all convinced that the Egyptian recipe designed to either fully exclude or pass a very minor share of power to Libya’s Islamists is unworkable in the long term.

According to the Egyptian official, however, “Cairo is perfectly entitled to worry about the security of its western borders which have seen the infiltration of arms, money and weapons that then find their way to anti-state militias in Sinai.”

Egypt, said Zeyad Akl, a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, is a make-or-break player when it comes to Libya. “This is the case regardless of who thinks what of the Egyptian take on Libya. Everybody knows that without Egypt you cannot implement a deal on Libya.”

The more the Egyptian take on Libya is accommodated, the higher the chances of a deal being implemented, argued Akl.

But Cairo needs to be more flexible over Libya, say Western diplomats. It needs to stop thinking that every Arab country needs a military man at the head of the executive, as one underlined impatiently.

“Maybe it will take a change of direction over Libya from Saudi Arabia Riyadh is, after all, getting closer to Ankara every day to convince its close ally Egypt to agree to more inclusive political power-sharing there,” said a UN diplomat. “If Saudi Arabia is already showing this kind of openness in Yemen it might well, with the encouragement of Turkey, decide it can also work for Libya.”

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