Tuesday, 29 January 2013
Some In Egypt Might Want To Help Themselves To Libyan Oil

From The Gulf News (Bahrain):

Jan. 30, 2013

Reconciliation cannot wait

The famous Egyptian analyst and writer Mohamed Hassanein Heikal recently revived an old theory in an interview on Egyptian television: Egypt can claim a right to the fertile and oil-rich lands of the eastern Libyan provinces since millions of Egyptians are descended from Libyan tribes that once lived on the Egyptian-Libyan border. Heikal also implied that reclaiming these historically Egyptian lands might help Egypt address its dire economic problems.

Following these comments Lebanese newspaper Al Diyar published a controversial article quoting Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil acknowledging the validity of Heikal's theory. The Egyptian newspaper Dostour immediately published a denial from Qandil claiming he never made such remarks. The story should have died there, but Libyan domestic politics and rivalries would not allow that to happen.

In an effort to challenge Mohamed Magariaf (head of Libya's General National Congress, or GNC) former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril gave undue credit to the Al Diyar report. Jibril's intent was to cause embarrassment to Magariaf, his top political adversary, and he even suggested that failing to respond would be tantamount to forfeiting Libyan sovereignty. Some might argue that Jibril and his allies were implying that the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was colluding with its Egyptian counterpart on the supposed land deal, which would be a major boon to the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.

However, the entire dispute is moot: the Egyptian Prime Minister never said anything to corroborate Heikal's theory. Given the current fragility of Libyan institutions and the deteriorating security situation, even minor conflicts have the potential to become explosive if not addressed, especially at a time when politicians are focused intently on positioning themselves for a future role in government. As out of touch as Heikal's claim may sound, it is likely that Jibril responded publicly because he knew that the issue of Egyptian claims to Libyan land would resonate with Libyans. Currently hundreds of thousands of Libyans many of whom sympathise with the former regime are living in Egypt, and fearing retaliation, refuse to return home without a national reconciliation process.

Many of these post-revolution political refugees have ties to the Egyptian state apparatus and could, however unlikely, utilise tribal networks in the Sahara to stake Egyptian claims over the eastern Libyan provinces. One such example is Ahmed Qaddaf Al Dam, a cousin of Gadaffi and a former adviser on Libya-Egypt relations in the decades before the fall of Gadaffi and Mubarak; he is considered one of the most influential Qaddafians, and a man who some believe could lead such a campaign.

The importance of defusing tension among exiled Libyans cannot be understated. More than one million Libyan political refugees are estimated to be living in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. This number accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the total Libyan population, a number which makes it practically impossible for the country to move forward, achieve stability, and remain united if these Libyans in exile are not brought into the fold and convinced they have a stake in the country's future.

Thus far the GNC has avoided meaningful national reconciliation and, instead, proposed a divisive political isolation law. The law's broad exclusion is reminiscent of Gadaffi's tactics of alienation and can potentially turn even the most moderate political opponent into a diehard enemy of the state; this would prove fatal for Libya's transition to a pluralistic system.

Powerful forces are at work to destabilise the Libyan transition, most notably, former members of the Gadaffi regime and sympathisers who have taken refuge across Libya's borders. What catalyses many of these forces is a sense of dispossession and the impulse for revenge. A healthy process of national reconciliation would help to weaken the consensus among these forces on the need to thwart the Libyan transition. Moreover, national reconciliation would constitute a major step forward in the realisation of a stable, open, and democratic Libyan polity.

Posted on 01/29/2013 8:47 PM by Hugh Fitzgerald
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