A political source from eastern Libya told Al-Ahram Weekly that Libyan National Army (LNA) forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar are in the process of recapturing portions of the petroleum crescent that had fallen to the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB). An operation that involved intensive bombardment of BDB positions began on Monday, forcing BDB groups to retreat. The BDB are also in disarray because of differences between its tribal and jihadist components, especially after disputes erupted over how to deal with the oil fields and ports after gaining control over them. The source, who spoke to the Weekly by phone from Libya, added that the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) have appealed for international intervention in response to recent developments. He also stressed that the LNA were trying to avoid striking the petroleum facilities.
What repercussions will this crisis around Sirte have and what are the prospects for resuming the Cairo-sponsored dialogue interrupted by the eruption in hostilities? Al-Hussein Al-Musirri, a researcher close to Libyan political circles in Cyrenaica, believes that the political dialogue between eastern and western Libya will resume once the army regains control over the petroleum crescent. He also believes the developments will affect the position of Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Tripoli-based Presidency Council. It is widely believed that Al-Sarraj supported the actions of the BDB.
Fawzi Al-Haddad, a political affairs specialist from Libya, takes a similar view. The crisis in the petroleum crescent led opposing political factions in Libya to sever contacts and caused a freeze in the Cairo-sponsored dialogue but it is unlikely that it will force this process back to square one, he told the Weekly. “But on the other hand,” he warned, “it is difficult to imagine the crisis easing up quickly. The general view in Libya, especially among tribes in the petroleum crescent, is that some new arrangement is needed for guarding the petroleum facilities and this should be agreed upon by the two sides, west and east.”
In Cairo, a source close to the Libyan issue said “Egypt still believes opportunity exists for the dialogue to resume between Libyan factions. Cairo is, as always, ready to embrace that dialogue.” He also stressed that the recent eruption of hostilities were “a dangerous sign” because “Libya almost slid back into civil war.”
On 12 and 13 January Cairo brokered an agreement between the Libyan factions over four political documents. Official statements issued by the Joint Egyptian-Libyan Committee underscored Cairo’s commitment to the unity of Libya and its sponsorship of joint meetings o promote efforts to reach a political solution.
Cairo has been accused of bias in favour of the east which is controlled by the government of Abdullah Al-Thanni, the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) and the LNA commanded by Haftar, whereas the west is governed by the Presidency Council and the Government of National Accord (GNA), both headed by Al-Sarraj. Cairo denies the allegations. Official sources in Egypt say that prior to the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015 it was natural for Egypt to focus more closely on eastern Libya since the area gave rise to major border security concerns. In the post-Skhirat period however, Cairo, which was committed to supporting the accord, began to draw closer to the west to the degree, as one source put it, that “it is possible to say relations with the west are almost on par with those with the east”.
Cairo believes regional and international reports have misrepresented Cairo’s failure to broker a tripartite face-to-face meeting between Haftar, Al-Sarraj and Aguila Saleh, speaker of the Tobruk-based HoR. Egyptian sources argue complex considerations need to be borne in mind: for the most part, for example, Libyan dialogue participants tend to prioritise personal interests over those of the state whereas Cairo’s actions and declarations focus on the state and the need to rebuild its structures. It is for this reason, perhaps, that some countries resent Egypt’s role and have spread false allegations of bias. Cairo nonetheless hosted a series of bilateral meetings in the hope of bridging the positions of the parties and bringing them together. It was Haftar who decided not to meet with Al-Sarraj during his last visit to Cairo, a decision he took independently. Egypt exercised no pressure on him, or on any other party, because it is keen to ensure that any agreement that arises is entirely Libyan.
The political source from eastern Libya observes that Egypt could have applied pressure but chose not to. Perhaps this is because it sees that Haftar holds a better hand than Al-Sarraj. Haftar is making gains on the ground and his popularity as growing by the day. Al-Sarraj, in spite of the authorities he acquired in the framework of the Skhirat accord, has been unable to score similar successes.
An informed Egyptian source views the situation differently.
“I believe that both figures have had their successes and failures and if Haftar is ahead in the current round, it is still Al-Sarraj who is recognised internationally as head of state. He cannot be disregarded. Cairo has intensive dealings with Libya’s western regions and has many contacts there. A-Sarraj is ready to offer concessions, and we are coordinating with influential international powers. Ultimately, what is expected from the two sides is that they converge on common ground.”
Sources in Cairo also insist Egypt is not so much promoting an initiative as sponsoring multi-party dialogue in an attempt to promote consensus on how to rebuild the structures and capacities of the Libyan state away from rival ideological or tribal affiliations. Every tribe, political faction and region wants to be represented in the dialogue but there is little confidence between Libyans and strong divergence between their views has emerged in previous meetings.
Another reason Egypt is not advancing an initiative is because it believes it could obstruct progress and create confusion. Many initiatives have already been tried, the most prominent being that of former US secretary of state John Kerry which called for a dialogue to produce an agreement that could be voted on and signed by dialogue participants during a single session and then sent to the HoR for ratification after which the Constitutional Declaration would be amended to incorporate the agreement. The sources add that suggestions of holding a dialogue in Taif, Saudi Arabia, were mooted in advance of that agreement. Other initiatives followed, from Tunisia, Algeria and even from some sub-Saharan states.
Despite the difficulties encountered the Cairo dialogue has succeeded in creating a new mechanism for overcoming impasses caused by the intervention of political leaders. The proposal initially called for a dialogue committee made up of a maximum of 15 MPs from the HoR and the same number of representatives from the High Council of State (HCS). This proved impossible — there are 13 political blocs in the HoR and 14 in the HCS — so it was decided to raise the number of representatives on the committee to 19 from each side. The HoR and HCS, themselves, were left to determine the way members are appointed to the committee. Cairo, for its part, opposed the idea of any entities apart from the two assemblies being represented despite Libya’s socio-political complexities and multifarious tribal affiliations and alliances.
“We are aware of the magnitude of the tribal challenge,” a source in Cairo said. “But we believe it best for this committee to be institutionally based. Existing tribal rivalries will only complicate matters. It is better to build the institutional superstructure of the state — the constitutional bodies such as the executive, the parliament, the army and security agencies — and gradually build from there through grassroots and mass participation. Ultimately, we are working to adapt a tribal role which we know is indispensable.”
The Cairo Declaration provided a timeframe, with February 2018 set as the date for holding general elections. A high-level source in Cairo told the Weekly this date was not so much obligatory as it was an incentive. Cairo thinks the new interim phase could drag on much longer, anywhere from two to five years, time that will not help the Libyans overcome the security and political challenges they face.
With regard to the many challenges being addressed in the Libyan-Libyan dialogue Cairo is sponsoring the lack of confidence, not just with respect to rival factions but also in terms of their own political futures, is among the most difficult. Each side sees any prospective agreement as compromising their own interests. One source in Cairo put it bluntly: “Without exception the parties fear the agreement will sweep away their personal interests.” This is why Cairo proposed that the parties remain in their posts throughout the interim period.
Another challenge stems from the agendas of regional powers. “We are opposed to all attempts to partition Libya. There are forces that are working to promote a partition scenario and attempts from abroad to further this,” a source in Cairo said.
“These influences have been obvious from the outset,” says Al-Musirri. “It was also clear from the German chancellor’s remarks during her recent visit to Cairo that she was tossing the ball into the regional court on the grounds that regional disparities have a greater impact on the Libyan question whereas, in fact, the international dimension is more influential. Proof of this is to be found in the fact that many parties are still waiting to see what the Trump administration will put forward regarding Libya.”
Regardless of different initiatives proposed by Tunisia and Algeria, Fawzi Al-Haddad believes Libya’s neighbours are moving closer together. He says there are now five points in the LPA that need to be amended and Libya’s neighbours are trying to help. “There are no fundamental differences between Libya’s neighbours though the extent of their influence over Libyan parties is not equal.” He adds that “the support being given to Islamist forces by Qatar and Turkey” continues to constitute a problem.
The diverse positions of international stakeholders are contributing to prolonging and even aggravating the Libyan dilemma, says Al-Musirri, and now the Russians have begun to take a role in Libya. According to sources in Egypt, Cairo is in contact with both Moscow and Washington on this issue. Coordination with both sides is good and both have expressed their appreciation of Egyptian efforts, he said, adding that there will soon have to be an international mechanism to legitimise decisions internationally.
A major challenge at the local level is the proliferation of militias. Some of these are now so large they might have to be engaged in dialogue. Concerns regarding the militias have heightened given the possible partial lifting of the international arms embargo on Libya and the recent creation of groups such as the Presidential Guards. Sources in Cairo refuse to comment on whether there has been any dialogue with such groups, saying only that “the phenomenon is obstructive.”
“Cairo believes that the Libyan National Army must serve as an umbrella and other groups should gather beneath it if they wish to see the Libyan state to take root and a single government emerge with which the rest of the world can interact,” said one source.