The message emerging from the Madrid conference held on Wednesday to discuss the Libyan crisis was clear: Foreign military intervention will not restore stability in Libya. Foreign intervention, said Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdulaziz in a press statement following the talks, “has always led to disaster”.
However, a leaked document obtained by Al Jazeera this week demonstrates the extent to which the country has turned into a proxy battleground for larger regional rivalries.
Libya’s increasingly polarised political scene, according to analysts, has reinforced this perception. The country has two competing governments which were both sworn in this month. In Tripoli, the country’s reconvened General National Congress refuses to accept the legitimacy of the elected House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk, which in turn rejects the authority of its counterpart in the country’s capital.
Libya’s House of Representatives last month relocated to Tobruk after an armed group from the western city of Misrata seized Tripoli and took control of government institutions as well as major parts of the country’s oil infrastructure.
In August, a majority of the House of Representatives voted in favour of a call for foreign intervention to protect civilians and state institutions in the face of escalating violence.
Dated September 4, 2014, the Agreement of shared military and strategic cooperation between the Republic of Egypt and the State of Libya, details a military pact between Egypt and Libya’s Tobruk-based House of Representatives led by Abdullah al-Thinni .
It provides a legal framework for coordinated military action that is valid for five years.
The dossier includes the stipulation that any “direct or indirect threat or armed aggression that occurs against either two parties or their armed forces counts as an aggression against the other party. Consequently, both parties are obliged to support the aggressed counterpart, inclusive of the use of armed force…”
The agreement also obliges both parties to refrain from entering into international relationships that would conflict with the terms set out in the document. A further provision of the document states that the cost of any aircraft sorties must be borne by both sides.
A mechanism is also laid out to prevent the “host” country – likely to be Libya in any engagement, given Egypt’s greater military strength – from launching criminal proceedings for any crimes committed. Instead, the terms of the agreement mean that soldiers will be sent back to face trial in their home country.
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Analysts, however, are divided over the significance of the document. While some like Zoheir Hamedi, a researcher at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, thinks the revelation represents “an extremely dangerous development” that will minimise the chances of reaching a negotiated settlement between competing groups, others take a different stance.
Naim Salem, associate professor of political science at Notre Dame University in Beirut, does not view the confidential document as a turning point in Libya’s current predicament because the country is already “a shambles” and lacks an effective central government. A signatory to such a document “doesn’t have much consequence” he said, adding that if Egypt decided to enter Libya on a larger scale, it would have to face myriad decentralised militias.
In June, Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan general who defected in the 1980s and is now backed by the House of Representatives, called on Egypt to conduct “all necessary military actions inside Libya in order to secure its borders”.
However, Omar Ashour, senior lecturer in Middle East Studies at Exeter University, suggested that the military pact was “just a legal framework for what is already under way and existing”.
Egypt stands accused by the US of allowing UAE jets to fly from its bases to bomb targets held by anti-Haftar forces in August. While allegations have surfaced that Egypt has provided training and material support for Haftar and his allies, evidence to confirm this has yet to surface.
According to Ashour, the more important element however is that the relationship has been formalised. More significant still, added Ashour, is the long-term picture, which has seen Egypt increasingly flex its muscle outside its borders after a period under former Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi during which Egypt veered away from heavy involvement in external affairs.
Calls from Al Jazeera to Egypt’s foreign ministry for comment were not returned by the time of publication. In August, the ministry said in a statement that there “is no truth to these baseless allegations”. President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi added that: “There are no Egyptian planes or troops in Libya.”
On Wednesday, General National Congress spokesman Khalifa al-Ghoail said: “The agreement draft is a severe violation of the sovereignty of the Libyan state and poses a real threat to Libyan national security. It also opens the way to foreign intereference.”
Such developments, explain analysts, reinforce the perception that Libya has turned into a theatre for competing coalitions of interests involving Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan.
In recent weeks, it has been reported that pressure by GCC countries has increased on Qatar to reduce its support for proponents of political Islam across the region.
On September 15, acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni of the House of Representatives accused Qatar of sending three planes loaded with weapons to Tripoli’s Matiga airport. The following day, Qatar’s Assistant Foreign Minister Abdullah al-Rumaihi strongly denied the charge, saying that Qatar’s policy is based on “mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries”.
The exchange of accusations and denials follows the interception, a week earlier, of a Sudanese plane carrying ammunition. While the Libyan House of Representatives accused Sudan of breaching its national sovereignty by carrying weapons for “terrorist groups”, Khartoum denied the charge.
Given the continued military setbacks for forces backed by the House of Representatives, with Tripoli under the control of Libya Dawn forces – a loose coalition dominated by brigades from the town of Misrata and allied with the General National Congress in Tripoli – as well as the continued dominance in Benghazi of Ansar al-Sharia – a Salafist group that announced its formation in Libya’s eastern region in 2012 – “it makes sense for the agreement [between Egypt and Libya] to happen now”, said one Libyan source.
The source, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because of his close ties to various political figures, went on to say that there is currently a military mobilisation aided by Egypt taking place among Haftar and his allies with the goal of launching a counterattack to retake Tripoli. In particular, it is alleged that Egypt is helping to supply military equipment.
“Preparations for the Tripoli operations are almost finalised and it would be conducted in coordination between forces hailing from Zintan and military aircraft,” said Haftar’s spokesman Mohamed Hegazi to Andalou News Agency last week.
In recent days, air strikes occured against a munitions depot held by Libya Dawn forces in Gharyan, southwest of Tripoli. Though Haftar claimed responsibility for the attack, doubts have arisen over his force’s capacity to carry out such strikes.
“They’re preparing for a counter-offensive,” Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, talks scheduled to take place this week in Algeria between competing Libyan factions have been postponed in a sign that chances of reaching a negotiated settlement are decreasing. On September 15, head of the UN Support Mission Bernadino Leon told the Security Council that Libya has reached a “critical moment”, adding that “a faltering political process has brought the country closer to the brink of protracted conflict and civil strife”.
Senior Fellow Mezran has summed up the impasse by saying that it’s not that foreign intervention is the cause of the current situation, but that external involvement “allows the fighting to continue”.