Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—With Egypt appearing to be gearing up for a military intervention in Libya, Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani sat down with Asharq Al-Awsat in Cairo to discuss the deteriorating security situation in the volatile North African state.
Egypt launched a number of airstrikes on Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in Libya on Monday “to avenge the criminal killing” of 21 Copts held by the group last week. One day later, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi called for a UN mandate allowing international forces to intervene in the country amid a deteriorating security situation.
Libya is currently split between rival governments and parliaments, with the internationally recognized Thani government being based out of the eastern city of Tobruk. Meanwhile, an Islamist-based government and parliament is operating out of the capital Tripoli, with UN-backed talks currently underway between representatives of the two governments to resolve the political situation in the country.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Were you aware that Egypt would carry out airstrikes on ISIS positions in Libya?
Abdullah Al-Thani: First, let me offer our condolences to the Egyptian people, president and government on the painful act carried out by this terrorist group which is trying to tarnish the reputation of the Libyan people. This crime does not represent the Libyan people, nor does ISIS. We are working to cooperate with our brothers in Egypt to eliminate these groups that are wreaking havoc around the world.
Q: So, there is cooperation and coordination between Cairo and your Tobruk-based government?
In terms of coordination, I was honored to meet Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab and we also communicated over the phone. We sent a delegation consisting of our defense minister-designate and the foreign minister to pay our condolences to our Coptic brothers in Egypt on this painful tragedy. We are in full coordination with [the Egyptian side]. In other words, what has been said about [Egypt] violating Libyan sovereignty and airspace has no basis in truth. [The attacks] were carried out in full coordination with Libya’s political and military leaderships and with our prior permission. The airstrikes will continue until those groups are eliminated.
Q: How did the Libyan people respond to the Egyptian airstrikes?
Any free and honorable Libyan seeking national stability would accept such airstrikes, given the presence of terrorist groups [in Libya] over the past four years. The growth of terrorism during the past few months represents a real threat to the security and stability of Libya. We never had groups such as ISIS in Libya before, but now they have spread across the country and their black flag can be seen over Tripoli, Sabratha, Sirte and Bin Jawad. Large parts of Libya are now under the control of terrorist groups.
Q: Would any joint Egyptian–Libyan military operations, so to speak, be limited to airstrikes, or could this be followed by ground operations?
Those groups take shelter in caves so it is therefore difficult for ground forces to pursue them. Airstrikes on predetermined positions will, God willing, have a positive impact on eliminating these groups.
Q: Is ISIS threatening to take over the whole of Libya?
Yes, definitely. Every day [the group] continues to spread and capture new areas. Egypt is standing with us wholeheartedly against the group. It embraced Libyan families who were forced to flee for four years and gave them all sorts of aid and concessions. We thank the Egyptian people for their role and the Egyptian government and leadership.
We lay the largest part of the blame on the international community, which is helping fight terrorism in Iraq and Syria but leaving these groups to wreak havoc in Libya. Moreover, the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee has prevented the arming of the Libyan army. We have not received any weapons, ammunition, or logistical supplies to fight these groups for almost a year. The international community bears the largest part [of the responsibility] for failing to stand with Libya in its war on terrorism.
Q: Is it true that you have evidence about the involvement of some foreign countries in supporting terrorist organizations in Libya?
Although in the past there was [evidence] about Qatar and Sudan, these countries definitely have had no role in supporting terrorist groups recently. But what is coming from Turkey is definitely having a negative impact on the security and stability of Libya. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s stance is clear . . . So far, Turkey’s stance has not been correct and we will be forced to take measures against it. At the end of the day, Turkey will lose because Libya can deal with any other country and Turkish firms are the ones who will lose their investments in Libya.
Q: What measures will your government take in response to this?
We will raise the issue at the Arab League and with the international community and call for sanctions against interference in Libyan affairs, as it affects the dignity and sovereignty of the Libyan state.
Q: Do you think there is still room for the UN-sponsored talks following the Egyptian airstrikes?
As far as we are concerned, there is still room for dialogue, definitely. But as far as the so-called General National Congress [or GNC, the Islamist-led parliament in Tripoli], they do not want dialogue and do not accept the airstrikes.
Q: Do you think it is the time to build an Arab coalition against terrorist groups and ISIS in the region?
We Arabs have to be aware of the gravity [of the situation] and to implement the Arab Joint Defense Agreement as the cornerstone our joint efforts. We Arab countries should . . . come together and unify ranks to fight this phenomenon that tarnishes Islam and Muslims.
Q: Has Libya and your government received much assistance from the Gulf?
We thank Arab Gulf states for their role, particularly the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We also thank our brothers in Egypt who never fail to offer help.
Q: How was your meeting with Gen. Khalifa Haftar in the city of Abyar?
It was a friendly meeting and each of us talked about his rights and duties . . . and we turned over a new page [in our relations]. We agreed that we all have to bow to the national interests of Libya, which are paramount.
Q: Is it true that Haftar was lobbying some MPs to sack you from your post as prime minister?
This is untrue. I think neither the status nor the role of Gen. Haftar allow him to do such a thing. The parliament has the absolute freedom to decide to withdraw confidence from the government if it thinks it is negligent or incapable of running affairs of state.
Q: Will your agreement with Haftar see him appointed as defense minister or commander in chief of the armed forces?
The government is an offshoot of parliament, which is the legislative body that decides . . . the composition of the leadership. Thus far, all we know is that a new post has been created and voted on by parliament, that of commander in chief of the army.