Al-Sisi ignores Haftar and turns to western Libya

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Despite entrenching itself in the east and drawing red lines supporting retired General Khalifa Haftar, the Egyptian regime recently decided to abandon its approach and enter Libya through the national unity government in the capital, Tripoli (in the west of the country).

Last week, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly arrived in Tripoli at the head of a delegation of 75 people, including 11 ministers and many businesspeople, to sign 11 bilateral cooperation agreements between the two countries. The memoranda of cooperation covered transportation, health, electricity and communications, and Egyptian workers.

The two sides also agreed to start preparing for the next meetings of the joint higher committee between Egypt and Libya, which have not been held since 2009. They also agreed on returning civil aviation traffic between the two countries and reopening the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli. It has been closed since 2014. This visit is the first of its kind since 2010. It aims, according to Madbouly, to “give a clear message of support for Libya and the national unity government for its success in completing its historic tasks regarding the situation in Libya.”

According to observers, the economic dimension dominated the visit. They noted at the same time that the recent Egyptian-Turkish understandings regarding the Libyan crisis accelerated the pace of this visit. However, the Egyptian desire to open the doors for Egyptian companies to contribute to the reconstruction process, in parallel with the political process supported by Cairo, is what motivated it to complete this visit.

The economic expert, Abd Al-Nabi Abdul-Muttalib, says that the visit comes after the formation of the new national unity government. The Egyptian authorities have confirmed their support to a settlement which will stop the war that has been raging in Libya for years. He considers that the visit would draw a map of relations and cooperation between Egypt and Libya. He adds, “That is why we have seen this number of ministers. Cairo needs to be present in the issues of the reconstruction of Libya, the return of Egyptian workers, and the conduct of trade.”

Abdulmutallab stressed that achieving these results depends on achieving internal stability in Libya and the end of the transitional period. He continues, “I believe that Egyptian companies are the closest and most appropriate to obtain large contracts in many areas, projects and vital sectors, and it is important to organise the work and return of Egyptian workers.”

According to Egyptian estimates, the Libyan market will need one million Egyptian workers, with the reopening of aviation and returning the regular labour movement between the two countries. The International Organisation for Migration had estimated at the end of 2013 that the number of Egyptians working in Libya would be between 700,000 and 1.5 million.

A researcher specialising in political economy, Mustafa Youssef, considers that the visit is “an uncharacteristically positive scene resulting from the perception of some wise people in the Egyptian regime. They stressed the need to cooperate with Turkey and deal with the issue of the Libyan crisis peacefully and politically.” He points out that Egypt did not find its involvement in the conflict of any benefit, noting that “what happened is like disengaging from the Emirati approach.”

He adds: “After years of involvement in the armed conflict by the UAE, Egypt realised that it must change its approach and support the peaceful course of the crisis and make strong use of the reconstruction in Libya, which was devastated by the war. Turkey provided that to the Libyan authorities through cooperation agreements.” Youssef believes that the visit yielded to the voice of reason in the regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, “which calls for stability in the region and opening horizons for cooperation in all fields between Egypt and Libya.”

The professor of political science and international relations, Issam Abdel Shafi, says that “there is a state of real political instability in Libya, despite the presence of several measures pushing towards a political settlement.” It is noteworthy that recent months have witnessed more Egyptian political presence in western Libya after the focus during the past seven years on the east and in support for Haftar.

However, according to Abdel-Shafi, what must be emphasised is the lack of independence of the foreign policy-making process of the ruling regime in Egypt and its management of this policy to some regional parties, which affects its credibility over Libya. He believes that the Haftar card and his supporters are still valid and constitute a real threat to the settlement in Libya, and the regime in Egypt is not far from it.

However, “this situation does not contradict the economic dimension in the current movement of the regime in Egypt towards Libya. The evidence for these agreements were signed with a legitimate government. Therefore, it can be relied upon in the future over the issue of reconstruction, in the event that there is a real consensus internationally on that.”