Egypt Cannot Afford Losing in Libya



Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, withdrawal from the Arab League’s ministerial meeting, on September 6th, was shocking. The minister’s antagonistic reaction to the ascendance of the Libyan foreign minister, Najla Mangoush, to the presidency of the session, renewed the controversy about Egypt’s contradicting and unstable positions on the Libyan crisis.


According to the bylaw, it is Libya’s turn to take the leadership of the 158th ordinary session of the Arab League Council, which was held in Cairo, last week. However, Shoukry objected to Libya’s leadership role because he believes that Libya’s interim Government of National Unity (GNU), which Mangoush represents, lacks legitimacy. The spokesperson of the Egyptian foreign ministry told the press that “the issue had been discussed before the meeting started.” Some media staffers, who were present at the meeting, hinted that Shoukry got personally offended because Mangoush declined to honor his objection.


GNU’s rival government of Fathi Bashagha immediately applauded the Egyptian minister’s action and called upon the other Arab ministers to do the same. However, none of the participating Arab ministers wanted to withdraw, including those who favor Bashagha’s government to GNU. Rather, they decided to continue the meeting under Mangoush’s leadership and without the Egyptian minister. Even more, some of the Arab ministers had one-on-one meetings with Mangoush after the official session ended.


Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh leads the Government of National Unity (GNU) from Tripoli, since March 2021. GNU was elected by representatives of Libyan political factions under the supervision of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), in Geneva, to act as an interim government to reconcile the eastern and western rivals and hold presidential and parliamentary elections before a deadline set on June 2022.


However, in March, the parliament installed a parallel government under the leadership of Fathi Bashagha to force Dbeibeh’s government to cede power before holding the elections to protect the expired political elite from losing their powerful positions.


In the past three months, the clashes between the informal armed groups affiliated with the two parallel governments of Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and Fathi Bashagha hit an alarming threshold. Tens of people, including innocent civilians, were killed and civilian properties have been destroyed as a result of militias’ clashes.


The Arab League’s ministerial meeting issued a resolution with 12 items on the deteriorating situation in Libya. Among other issues, the resolution echoed the insistence of Dbeibeh’s government on holding elections, by calling for accelerating the process of establishing the constitutional base, or the legal framework, that regulates the presidential and parliamentary elections, so elections could be held in the nearest time possible.


Ironically, it seems that Egypt is the only supporter of Bashagha’s parallel government, at the time. The supporters of Bashagha’s parallel government in eastern Libya are already giving up on him. Two weeks ago, Haftar’s forces declared that they have nothing to do with the conflict over power in Tripoli. Also, the news is circulating that some members of the parliament, which appointed Bashagha’s parallel government earlier, are rethinking their decision that renewed the deadly conflicts in the capital city. That brings us back to the question of why Egypt is betting on Bashagha despite his weak position, rather than fostering ties with GNU and helping Libya get out of the bloody rut.


If Egypt wants to succeed in Libya, it has to position itself as a leader, not as part of the war. That can happen by adopting a policy similar to its policy in Gaza. One of the reasons why Egypt has been successful in mediating between Israel and Hamas for a ceasefire in Gaza, last year, is that the Egyptian state keeps the perfect balance in relationships between all the sides of the conflict. That brought a lot of benefits to Egypt’s profile in the eyes of the international community and restored its lost role as a regional leader.


In practice, that means for Egypt to immediately stop taking sides in the Libyan conflict and push for holding the elections as soon as possible. Libya will not calm down until a permanent government is installed, via free and fair elections. Otherwise, Egypt’s national security and interests in the region will remain under threat.


The Egyptian state is not doing itself any favor by taking sides in the Libyan conflict. The growing political power of local militias, even over the politicians who pays them, is making it costly for regional actors to support one side of the Libyan conflict against the other, especially if they are as geographically close to Libya as Egypt is.


Also, read on The Levant