Cairo frets over workers in Libya as Tripoli struggles to establish security

As Libya inches toward a political resolution of its long war, Egypt is focusing on protecting its workers in the country.

al-monitor Vehicles belonging to Libyan fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord are pictured during clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Hifter south of the capital Tripoli, on April 23, 2019. Photo by MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

foreign workers, egypt-libya relations, lna, gna, libyan militias, cease-fire, political solution, libyan crisis, libyan civil war, egyptian workers

Nov 13, 2020

CAIRO — Egyptian officials discussed the challenge of protecting Egyptian workers in Libya with Fathi Bashagha, the Interior Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), who visited Cairo for the first time on Nov. 4.

Under the auspices of the United Nations, Egypt, Morocco and Geneva are hosting Libya’s rival sides as they negotiate to settle the crisis in Tripoli. The warring parties must implement the cease-fire, draw up a constitution and choose a government that provides stability and security to the Libyan people.

Since the fall of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in 2011, Egyptian workers in Libya have been vulnerable to abuses including kidnapping, torture and killing. The most recent incident occurred in June, when a group of Egyptian workers were kidnapped by militants in the city of Tarhuna, southeast of Tripoli. In 2017, another group of workers was kidnapped and later released thanks to intervention by the Egyptian security services. In 2015, a number of Egyptian workers, mostly Copts, were killed by the Islamic State.

Gamal Bayoumi, former assistant minister for foreign affairs and the secretary-general of the Union of Arab Investors, told Al-Monitor, “There are nearly two million workers in Libya and their security is very important to the Egyptian authorities and the national economy.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a June 20 speech that Turkish-backed government forces must not enter the Sirte and Jufrah regions of Libya. Libya’s rival parties signed a cease-fire agreement in Geneva Oct. 23 and the warring sides began talks to reach a political solution held in Egypt, Geneva, Morocco and Tunisia.

According to Bayoumi, after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, many Egyptian workers returned home because they did not feel safe in Libya. He also said that Libya has been suffering a devastating economic crisis for years because of the civil war ongoing since 2011. But he believes many Egyptian workers will return to Libya when stability and security are restored and contribute to the reconstruction of the country.

Khaled Okasha, a member of the Egyptian National Council for Combating Terrorism, told Al-Monitor, “Libya’s stability and security is very important to Egypt due to the historical relationship between the two countries, Cairo’s national security considerations and the presence of a large number of Egyptian workers there. Therefore, the issue of protecting them has topped the agenda of discussions between Egyptian officials and Bashagha.”

Okasha added that there are many topics being discussed with the various Libyan parties concerning the disarming of militias and foreign mercenaries, whose influence has been diminished by the progress made in the Libyan negotiations.

Abdel Moneim Saeed, former director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that no government can protect Egyptian workers in Libya because it is a divided country with armed militias, extremist organizations and foreign mercenaries. But progress in the UN-sponsored negotiations offer hope that stability and security in Libya could be restored, and this could enhance the safety of Egyptian workers, he added.

Saeed said that Bashagha’s visit to Cairo is an important step toward unifying Libya, a constitution that represents everyone and electing a legitimate government that would ensure security. But the process is still in the early stages, he said, adding that Egyptian workers must be very careful for their own safety until stability and security is restored in Libya.

Saeed pointed out that the talks between Egypt and the GNA suggests things are heading toward a political solution and an end to the fighting and the civil war. Flights resumed between Benghazi and Tripoli since Oct. 23, and oil production and distribution of oil revenues began on Sept. 17.

Hoda al-Mallah, director of the International Center for Economic Consulting and Feasibility Studies, told Al-Monitor that Libya’s stability will lead to an increase in job opportunities for Egyptian workers. Consequently, he added, there will be a rise in remittances from Egyptians abroad, one of the main sources of national income that has been severely affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus.

According to data from the Central Bank of Egypt, remittances from Egyptians working abroad during the last fiscal year that ended in June reached a record high of over $27.8 billion compared to $25.2 billion the previous year, and remittances fell in April, May and June.

Mallah said that Egypt is quite interested in the safety of its citizens abroad, and it is discussing ways to protect them because their safety is important for improving the national economy, reducing unemployment, increasing the national income and improving the standard of living.