CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has given his support to a transitional government that would lead neighboring Libya through elections late this year.
In rare televised comments late Saturday, el-Sissi said the appointment of the interim government Friday, which includes a three-member Presidential Council and a prime minister, was “a step in the right direction.”
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which includes 75 U.N.-picked delegates from across the country, appointed Mohammad Younes Menfi, a Libyan diplomat from the country’s east, as chairman of the Presidential Council. The forum also chose Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, a powerful businessman from the western city of Misrata, as prime minister.
The three council members each represent a region of old Libya: Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the southwest. The country’s divided parliament is tasked with confirming the new government within three weeks. If it fails to do so, the forum will confirm.
The appointment of an interim government caps months of U.N.-brokered talks that resulted in an agreement to hold elections Dec. 24.
“We are supportive of them. … We are ready to cooperate with them for Libya’s recovery and to prepare for the elections in Libya,” el-Sissi said.
The Egyptian leader said his threat last year to send troops to Libya helped “start a genuine period for peace” in the oil-rich country. Egypt views the instability in neighboring Libya as a national security threat.
In June, el-Sissi called Libya’s strategic coastal city of Sirte a “red line” and warned that any attack by Turkey-backed Tripoli forces on the city would prompt Egypt to intervene to protect its western border. The move — had it happened — would have brought Egypt and Turkey, close U.S. allies that support rival sides in the conflict, into direct confrontation.
Sirte, which sits near Libya’s main oil-export terminals and fields, has been held by forces of military commander Khalifa Hifter, a close Egypt ally, who runs most of Libya’s eastern and southern regions.
Libya descended into chaos following the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country has been divided since 2015 between two governments, one in the east and one in the west, with each backed by an array of militias and foreign governments.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia back Hifter’s forces. The Tripoli government primarily has backing from Qatar and Turkey, whose military support helped cause the collapse this spring of Hifter’s year-long attempt to capture Tripoli.
The appointment of an interim government has been seen as a major — if uncertain — step toward unifying the North African nation.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland on Saturday urged Dbeibah, the prime minister-elect, to “identify a small, competent, technocratic Cabinet team that can quickly be granted confidence” by the east Libya-based parliament.
French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke on Sunday with Menfi and Dbeiba, congratulating both men for their election. Macron, who engaged early on in search of a solution to the Libyan crisis, reiterated the expectations of France and the international community and “indicated his availability to support their actions,” the president’s office said.
An interim government would face towering challenges, including deteriorating living conditions and a surge in coronavirus cases.
The oil-rich country, with around 7 million people, has reported more than 124,000 cases, including 1,953 fatalities. However, the actual numbers of COVID-19 cases, like elsewhere in the world, are thought to be far higher, in part due to limited testing.
Other challenges include the dismantling of numerous heavily armed local militias and the presence of at least 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters who had fought on both sides in the fight for Tripoli.
Ahmed al-Sharkasy, an advisor to the prime minister-elect, said the interim government would work to “support and implement” the cease-fire deal that was inked in October and included the departure of all foreign fighters and mercenaries.
He also said they would also seek to establish relations with foreign governments, particularly neighboring countries.
Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.