Cairo opens up to western Libya in bid to counter Turkish influence

Visit by senior Egyptian intelligence official and diplomats to Tripoli could be the prelude to other steps.

Egypt has decided to be more open to the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, a move that carries a message of support to the current led by Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha and which rejects Turkish military escalation.

Bashagha, who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party, visited Cairo last November.

Following the withdrawal of the Libyan National Army (LNA) from Tripoli to Sirte, a split emerged in western Libya between supporters of the political settlement process ending Turkey’s military role and those calling for continued fighting and seizing Sirte and the oil ports.

Bashagha’s ambition to head the new government has strained his relationship with his former Turkish allies, who were reportedly upset by the two visits he made to Egypt and France.

However, the influence of Bashagha, who is described as the strongman in western Libya, is beginning to wane, while that of Salah al-Din al-Namroush, the new defence minister appointed a few months ago who is known for his pro-Turkey stances, is on the rise.

On Sunday, an Egyptian delegation that included Deputy Head of the General Intelligence Service and Head of the Security Committee on Libya, Major General Ayman Badie, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and the political official in charge of the Egypt file, Ambassador Muhammad Abu Bakr, and other Egyptian officials, visited Tripoli.

Egyptian sources told The Arab Weekly that “the visit was planned a few weeks ago, and it has nothing to do with the visit of Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar to Tripoli.”

“The Egyptian delegation was supposed to be expanded to reflect the importance of the step, but reducing it relatively and being satisfied with the symbolic significance of the visit at this stage is a prelude to other steps that will be taken in western Libya,” the sources added.

The delegation informed the GNA of the need to stop importing Turkish weapons, to quickly dismantle the militias and to completely reject any Turkish military bases on Libyan territory.

Mohammed al-Zubaidi, professor of international law at the University of Tripoli, said, “The visit comes after Cairo hosted the meetings of the (5 + 5) Military Committee and the Constitutional Committee, and the success in achieving major breakthroughs regarding the opening of roads between the east and the west, the exchange of prisoners between the LNA and the GNA and an agreement on the exit of foreign forces from the country.”

Zubaidi pointed out in a statement to The Arab Weekly that “Hulusi Akar’s visit to Tripoli aims to prevent the departure of mercenaries and breach the borders between eastern Libya and western Libya to thwart the outcomes of the Military Committee meetings, and to seek to re-ignite security tensions and bring the situation back to square one.”

Cairo further expanded the scope of its outreach to forces from all regions of Libya, and hosted meetings that included figures from several regions and different affiliations, in an attempt to avoid associating it exclusively with the axis of eastern Libya, which includes Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh, Speaker of Parliament and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the LNA.

Egypt’s continued support of eastern Libya has angered some forces in western Libya, which believe this bias is due to Cairo’s preference for cooperation with a military figure, and to direct strategic considerations related to the direct importance of this region for Egypt’s national security system.

Egyptian political sources said the visit’s goal was to strengthen relations with influential forces in Tripoli, and to resettle directions with Sarraj, who, it has become clear by now, will continue in his post until further notice. They stressed that Sarraj has become the de-facto person to deal with now and who could be useful at this stage, given the blockage of political dialogue.

Sources told The Arab Weekly that “Egypt’s avoidance of establishing ties with Tripoli was one of the reasons that facilitated Turkey’s entry into the Libyan space and expanding its presence in western Libya since the GNA found its back exposed in a situation of extreme confusion, and when Ankara reached out to it militarily and politically, it jumped on the opportunity.”

The sources pointed out that Sarraj paid a secret visit to Cairo in mid-November in which he met with the head of the General Intelligence Service, Major General Abbas Kamel, while Bashagha visited Cairo practically at the same time and met with senior officials of the security committee entrusted with following the Libyan file.

The GNA’s outreach paved the way for the Egyptian delegation to visit Tripoli for the first time since relations were severed nearly seven years ago, as Cairo closed its embassy in Tripoli in January 2014 after four of its employees and the administrative attache were kidnapped by armed militias.

Information was circulated about the political-security delegation discussing the reopening of the embassy in Tripoli with their Libyan counterparts.

Egyptian political sources considered that re-opening an embassy in this atmosphere would be premature, and that it is more likely to open a consular section in Tripoli that would include a limited number of administrative employees, the majority of whom are Libyan, with an Egyptian official moving between Tripoli and Tunisia until security is completely stable in the Libyan capital.

This step seeks to imply that Egypt is in western Libya, and that it has no problem dealing with the GNA or any of the national forces.

Ahmed Aliba, a researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, said “Egypt is open to dealing with all parties, after it continued to be blamed for focusing on eastern Libya only, which has changed now as delegations began moving between Tripoli and Cairo recently.”

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, Aliba stressed that “Egypt’s priorities have not changed in terms of controlling borders and ensuring that terrorist elements do not reach its territory, with the presence of a unified Libyan army, and getting rid of the militias parallel to it, in addition to playing a fundamental role in the political solution.”

Analysts say that Cairo’s move “towards western Libya came very late, as Turkey was able to have a firm footing there, and if Cairo wants to assert a strong presence in western Libya, it must take a big step, like opening a large embassy and providing the necessary protection for it, because that would send a clear message to everyone concerned, which is a better strategy than scoring intermittent goals.”

They point out that Cairo needs to have influential forces in western Libya regain greater confidence in its role, after Egypt’s previous project to unify the military establishment collapsed following the army’s failure to take control of the capital.

The Egyptian delegation’s agenda in western Libya included meetings with Foreign Minister Mohamed Sayala, the GNA’s Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General Mohamed al-Haddad, Bashagha, and the head of the intelligence services Imad Trabelsi.