How Should Egypt React to Escalating Crisis in Libya?
Armed clashes in Tripoli have been renewed, threatening the eruption of a second civil war between the Libyan adversaries, in eastern and western territories. Egypt is one of the main countries expected to share the consequences of the deteriorating security situation in Libya. Egypt is, also, one of the few regional actors that can play an effective role in cooling down the Libyan conflict and putting Libya back on the political solution track. For this to happen, certain outdated policies that the Egyptian state is adopting toward Libya need to be urgently reviewed and altered according to the changing status quo inside Libya.
A fierce battle between the Tripoli-based militias erupted, on August 27th, killing 32 and injuring 159 people, including innocent civilians, according to official statistics of the Libyan Ministry of Health. That is the deadliest clash in Tripoli, since the brief outbreak that took place on July 22nd, slaying 13 people killed and 27 injured. The episodes of friction between militiamen, in and around the capital city of Tripoli, have not stopped since May, as Fathi Bashagha and Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh have been mobilizing armed groups against each other, as part of the debate over the legitimacy of their parallel governments.
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.
As soon as Dbeibeh took the job, the Egyptian state reached out to him and offered help and support in his mission and also in reconstructing war-torn Libya. The chief of Egyptian intelligence visited Tripoli several times. In return, Dbeibeh visited Cairo and met with the Egyptian president, El-Sisi, more than once. Meanwhile, Egypt had not completely dropped its communications with the eastern flank, including Warlord Khalifa Haftar, and Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh. This created a perfect balance that greatly protected Egypt’s national security interests.
Nevertheless, for no clear reason, the Egyptian state broke this perfect balance in Libya by rushing to support the Libyan parliament’s appointment of Fathi Bashagha, in March, as a prime minister to a government parallel to the Tripoli-based GNU. That is although the parliament’s move was meant to delay elections and keep the old political elite in power for as long as possible. Egypt’s return to align with the eastern faction against Tripoli created a situation that is hurting its interests, as Egypt is now seen as part of the war inside Libya, rather than a powerful neighbor that can effectively participate in solving the Libyan crisis.
In reaction to the latest clashes in Tripoli, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that appeared to be too weak to the event and the role of Egypt in the Libyan crisis. Similar to other regional and international statements, the Egyptian statement called for ending violence and restarting dialogue, and stressed the need to protect civilians, and emphasized: “Egypt's keenness for the Libyan brothers to reach a consensual Libyan-Libyan solution.” Yet, the Egyptian statement failed to blame the mobilization of armed groups by Bashagha at the gates of Tripoli, and the purposeful delay of elections by the Tobruk-based parliament.
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.
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. In practice, that means 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 threatened.
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