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Looking for friends in the West: The Cairo-Misrata talks in the shadow of the Gulf crisis

Three years into the latest chapter of political and military division that has plagued Libya, Egypt has reached out to another player in the conflict, looking to take advantage of recent fragmentation to build out new political blocs to support its ally Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA).

A confluence of events have led to the recent fragmentation: Haftar’s expulsion of the Misrata Third Force from central Libya with the help of the Egyptian Air Force, the squeeze on military support the Gulf dispute has placed on Qatar-backed Western military and political blocs, and the inability of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to solidify its power in Tripoli.

Against this backdrop, Cairo has turned to Misrata and Benghazi, historic adversaries, instead of the country’s most prominent political leaders – Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the GNA in the west, and Haftar in the east. After both Cairo and Abu Dhabi failed to bring the two men together after their direct meeting in the UAE capital in March, Egypt’s committee on Libya headed by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy invited a delegation from Misrata to Cairo in early July.

While the promise of future meetings was the primary development to emerge from the meeting, it signals a new Cairo policy to end the conflict: cobble together pragmatic alliances to consolidate Haftar’s territorial advances before they align with another party. To accomplish this end, Cairo is need of friendly faces in the West.

The Gulf crisis as opening act

The LNA may be able to find itself in a new position of leverage after having secured control over Benghazi and in light of the pressure Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt’s June decision to sever diplomatic, trade and transportation ties with Qatar has placed on Western militias in Misrata and those affiliated to the GNA in Tripoli.

According to a source in the Egyptian government familiar with the Libya file, the pressure that Qatar’s neighbors have exerted on Doha has contributed to an almost complete halt in military support, both in terms of the supply of equipment and individuals, to the factions fighting against Haftar. In effect, this allowed the LNA to make an “unexpected military victory” that would not have been possible without Qatar being deposed, a reference to the recent territorial gains that the source says Cairo played a part in making possible.

However, the same source paints coordination between the UAE and Egypt as not exactly synchronous. Discussing the talks held between Haftar and the UAE that took place on July 9 in Abu Dhabi, the source says that the meeting took place in a “somehow unconnected manner” from the communication Cairo is undertaking with what the source described as the “different political-military blocs” in Libya. It is in these talks that Cairo, according to another government source informed of the same file, seems to be making “substantial progress” in reaching a common ground on a new political bloc working with the LNA and political parties aligned with the Haftar military force.

The first government source says that it is not the first time that the UAE moves alone without Egypt to contact the parties of the complicated political game in Libya. Abu Dhabi had, only a few weeks ago, hosted the meeting between Haftar and Sarraj without consulting the Egyptian government, which has been attempting to formulate an understanding between the two men.

Regardless of this imperfect alignment, the first government source says that Cairo will remain a crucial party in Libya whether Haftar conducts talks with the UAE, Russia or other parties.

The Misrata delegation may give a hint at how Cairo is moving forward.

According to the first government source, the blockade on Qatar, a move in which Egypt and the UAE seemingly are aligned, cleared the way for Cairo to broach talks with Misrata, a city described by a number of Arab and European diplomats following the Libyan situation from Cairo as the most influential military bloc on the ground, excepting the Islamic factions opposed to Haftar that are in touch with Qatar and Turkey to varying degrees.

Ziad Akl, a researcher on Libya at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, agrees that the Gulf crisis changed the political equation. “Qatar’s withdrawal from Libya could or could not be a reason for Egypt to take a further step into Libya, but it is definitely a reason for the west (of Libya) to show more flexibility,” he said.

For Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya researcher at the University of Paris 8, the blockade on Qatar is one of several military and political events that have readjusted this flexibility. The Sarraj government had already started to lose ground before the blockade, he says, due to the GNA’s inability to maintain a military force amid economic deterioration after the drop in oil prices.

Given these changes, Egypt is now looking for potential non-Islamist allies in the West, says Akl, and it has found a willingness in certain segments of Misrata.

“Several Misrata community leaders are in favor of an alliance with the eastern Libyan authorities, among them deputies Fathi Bachagha and Mohamed Raied, who were both in the delegation which met [the Egyptian committee on Libya in July],” writes Africa Intelligence, a Paris-based news publication providing analysis on the continent.

Misrata in Cairo

As the situation in the Gulf played out against the changing political situation internal to Libya, Cairo found itself in a new position to reach out to Misrata delegations.

Misrata, home to Libya’s most powerful military groups since 2011, encompasses a wide range of military and political factions, with whom both the east and west of Libya could align, says Harchaoui.

“There are attempts by some in Misrata to turn military powers into political powers that are capable of entering into the Libyan scene” he adds.

According to Harchaoui, Misrata could be categorized into “hardliners,” who opt for force to make progress — “Those that have enough power to expand, but not enough to keep the lead” — and others who have economic and trade interests that could be fulfilled through political engagement, but are few in numbers.

As Harchaoui sees it, the Misrata delegation’s visit to Cairo was a call issued by the second category to assert that they are ready to bring the city back to a normal state of affairs.

“Misrata has been looked at as a nest for only Islamists and extremists. But they are part of the scene, not all of it,” High Council of State member and head of the Misrata delegation to Cairo Begassem Igzeit tells Mada Masr. “There is a moderate civil current as well, and the world turned to it when it started to have a voice.”

Various armed groups backing both the GNA and the General National Congress originate from Misrata, such as hardliner Salah Badi’s Somoud Front, the Daman Brigade from the neighboring province of Tajura, as well as groups from Zawiya province and Amazigh groups.

Badi, a former leader of the Libya Dawn Islamist militia, announced in 2015 the formation of the Somoud Front to “protect the capital Tripoli and its facilities,” he said in TV statements at the time.

The group asserts that it follows Islamic law and the teachings of controversial former Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, who is known for his controversial edicts. Libya Dawn is also affiliated to the outgoing General National Congress, according Badi.

Also active in Misrata is a brigade led by Islamist Abu Obeida al-Zawi, the co-founder of the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room.

With the early July announcement by the LNA spokesperson that Haftar’s forces “fully control” Benghazi, the inclusion of Benghazi representatives in Cairo’s plans provides a clear link to its already established ally: Haftar.

Igzeit says that reconciliation between the two cities will be discussed at a meeting that is being scheduled for the end of July in Cairo, adding that high hopes are being put on the meeting to bring the conflict to an end.

The Misrata delegation leader also tells Mada Masr that a second meeting for representatives of Misrata’s military groups on one side and the LNA on another is being prepared, to discuss forming a unified military corps; a solution that has been long pushed for by the United Nations, which has declared such a measure a prerequisite to lifting the arms embargo over the country.

However, LNA spokesperson Colonel Ahmed al-Messmary outlined a number of stipulations before any talks with Misrata can proceed in an interview with a local newspaper.

The demands include Misrata pulling out from the province of Tawergha, which is located south of the city in western Libya and whose residents were displaced in the fighting that ousted former leader Muammar Qadhafi; compensating Tawergha’s people and extraditing fighters involved in the Libya Dawn militia, among other demands that Abdullah describes as “infeasible.”

However, Abdullah believes that the Messmary’s demands are merely a leverage point to keep the LNA in a strong position, saying that the Cairo meeting will take place eventually.

Igzeit says the delegation does not take Messmary’s statements “seriously, for they have always been divisive. In all cases, talks on a unified military institution will not focus on persons, but on the formation and the hierarchy.”

However, the Misrata delegates are afraid that Cairo will work to bring their political and military might under Haftar’s military umbrella without ensuring a “fair balance” of power, especially with the decline of Sarraj’s influence on the political milieu of western Libya, according to a European diplomat in Cairo familiar with the Libya file. The second Egyptian government source did not deny that the Misrata delegation harbors this hesitation.

Signs of coming unity or discord under new terms?

Mohamed Ghoneim, the head of the LNA’s media office, tells Mada Masr that Cairo informed the office of the outcome of its meeting with the Misrata delegation, and that any political steps will be made only upon discussions with the Libyan House of Representatives, whose controlling majority is allied with Haftar.

Haftar has given “politicians” a six-month time-limit before his army “enters Tripoli” to take control by force. At this point, the Libyan Political Agreement will have expired, two years after it had been signed in Morocco’s Skhirat.

Should the Misrata-Benghazi talks end in an agreement, it will only be a matter of time before the GNA joins, especially as Misratan groups make most of the GNA-allied Bunyan al-Marsous military arm, according to Abdullah.

“Sarraj will approve any agreement that fosters his weakened political position, now that his power has been shaken by the recent clashes in Tripoli,” says Akl, referring to the clashes that erupted in early July when a number of militants looking to install former GNC leader Khalifa Ghwell to power. Badi’s Misrata Samoud forces were reported to be among those moving on Tripoli, and Misratan commander Mohamed Issa was said to be in Tarhouna.

Sarraj responded to the militias move by sending out an appeal to “friendly countries … to ensure the security of the capital and to protect civilians in the event of any recklessness by these rogue groups.”

Igzeit says that Sarraj is in the know of the contents of the Cairo meeting “and he gave the green light.”

However, Abdullah was not as optimistic. He anticipates a new round of conflict in Libya, especially as the international community pushes for an election “amid the current polarization. The defeated party will not accept the election outcome and violence will flare up once more. Settlement must be reached first.”

In a TV statement this week, Sarraj announced that he had drafted a “roadmap” to end the Libyan conflict, which includes an extension of the LPA and holding presidential and parliamentary elections by March 2018, whereby politicians would serve a maximum three-year term.

Sarraj’s proposal also encouraged a nationwide ceasefire and the formation of a “Higher Council for Reconciliation.”

The European source says that change may come through the replacement of the international envoy to Libya, with Ghassan Salame, whom both Saudi Arabia and France backed for the appointment, assuming the leading role, adding that it might bring the aims of Salame’s predecessor, former UN Special Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler, to a conclusion. The change might lead, the source continues, to an improvement in various Libyan actors’ communication with the United Nations delegation, which represents a Western political consensus that includes Washington DC – at least on the institutional level, to advance an understanding with Cairo surrounding the future of Libya in the coming months.

According to the same source, Salame will soon begin a preliminary round of consultations that will necessarily include Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.

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