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 descendant from Libyan tribes that once lived on the Egyptian-Libyan border. Heikal also implied that reclaiming these “historically Egyptian” lands might help Egypt to 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 sympathize with the former regime are living in Egypt, and fearing retaliation, refuse not 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, utilize 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 Qaddafi and a former adviser on Libya–Egypt relations in the decades before the fall of Qaddafi and Mubarak; he is considered one of the most influential Qaddafians, and a man who some believe could lead such a campaign.

Given Libya’s fragile domestic situation, speculation over the disputed land threatens to further destabilize Libya. To counteract this Magariaf should have used the occasion of his most recent visit to Egypt to announce a national reconciliation process with those who served or supported the former regime (but have not committed crimes in its favor), thus defusing widespread dissatisfaction among exiles in Egypt and elsewhere.

The importance of defusing tension among exiled Libyans cannot be understated. Upwards of one million Libyan political refugees are estimated to be living in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. This number accounts for nearly 20 percent 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 Qaddafi’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.

Mohamed Magariaf, himself the subject of an Interpol Red Notice under Qaddafi on trumped-up charges of fraud, should be first to acknowledge the risks of what the new government is doing: repeating the discredited tactics of the past against political refugees. Some recent Red Notices issued on behalf of Libya include people who have since passed away, are currently in the custody of Libyan authorities or militias, and are lumped together with hundreds of others who are on the lists for overtly political, rather than criminal, reasons.

Powerful forces are at work to destabilize the Libyan transition, most notably, former members of the Qaddafi regime and sympathizers who have taken refuge across Libya’s borders. What catalyzes 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 realization of a stable, open, and democratic Libyan polity. 

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

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