As the political transition in Libya starts to face significant challenges along the road to the December 2021 elections, Egypt’s latest moves seem to confirm a more balanced approach. The 17th of June visit of Abbas Kamel, Director of the General Intelligence Service (GIS), offered a snapshot of the new course of action adopted by Cairo.
The powerful head of the Egyptian mukhabarat first visited Tripoli, where he met with the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNU) Abdel Hamid Dbeibah and the head of the Presidency Council (PC) Mohammed al-Menfi; and then left for Benghazi, where he met with General Khalifa Haftar, Field Marshall of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which, until the failure of the 2019-2020 offensive on Tripoli, has received relentless backing from Cairo and its allies.
Even though economy and investments topped the subjects discussed in the Libyan capital, with Egyptian companies expected to give a significant contribution to the reconstruction, Kamel’s meeting with Haftar showed the extent of Egypt’s recalibration. Indeed, following the 6 June terrorist attack in Sabha claimed by the Islamic State, Haftar’s forces have scaled up their military activities in southern Libya, including along the border with Algeria, where the LNA claimed it had taken control of a border crossing near Ghat.
A déjà vu of the LNA military campaign in the south preceding the 2019 attack on Tripoli, Haftar’s latest moves sounded alarm bells in Cairo, which presumably dispatched Kamel to rein in Haftar ahead of the Second Berlin Conference on Libya. Egyptian sources reportedly said that the government in Cairo objects to any attempt by Haftar to disrupt the elections, given his proven inability to ‘resolve the conflict in his favour militarily’.
Despite still viewing the LNA as the major bulwark against terrorist and Islamist groups along its western border, since the October 2020 ceasefire agreement Cairo has started looking for alternative options in Libya. Its new course inevitably passes through a rapprochement with Turkey, whose most visible sign was the high-level exploratory talks between ministerial delegations held in early May 2021
A thaw in the bilateral relations between Ankara and Cairo is a necessary precondition for a successful Libyan peace process but can also be instrumental in de-escalating tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. In general, Cairo’s latest moves prelude to a possible reconfiguration of the regional landscape, also considering the tripartite summit held on the 27th of June in Baghdad between the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi and King Abdullah II of Jordan. As Egypt gradually decouples from the counter-revolutionary front to which is has belonged so far, these initiatives show Cairo’s clear desire to take back control of its foreign policy and regain its strategic centrality lost after the signature of the Abraham Accords.
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Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region