One of the main backers of warlord Haftar, Cairo's decision of sending a delegation to Tripoli has generated a lukewarm response from regional observers.
As the Egyptian diplomats visited Tripoli to meet the officials of the Government of National Accord on Sunday, the first diplomatic contact between the two sides since Libya slid into a civil war in 2015 has raised eyebrows amongst the regional observers.
Anas el Gomati, who heads the Libyan think tank Sadeq Institute, told TRT World that Egypt foresees difficulties for the warlord Khalifa Haftar, especially in Sirte, an area which is in the middle of the Mediterranean coast and close to major oil terminals.
The Turkey-backed GNA offensive in July this year repelled Haftar's attacks on the capital Tripoli, forcing the frontlines to settle around Sirte. Fearing the GNA's advance toward Sirte, Egypt declared the city a "red line", urging the GNA and its ally Turkey to end the military campaign against the warlord and "start negotiations to reach a political solution to the Libyan crisis".
But Haftar's reckless endeavours to reverse the GNA's military gains have proved disastrous for the peace process, forcing Tripoli to reconsider its position vis-a-vis the warlord.
With the ceasefire hanging by a thread, the UAE, Russia and France have made coordinated efforts to fuel the conflict by sending money, weapons and foreign mercenaries, including former Daesh members, to swell the ranks of Haftar's militias.
Encouraged by such moves, Haftar recently threatened Turkey with war.
Amidst Haftar's increasingly dangerous presence in Libya, the meeting between an between the Egyptian delegation and members of the GNA indicates that Cairo is in the process of reckoning with Libya's changing ground realities.
“Egypt wants to preserve the ceasefire East of Sirte. It is concerned that if the ceasefire in Sirte were to break, Turkey and the GNA’s pursuit of territory into Eastern Libya could collapse Haftar’s LNA. Normalising ties with the GNA is an attempt to incentivise peace & maintain the LNA’s integrity through the ceasefire in the process,” Gomati told TRT World.
The delegation included the second in command of Egypt's intelligence service and members of the foreign ministry. The other side was represented by the GNA's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Sayala, deputy head of Presidential Council Ahmed Mitig, Chief of General Staff Mohammed Al-Haddad, Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha and acting chief of intelligence Emad Trabelsi.
Cairo has been a strong supporter of Haftar and has made moves to undermine the internationally recognised GNA. Commenting on the meeting, the spokesman of the Libyan Foreign Ministry, Mohammad Al-Giblawi said the Egyptian delegation’s visit aimed to regain diplomatic relations and resume cooperation between Tripoli and Cairo, adding that the Egyptian side vowed to reopen Egypt's embassy in Tripoli and find urgent solutions to resume Libyan flights to Cairo.
The talks mainly covered "ways of strengthening security cooperation" and support for a ceasefire signed in October between rival Libyan sides under UN auspices, Libyan interior minister, Fathi Bashagha’s office said.
The Egyptian dictator-turned-president Sisi has previously argued that Cairo has a 'legitimate right' to intercede in Libya and support Haftar’s militia.
As Haftar’s endorsement by the UAE and Saudi Arabia has been followed by Egypt, Cairo has used its long border with Libya to provide arms and other logistical support to Haftar.
Sisi has never hidden his support for Haftar and in believing that the Libyan conflict can be resolved through conflict.
Egypt’s ability to chart an independent foreign policy in recent years has been constrained by a reliance on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both of whom are the country’s main financial backers.
According to Gomati Haftar’s threats to Turkey and the Turkish parliament’s approval for extending its military presence in Libya as well as the boarding of a Turkish vessel off the Eastern Libyan coast are significant developments that have convinced Cairo to take diplomatic measures with the aim of securing a favourable ceasefire.
“Egypt considers the LNA (Haftar's forces) to be its single largest investment in Libya, and Haftar's preservation is its main priority today,” Gomati said.
Gomati said Cairo would continue to prioritise warlord Haftar’s self-styled LNA, despite showing its willingness to meet with the GNA.
Engaging with GNA, he added, is a "costless exercise for Egypt.”