Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Cairo backs Libyan stance

It is a truism of both history and geography that Egyptian-Libyan ties are crucial to the national security of both countries, writes Ahmed Amer

Al-Ahram Weekly

In televised statements and during meetings in New York, where he is attending the inauguration of United Nations General Assembly, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made a point of referring to the mounting terrorist danger along Egypt’s western border with Libya. Egypt is fighting terrorism inside the country and along its borders, warned Al-Sisi. It is involved in an existential battle that must be won if Egypt is not to succumb to the fate of other states in the region.  

Terrorist groups began consolidating their influence in Libya following the February 2011 Revolution which toppled the Qaddafi regime, leaving Egypt with no choice but to grapple with the Libyan question and, by extension, support the Libyan people’s own fight against terrorism.  

Before the UN General Assembly’s inaugural ceremonies began, Al-Sisi declared his support for the Libyan army and House of Representatives on the grounds that they represented the popular will of Libyans. He also voiced growing concern that the success of military operations against extremist elements in Iraq and Syria is driving increasing numbers of terrorists to Libya. Egyptian intelligence agencies have monitored an influx of extremists into Libya in recent months.

Cairo is not restricting its response to the Libyan crisis to statements of moral support. Egypt is providing the Libyan army with training and, together with Russia and China, opposed proposals by UN Special Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler – made at the request of Western powers – to impose sanctions on the Libyan army.

Libyan Armed Forces commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar responded to Cairo’s position by saying “Egypt’s presence at the side of the Libyan army inspires us with the confidence that we are not alone in this world.”

Cairo remains suspicious that some Western and regional powers are meddling in Libya with the aim of imposing an Islamist agenda and/or fostering endemic terrorism. Amr Abul Atta, Egypt’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, stated clearly that Cairo has no intention of abandoning Libya to the whims of foreign agendas and will not allow regional or international forces to intervene in the Libyan arena.

“In the General Assembly President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi pressed the Egyptian view on resolving regional crises while preserving regional stability. He also outlined political and economic developments in Egypt,” said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.

Shoukri stressed that to restore stability to Libya it is necessary to implement the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat in December last year. It is for this reason, he said, that Egypt supported the Libyan national army and its actions to safeguard security and secure Libya’s petroleum wealth.

Shoukri said the call by Washington and five European capitals for the Libyan army, under the command of Haftar, to withdraw from the petroleum crescent area after its success in freeing the oil fields from the grip of armed gangs was hasty and failed to take the domestic situation in Libya into account.  

Indeed, such calls beg the question of whether the West is serious about helping Libya rid itself of terrorism.

 “After the February 2011 Revolution the West failed to follow through on what it had begun and left Libya prey to more than 1,700 militias,” says Khaled Al-Torjuman, chairman of the National Working Group and an advisor to the Libyan House of Representatives.

“Organisations with long records of terrorist activity, boasting expertise and regional support, succeeded in seizing control of the weapon arsenals of Qaddafi’s forces and infiltrated government and military institutions. Khaled Al-Sherif, a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and once a prisoner in Guantanamo, was appointed deputy minister of defence. His comrade Abdel-Hakim Belhaj took control over the Mitiga Airport in Tripoli. Because the army had collapsed extremist groups quickly seized control of entire cities. Terrorism proliferated. Assassinations of Libyan army officers began, starting with General Abdel-Fattah Younis who was killed in March 2011. Around 2,000 army officers were killed across Libya. Benghazi, which fell under the control of Ansar Al-Sharia, a group which is ideologically affiliated with Al-Qaeda, saw the bulk of these assassinations.”

Terrorist leaders saw their control of Libya’s eastern capital as the staging post for a campaign to control the entire eastern province, ultimately placing them in proximity with the Egyptian border and in a position to confront the Egyptian army and also to control the 65 per cent of Libya’s petroleum resources located in the eastern region.

After the 30 June Revolution and overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt terrorist groups amassed in growing numbers in eastern Libya. They seized control of Derna, close to the Egyptian border, and proclaimed the first Daesh emirate in Libya.

Simultaneously, a military movement began to coalesce under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar. In May 2014 it launched Operation Dignity to liberate Benghazi from terrorist groups. The operation was supported by the popularly elected parliament which appointed Haftar general commander of the army with the rank of lieutenant general.

Colonel Mohamed Al-Manfour, commander of Libyan airforce operations, praised the “unlimited” support which Egypt has offered the nascent national army.  

Yet in the last week the Western media has published a string of false reports about the Libyan army. Western news agencies claimed the Al-Jadhran militia had succeeded in recapturing oil exporting ports and defeating the Libyan army. They ignored the statements and press releases issued by the Libyan armed forces and their commanders which clearly stated the Libyan army had repelled the counteroffensive and infected heavy losses on participating militias, including the Benghazi Defence Brigades, ideological affiliates of Al-Qaeda.

According to Khalifa Al-Obeidi, director of the Press Office of the Libyan General Command, the Al-Jadhran attack was repelled within a few hours.

“We sent statements to all the international and Arab news agencies confirming this but the Western agencies ignored us and published false stories. The following day, as the first petroleum carrier was being filled with oil, they were forced to alter their reports.”

Al-Obeidi believes a systematic media campaign, fanned by Western political pressure, is being waged against the Libyan army. But the army is determined to press forward. After securing control over the petroleum facilities the army advanced westward and seized control of Bin Jawad, a town just south of Sirte and of Harawa, 50km south of Tripoli. The latest advances, says Obeidi, mean “we have extended our control over more than three-quarters of the country”.

Responding to Western reports, Field Marshal Haftar has stressed that the purpose of military operations is to fight terrorism and there are no ulterior political motives. He also lashed out against Martin Kobler, accusing the UN special envoy of exceeding the bounds of his office and meddling in matters beyond his mandate.

Cairo, for its part, has continued working with all Libyan stakeholders. In a flurry of activity last week Egypt sponsored a number of meetings, overseen by the Egyptian Chief of Staff General Mahmoud Hegazi. Participants included the Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives Aqila Saleh, members of the Libyan Presidency Council Ali Al-Qatrani and Fathi Al-Mijbari, as well as Kobler. They agreed, in principle at least, to revert to the fourth draft of the Libyan Political Agreement which will effectively dissolve the current nine-member presidential council headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj and replace it with a new council with two vice presidents. Kobler asked for time so he could discuss the matter with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Political and military analysts now believe freeing the Libyan capital Tripoli from militia control is now only a matter of time. Many expect the Libyan army to launch a surprise attack to liberate Tripoli along the lines of its operation to regain control over the petroleum ports.

Al-Ahram Weekly has learned from local intelligence sources that the Libyan army is coordinating closely with militia groups based in western Libya, around Zintan, Warshafana, Beni Walid and Tarhouna, as well as with some of the more influential brigades in Misrata, in order to orchestrate an entry into the capital.

Haftar told Al-Ahram Weekly he is consulting with Egyptian authorities on matters of mutual concern and confirmed that Cairo provides his forces with intelligence.

“We work together [with Egypt] with complete frankness and transparency. We consult together on issues of mutual concern and cooperate for the sake of the welfare of both our countries,” he said. Certain countries, he continued, are “keen to supply us with intelligence information, using their advanced monitoring and surveillance technologies… Egypt and France are foremost among them.”

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