A member of East Libyan forces inspects a damaged store in Ganfouda district in Benghazi, Libya, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
CAIRO – 5 May 2017: Since the February 2011 Revolution that overthrew long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has become the largest security threat facing the Egyptian state. The frequent failures of international reconciliation attempts and the fall of weapons into the hands of different militants groups forced Egypt to play a major role in solving the Libyan crises.
During the Libyan revolution, some 40,000 to 100,000 Libyan refugees fled the country, and made their way to the Salloum border crossing with Egypt, where they remained in refugee camps.
Egypt dealt with the crisis very carefully and managed to return those refugees gradually to their homes, in a move that would help Egypt not to increase the burden on its economy.
Libya had many Egyptians working in it, as the country’s job market was able to absorb many Egyptian workers whom could not find work in Egypt, especially those living in Upper Egypt.
Prior to the 2011 Libyan revolution, roughly 1.5 million Egyptians lived and worked in Libya, sending an estimated $254 million in remittances to Egypt every year, according to official sources.
Several Egyptian expatriates working in Libya were kidnapped over separate periods by militant groups, especially in the capital Tripoli. The Egyptian foreign ministry succeeded in releasing many of them through diplomatic cooperation with major tribes and families in Libya.
In February 2015, a militant group affiliated to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group released a brutal video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts migrant workers whom have been kidnapped in the Libyan city of Sirte.
In retaliation, the Egyptian Air Force launched intensive airstrikes against IS training camps and ammunition stores. Warplanes, under orders from the Libyan government, also hit targets in Derna, reportedly in coordination with Egypt.
In July 2014, the IS group attacked a military checkpoint on Farafra-Bahariya Oasis road in Egypt, killing 23 soldiers. This was the second attack on the same military area, prompting the Egyptian army to deploy more troops on the western borderlines and intensify security measures on the western crossing border with Libya.
Egyptian foreign policy in Libya
The major obstacle in the face of any international or Arab participation in ending the crisis in Libya is the lack of a Libyan partner that would support any involvement. Since 2014, Libya has been drawn to a civil war between two major factions, one led by Khalifa Haftar, commander of the eastern “Operation Dignity” forces and Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the U.N.-backed Libyan Government of National Accord, as well as other militant groups.
Therefore, there is no official side recognized by all parties in Libya, but there are two opposing factions, roughly equivalent in terms of power, competing for legitimacy. Nonetheless, neither side appears to be able to tip the scales of this conflict in its favor.
Policymakers in Egypt believe that Libya should have a unified body representing all sides in the war-torn country. However, this requires the elimination of terrorist groups that are plaguing the country and standing in the way of any regional or international attempt for reconciliation.
Egypt is aware that any intervention in the Libyan affairs will enrage the Libyan people due to religious and national sensitivities.
Therefore, Egypt called for a meeting in August 2014 to discuss the formation of a coalition force with the United States and other Arab nations. The final recommendation of the meeting, held in Cairo, did not suggest the formation of any Arab or international military intervention in Libya, but it called for the immediate cessation of all armed operations in order to support the political process in Libya.
In December 2015, the Skhirat Agreement was signed by major parties in the Libyan conflict under the supervision of UN envoy Martin Kobler in the city of Skhirat, Morocco. The agreement recommends a peaceful transition of power and the establishment of a national unity government. However, the agreement failed to achieve the desired stability on the ground because it lacked consensus.
Attempts to solve the crisis
Egypt’s officials held several meeting with their Libyan counterparts as well as members in Tobruk’s House of Representatives to resolve the Libyan crisis and amend the Skhirat agreement.
In December 2016, Cairo hosted a conference attended by Libyan officials and representatives from the country’s numerous factions, where they issued five proposed amendments to the agreement. The conference concluded with an agreement to amend the 8th article of the Skhirat agreement that outlined the authorities of the Libyan army chief commander.
In January 2017, Egypt invited the two major Libyan factions to discuss the amendments to the agreement, which mainly included a change in the duties of the army commander and measures to maintain the independence of the armed forces and separate them from political conflicts.
Egyptian Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy met with Libya’s Haftar in Cairo to discuss the proposed amendments, while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi met with Sarraj, because the two Libyan rivals refused to meet face to face. Afterwards, the two sides agreed to form a joint committee that would make key changes to the U.N.-brokered peace deal.
However, Haftar refused to accept Serraj’s suggestion for a three-man presidency council that will include the position of commander-in-chief (Haftar), head of the House of Representatives (Aqila Saleh) and head of separate government.
Egypt has kept putting pressure on Haftar to meet Serraj and agree on a compromise that would bring the conflict in Libya to an end. Until last month, Haftar refused to do so.
In May 2017, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) invited the Libyan rival leaders to meet in Abu Dhabi and discuss again the amendments to the 2015 agreement.
According to a local Libyan TV channel, the Abu Dhabi meeting reached a preliminary agreement to form a unified presidential council where the commander of the army and the heads of both the Libyan government and the House of Representatives would be members. The two sides also agreed to form a unified Libyan army and dissolve all militant groups. Moreover, a parliamentary election will be held six months after the agreement comes into force.
A joint statement was issued on Wednesday outlining the main principles of the agreement. It called for achieving the unity of the Libyan territory and army, confronting terrorist groups, and adhering to the rule of law and judiciary.
In a previous statement to Egypt Today, Abu Bakr el-Saeed, member of the Libyan House of Representatives, ruled out the holding of a parliamentary or presidential election in the near future due to the general instability in Libya.
He said that the planned presidential council will initially form a unity government, representing all Libyan national forces, and then formulate a new constitution for the country.