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Libya has been in the news over the past week, for grim reasons. The Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, was a Brit of Libyan descent. He is suspected to have been radicalized by ISIS in Libya, and went there just days before the attack. In Egypt, the government has alleged that last Friday’s deadly attack against Christians in Minya, south of Cairo, was carried out by militants who trained in Libya, and ordered retaliatory airstrikes against camps there. Meanwhile, in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, recent fighting between rival militias has left dozens dead. The country’s severe instability and ongoing conflicts continue to have local, regional, and international ramifications.
Adel Abdel Ghafar
Former Brookings Expert
Senior Policy Fellow - European Council on Foreign Relations
Increasingly, many Western capitals see Egypt as a key component to a diplomatic solution in Libya. But while Egypt may deliver its Libyan proxies, it will be a challenge for the United Nations to keep them under the same tent as those who backed its mediation from the start—and which Cairo, incidentally, considers to be by and large too Islamist.
A year and a half since the signing of the U.N.-backed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Skhirat, Morocco, the political process in Libya needs a reboot. The LPA sought to create a single national unity government for all of Libya—but after five years of conflict following the fall of Gadhafi, three governments compete for dominance. The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, is recognized by the U.N. and the international community. It has so far proven highly ineffective. In the east, the House of Representatives and its allied strongman, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, never approved the LPA, while an interim government headed by Abdullah al Thinni keeps operating in this part of the country. Finally, a third government is based in Tripoli: the National Salvation Government, which represents the more radical anti-Gadhafi militias loyal to the country’s mufti.
Egypt and the UAE have been backing Haftar militarily and financially since the beginning of the conflict. Despite their general distaste for the strongman, the United States and Europe have finally acquiesced over the last year to the fact that given that backing, Haftar has to be part of a solution, or there will be no solution. And almost inevitably, they have been looking to Egypt as the country that—in cooperation with its UAE backers—can deliver Haftar.
In parallel with the decline of the U.N. mission to Libya, Egyptian diplomacy has gained momentum and is now seen in many Western capitals as the key to a new settlement. In conjunction with soft power diplomacy, Egypt has also showed that hard power is firmly on the table. The second wave of airstrikes against militants, regardless of whether they were involved in the Minya attack or not, mark an escalation of the Egyptian military’s now-open involvement in Libya.
If Egyptian involvement is key in Libya, the inverse is also true: Libya is pivotal to Egypt’s security and economic interests. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said in his recent Riyadh speech that the disintegration of state institutions has benefitted terrorist organizations and that Egypt fully supports efforts to maintain the “unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of states in the region. One could tell that Libya weighed heavily on his mind, and Cairo has been working hard to achieve favorable outcomes. But does the road to stability in Libya pass through Cairo?
Libya is Key for Egypt
El-Sissi’s statements indicate Egypt’s security, economic, and ideological interests.
On security, Egypt is set on avoiding the breakup of the Libyan state and fighting extremist elements there, including al-Qaida and ISIS affiliates. Egypt’s long border with Libya has been porous since 2011, with weapons, militants, and drugs passing back and forth. As Egypt is fighting its own ISIS affiliate in the east of the country, the stability and security of its western border is paramount. The wide open border, which runs 1,115 kilometers, has been increasingly difficult to police: In 2015, eight Mexican tourists who were on safari in the Western desert were killed when an Egyptian army helicopter mistook their group for militants and fired on them.
On economics, an estimated 750,000 Egyptians live and work in Libya. While this is a sizable drop from the 2 million Egyptians who resided in Libya before Gadhafi was toppled, it is still a significant number. In addition, Egyptian oil companies are planning to resume operations in Libya, including the large-scale importation of hydrocarbons.
Cairo’s third motivation is ideological. Following the ouster of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013, Cairo declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has aimed to suppress the movement in Libya as well. Cairo fears that if the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups gain a stronger governing foothold in Libya, the country might become a safe haven for the Egyptian Brotherhood (much like Turkey and Qatar have been). Especially on this last point, Haftar, who recently cited Egypt’s 2013 coup as a source of inspiration, has been a natural ally. From start, he has construed the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood within the broader fight against terrorism.
Our Man in Libya
Haftar rose to prominence by waging war on Islamists of all stripes in eastern Libya. Because of their ideological alignment, Egypt and the UAE have bet on Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). Haftar also provides some prospect of stability, so despite being weary of his unpredictability, Cairo has had no better choice than to support him.
Thanks to Egyptian and Emirati support, Haftar’s military fortunes improved in 2016. The LNA took control of most of Benghazi and made headway in the Oil Crescent, the crucial resource-rich region just east of Sirte. Egypt tried to capitalize on this new balance of forces through diplomacy by convening a meeting of Libyan members of parliament in December 2016.
The resulting “Cairo Declaration” contained the main elements of what could soon become the U.N.-endorsed road map for Libya. It called for delegations from the House of Representatives and the Tripoli-based Council of State to agree on shrinking the Presidency Council from nine members to three, accelerating the approval of a new constitution, and holding parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2018.
For his part, Haftar refused to sit with Serraj in Cairo in February 2017, despite heavy pressure from Egypt. A so-called breakthrough came on May 2 in Abu Dhabi when the two finally met. Both Egypt and the UAE hailed this as evidence that a new agreement was at hand. Many in Western capitals want to believe it, too.
Trump vs. the Islamists
The election of Donald Trump has contributed to the shifting balance of power in Libya. He brought to power a group of advisers committed to fighting Islamists above all other concerns in the region. That, in turn, has given hope to Haftar and many members of his camp that the Libyan Field Marshal could be the focus of a new convergence between Egypt, the UAE, and the United States in the name of the fight against Islamists of all persuasions, both militant and moderate.
Members of President Trump’s inner circle, such as Steve Bannon, viewed the Muslim Brotherhood with hostility for years, suspecting it of being a Trojan horse to turn the United States into the “Islamic States of America.” An executive order to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group had gathered steam in the White House—while it has been put aside for now, as it risked alienating regional allies, the administration has viewed Islamist political actors and their backers with increased hostility.
Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, has been trying hard to rebrand and move away from its Egyptian counterpart. Nonetheless, it has found itself also in the line of fire. A new bill was introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives threatening to impose sanctions on Hamas’ international backers, such as Qatar. At a recent conference in Washington, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that Qatar risked U.S. sanctions if it continued its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Overall, there is a hardening of the U.S. position towards all Islamists, which means that on Libya, there is an alignment of interests between the United States on one hand, and Egypt and the UAE on the other.
Furthermore, the Manchester attack is likely to accelerate this Western move toward seeing Haftar’s LNA as a dependable partner in the fight against terrorism. The new French administration has already signaled that its priority will be building a Libyan army, and that this will have to include Haftar. Whether this pro-LNA shift will be combined with a new, inclusive political agreement is an open question.
While raising high hopes internationally, the Haftar-Serraj meeting in Abu Dhabi received mixed reactions in Libya. Militias from the city of Misrata, key to supporting Serraj and fighting ISIS in the past, are now divided. Some are increasingly siding with the rival National Salvation Government in Tripoli, a coalition of radicals supported by the Mufti Gharyani. It is now clear that this coalition will oppose any move forward by Serraj in the dialogue with Haftar, threatening the fragile balance of power in Tripoli.
For almost all the forces in Western Libya, where the majority of Libyans live, there are two red lines in the current talks. First, the army needs to be under civilian oversight and the army cannot only consist of Haftar’s LNA. Second, and less explicit, the agreement will need to include also forces that Haftar and the Egyptians consider “too Islamist.” International pressure on Tripoli and Misrata to eliminate these red lines is unlikely to work.
Ultimately, the road to stability in Libya does pass through Cairo, but also through New York, Brussels, Abu Dhabi, Washington, and Moscow—and most importantly through Tripoli and Misrata.
It is up to the United Nations to navigate this minefield. Egypt has laid the groundwork for a new diplomatic initiative, but now the United Nations must turn it into a stabilizing factor and not the trigger of a new conflict in the relatively peaceful western half of Libya. The challenge is to include Haftar without losing the majority of Misrata and Tripoli. Ultimately, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and the new Special Representative he will soon have to appoint will have to expand the base of support for the Cairo Agreement to include eastern Libya, not shift its core from Tripoli to Marj, where Haftar’s headquarters are.
Ultimately, the road to stability in Libya does pass through Cairo, but also through New York, Brussels, Abu Dhabi, Washington, and Moscow—and most importantly through Tripoli and Misrata. Regional and international buy-in for a new settlement is important, but Libyan buy-in is key. An agreement built around the “independence” of the military from the civilian government (as Haftar insists) and the exclusion of the forces that Cairo considers “too Islamist” is unlikely to get the support of key factions in Western Libya. Ultimately, these ambiguities in the Egyptian plan risk jeopardizing a core agreement between the local powers in Tripoli, Misrata, and Marj, making any deal external actors hammer out fragile at best.
While the meeting in Abu Dhabi may have raised hopes of a breakthrough in many Western capitals, the Egyptian (and Emirati) mediation is unlikely to work, unless these countries and their Libyan proxy Khalifa Haftar are ready for a real compromise. This will need to include crucial issues such as the inclusion of all actors in the political framework and civilian oversight of the military. Absent this, instability, and possibly escalation could still be part of the picture in Libya.