The Libyan army will regain control of the country by the end of the year, with Egyptians working and residing in the North African country are wrong to return home in fear of militancy, said Libyan Minister of Media, Culture and Antiquities Omar El Gawairi in an exclusive interview with Daily News Egypt.
El Gawairi, accompanied by his adviser Samy Abdel Khalek outlined the current situation in the restive country, and the Libyan interim government’s relations with the western world and with Egypt.
The Libyan official provided insights about the reality in Libya from the perspective of the internationally recognised interim government, while not hesitating to make strong statements.
Since the former president Muammar Gaddafi was ousted and killed in 2011 following an uprising aided by an international intervention force, Libya has remained unstable.
The situation escalated in summer 2014 when General Khalifa Haftar opened an offensive against Islamist militias, which resulted in a rift in the country. Amid militant and tribal violence, two rivalling governments claim legitimacy in Libya; one Islamist in Tripoli; another, internationally-recognised in Tobruk.
El Gawairi said that “supporting the Libyan army” is the only solution to get out of the current crisis in Libya, and he asserted that “by the end of the year, Libya will be back on track”.
He also said that forming a joint Arab military force is “one of the most important steps” to be stressed upon in the upcoming Arab League Summit.
In February Egypt conducted airstrikes against Libyan militant groups affiliated with “Islamic State”, in retaliation for the beheading of 20 Egyptian Copts. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claimed that civilians had died in these airstrikes, which were supported by the Tobruk government, but condemned by Tripoli.
El Gawairi acknowledged he did not personally read the reports about civilian deaths in the Egyptian airstrikes, but asserted: “We didn’t complain. We are calmly content even if Libyans died in the airstrikes.”
He further said the Tripoli government lacks the legitimate status to comment or condemn attacks.
Following the airstrikes thousands Egyptian workers in Libya, out of an estimated 1.6 million, fled the country. El Gawairi called for “reconsidering the foreign ministry’s decision to ban all Egyptians from travelling to Libya”.
“Even the visa between the two countries should be removed anyone wanting to go to Libya or vice versa should have the right to do that,” he added. “Security regulations can be arranged in other ways.”
Libyan Minister of Media, Culture and Antiquities Omar El Gawairi discussed with the Daily News Egypt staff in an interview the current situation in Libya, Egyptians in Libya and the updates on Libyan Interim Government relations with the western world and with Egypt, with the attendance of the minister’s advisor Samy Abdel Khalek.
Regarding the situation of Egyptians in Libya, some of them decided to leave following the Coptic beheadings, while others decided to stay. What do you think of the Egyptian foreign ministry’s ban on Egyptians travelling to Libya?
The militants aim to deliver a message to Egypt, since Egypt is currently trying to provide job opportunities for its citizens and there are two million Egyptians residing in Libya. Militants are attempting to scare Egyptian workers in Libya, pushing them to go back to Egypt, which is “a political blow” to abort the Egyptian economy and make it pay for its support for the Libyan legitimacy and the Libyan people.
We should deliver a countering message that despite the painful incidents in Libya, we should hold a stronger position and prove them wrong. Here in Egypt, there are lots of traffic accidents but that doesn’t mean that we should stop the traffic flow. There can be other solutions. Egyptian workers can be transported from one place to a safer one, but relocating them to Egypt is wrong.
I call for reconsidering the foreign ministry’s decision to ban all Egyptians from travelling to Libya. Even the visa between the two countries should be removed. Anyone wanting to go to Libya or vice versa should have the right to do that. Security regulations can be arranged in other ways.
Is the Libyan interim government taking procedures then to protect Egyptians residing in Libya?
The role played by the Libyan interim government towards Libyans is the same towards Egyptians. Protection is not provided for a certain community more than the other. They are treated the same way as the citizens. In some areas, you can never differentiate between Libyans and Egyptians, neither in the looks nor the language.
What kind of support is the Libyan government awaiting from Egypt?
I would like to clarify that two weeks before the 20 Egyptians were killed in Sirte, 20 Libyan officers were beheaded while on duty protecting an electricity power station, where “Islamic State” affiliates were responsible for the act. Sirte has been outside of our control for two years now. We repeatedly called on international community to provide the assistance and support for our government, and though the militants’ power was increasing in front of them, they decided against providing us with help.
The coordination with Egypt is through official channels. Some information is highlighted by the media, while some not even announced. The Egyptian-Libyan coordination did not follow the incident in Sirte, it has been ongoing for years.
The Egyptian airstrikes were condemned by the opposing government in Libya, led by the Islamists, and some reports noted that these weren’t the first strikes in Libya. Is this true?
It’s preferable not to get into these details. However, let’s say that the Islamists in control of Tripoli now have no legitimate status to condemn or not. There is no meaning behind their comments on the Egyptian airstrikes.
As for the diplomatic stance on the level of countries like Britain and the US, who has the power to lift the embargo on Libya and for Egypt to fight with Libya?
Our government is a bit weak when it comes to political communication with the world. With Egypt, it’s easy to communicate; however with some other countries it’s harder, like Britain. Britain’s representative is saying that the city of Misrata in Libya is fighting terrorism, I come from Misrata and I am telling you this is not true. The city of Misrata is under the control of Islamic militias now, like “Libya Dawn”.
How do you view the ongoing talks in Morocco, under the patronage of the UN envoy, to reach an agreement between Libyan factions?
When the militias failed to gain international recognition and control on the ground they only have talks to deal with.
The first session of the talks was held in Geneva, and in the other party’s table sitting in front of us was Fathy Bashagha and Soliman Al-Fekki, and they are from my hometown. Bashagha is a militia leader, and was one of the militias who attacked Tripoli airport.
This person should be put before justice to receive punishment for this, but the British want us to negotiate with him and consider him a vice president in a unity government.
Will these talks not produce an agreement?
I personally pushed for the talks not to bring persons like him. This person must be put to trial and imprisoned so we send a message to criminals that there is no escape from punishment.
But Bernardino Leon, and the UK behind him, wants us to conduct talks with him and integrate him in a government. This message upsets the Libyan people about the British stance.
In the second round of talks, these persons didn’t attend; instead they sent representatives for them to Morocco.
Regional balance and state policies play a role; Algeria also called for a conference, with participation from [Ali] Al-Sallaby and [Abdel Hakim] Belhadj and their kind of people.. it is as though they believe that if Morocco hosted talks, Algeria is able to do so as well.
We’ve become a subject of political intransigence between countries.
Do you mean there is a proxy political war not inside, but outside Libya?
I’m against everything that happens outside Libya. Throughout history, tribes in Libya have been fighting, then they sit together and reach agreements. I still say, the conflict is not political. The problem is not [solved by] removing or keeping a prime minister or expanding the cabinet. Personally, my name came in the leaks about a unity government, and I announce it clearly: I will not be a part of a cabinet appointed by Leon.
Libya has been known for being a country of many tribes and communities that have their own armaments. After the removal of Gaddafi, where did theses arms go?
80% of the Gaddafi weaponry is in now in Misrata, and that’s according to statistics from the UN. The people of Misrata took these weapons coercively after they fought against Gaddafi’s forces during the revolution.
The city went the wrong direction after the Brotherhood controlled it, as this force has been misused.
A lot has been said about Britain’s influence in the Libyan issue. What about other countries; how do the Italians stand on the Libyan situation?
Italy is too small to counter Britain, and it is more engaged with the US as their policies are close.
I warned Italy’s premier and I’m warning him again: the illegal immigrant boats will transfer ISIS to you in the future.
Al-Sisi said in an interview recently that Europe did not complete its mission when the NATO intervened to help overthrow Gaddafi.
Yes, he is right.
Some would see this as another invitation for a European military intervention.
We have only one demand: lift the arms embargo against the Libyan army and we will buy the arms we need with our money.
Other factions in Libya will be able to buy arms as well.
We are the legitimate government. I’m not talking here about a cargo of smuggled arms, I’m talking about the armament of an army. This cannot by done by individuals or in the dark.
We are demanding lifting the arms embargo against the Libyan army, and the Libyan army will conduct open deals with countries according to its needs.
There are deals already agreed on since Gaddafi’s era with Russia and Ukraine, and they only require activation.
How do you evaluate the Russian stance towards Libya?
Excellent. In the past few weeks their stance has been excellent.
What other countries’ stances do you deem excellent?
France as well.
But not Italy?
They are a bit cautious. Italy’s relations with Libya are deep-rooted and complicated. They don’t want to be involved; even during the uprising against Gaddafi they were late to react.
But ISIS is a different matter. The Italian prime minister was in Russia recently because the Italians know that the Russians are more understanding to the Libyan reality, and to Arabs generally, than their Western counterparts.
We have been reading reports about Islamist militants in Iraq destroying monuments and antiquities. As a minister who is responsible for Libya’s antiquities, is Libya’s heritage under similar threats?
Of course there is a danger. They already destroyed Ahmed Karamanli Mosque, which contains the graves of kings and rulers, as well as the historic Italian-era Gazella statue in Tripoli, which they removed, and the Dawari statue.
All the antiquities in the areas under their control are threatened, as well as the graves of religious figures. All of these represent our history and culture.
Terrorism tends to be unpredictable, they can do anything. We are in need of the UNESCO and the international community in this issue.
Does the Libyan interim government reject the idea of dialogue?
It is not rejection. First of all, the dialogue is between the parliament and its boycotting members.
The goal of what is going on in Morocco now is to save the militias on the ground and enforce their integration. The international community preconditions helping with the war against terrorism with the formation of a national unity government.
I refuse that countries, even the ones that support Libya, meet with Libyan tribes and groups. Algeria is calling for a conference. Even if Egypt wants to hold talks with Libyan factions, this has to go through the Libyan foreign ministry.
Do you know why the Libyan Egyptian relations are excellent? It’s because Egypt always goes through official channels.
Is it better if your government holds talks with the Libyan tribes and factions to get Libya back on track?
You touched the very important spot. They are talking about a national unity government? What does that mean? It means that the all Libyan components are represented. And the current government represents all the corners of Libya.
Perhaps they are referring to a government that represents different political affiliations or ideologies, such as Islamists?
Where would they discuss dispute? In the representatives house, or what is it for? People elect their representatives. They tried the Brotherhood for three years and they spent $200bn in vain and didn’t achieve anything.
The next vote, people didn’t elect them. Isn’t that democracy and respecting the voters’ will?
If Mr. Leon formed a unity government that has Brotherhood affiliations, and the Zuwaya tribe in the south, for example rejects such a move and denies recognising this government then decide to cut off water supply, what would be the solution? Libyan tribes will never take the Brotherhood back.
As media minister, how do you comment on reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, following the Egyptian airstrikes, stating that civilians were victims to these strikes?
Personally I didn’t read the reports, but did they also write reports about torching 400 houses following the occupations of Tripoli by the militias?
We didn’t complain. We are calmly content, even if Libyans died in the airstrikes.
The upcoming Arab League Summit will tackle the suggestion of forming a joint Arab military force. What is your opinion on that?
This is one of the most important steps, and there is concentration on this subject.
What is the way out of the current crisis?
Supporting the Libyan army. We achieved the hardest part; freeing Benghazi. Freeing Tripoli [is the next step]. If needed, arms were provided to the army. It will be easy because Tripoli’s people are ready for the army’s intervention.
The army is able to win the battle. We have our own solutions, and will not wait for solutions to come from abroad. By the end of the year, Libya will be on the right track.